As a “Kids’ Movie,” Inside Out is extraordinary. As an educational tool for parents, teachers and behaviorists, it is essential.
Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Joy, and Fear are simple, everyday emotions with which we all must learn to cope as our individual personalities develop. Too often, emotions we regard as “unpleasant” or “negative” are pariah feelings. We either suppress or reject them without considering their positive, necessary impact on emotional growth. And because strong emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear often cause interpersonal and relational conflict, they are typically the driving force behind all great stories in literature and modern media. The endless combinations and conflicts of mixed, out of control emotions create almost every subtext from classic books to today’s blockbuster movies. We witness what the characters do when motivated by their emotional turmoil or upheaval . . . and wait for a resolution of some kind, all while the story takes us on our own emotional journey.
Fortunately, for those who want to understand or explain the complexity of human emotional development, Disney/Pixar produced a Game-Changing movie entitled, Inside Out. A brilliant illustration of how emotional struggles affect childhood psychological development, the movie goes directly into the mind of Riley Anderson, an 11 year-old Minnesota girl, and makes her core emotions the main characters of the movie.
Riley’s story resonates with every client I see, every friend I have, and really every person I know. There is no way to avoid the fact that life is emotionally messy for all of us. And it’s especially difficult to understand drastic emotional changes, especially new feelings that can be difficult to handle or even out of control.
Riley, we learn, lives a charmed life. The character/emotion “Joy” is – mostly – at the helm of a control panel filled with buttons, switches and dials located in “Head Quarters” centered deep inside Riley’s mind. Along with “Joy” are “Anger,” “Disgust,” “Fear” and “Sadness.” As Riley goes about her days playing hockey, laughing with her family and friends, and embracing life, “Joy” seems to have a handle on the other emotional characters amidst the constant antics taking place in ” Head Quarters.”
The brilliance of the movie brings us to the subtle, but absolute, belief that “Joy” must stay in control of all things at all times. Riley’s memories, actions, decisions, relationships, even her personality seem in jeopardy if “Joy” does not cheerfully wrestle control away from all other emotions. A simple decision of whether or not to eat broccoli for the first time demonstrates how Riley’s emotions work, and don’t work, at the same time to take action.
This is a common objective of my clients: the need to be happy all the time. Such a high priority is put on the “positive” emotions of joy, love, contentment, etc., that other emotions, those thought of as “negative” are not dealt with. They remain hidden or suppressed, yet they inevitably exert themselves through unhealthy behaviors or patterns. Giving all credence to positive emotions while not dealing constructively with negative feelings leads to a plethora of psychological and physical health challenges such as Social Anxiety, Addiction, High Blood Pressure, and Obesity among many others.
With the consequences of emotional turmoil and suppression play out when a sudden move to San Francisco by Riley’s parents throws “Head Quarters,” Riley’s emotions, and most of all, Riley into absolute chaos. As she navigates this new life, we learn of her past; the moments and memories that made her who she is. Until now, “Joy” has been in control of Riley, but now the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
Simply put, the emotions are freaking out. San Francisco is not Minnesota, especially to an 11 year-old girl. After all, they put broccoli on pizza! “Congratulations San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza,” yells “Anger.” “First the Hawaiians, and now you.”
“Joy” quickly loses her grasp and Riley begins to lose her identity . . . and her childhood. While trying to save a happy “Core Memory,” both “Joy” and “Sadness” are taken to a distant land in Riley’s mind, far away from “Head Quarters.” The emotional journey that follows, taken by the emotions themselves, is genius in its exploration of human behavioral development.
Through a captivating, compelling storyline, Riley’s happy memories transform into sad ones. Indeed, memories are malleable. Retrieving a memory brings it back to life. And the very act of retrieval changes the way that memory is stored away again. This happens because memories are very delicate. Unlike a paper file that can be removed from storage and placed back in its original, identical condition, memories are changed by our current state of mind, as well as other memories. Everything that happens to us can touch every memory we have. Inside Out is incredibly helpful in teaching this fundamental idea.
By recalling the full story of Riley’s most important and happiest memories, “Joy” realizes that they occurred out of a response to a healthy dose of sadness. Losing a hockey game made Riley sad, which motivated her parents and friends to celebrate Riley with a victory parade - a happy memory was created from a sad event.
With this, all of us, including “Joy,” “Sadness,” “Anger,” “Disgust,” and “Fear,” realize that all emotions play an important role in our lives and that we don’t always have to be happy. In fact, it’s not healthy to feel happy through all life’s circumstances. The simple act of living calls for our emotions to be used appropriately and in balance with one another. Given to any one emotion over all others can lead to disaster.
Yes, it’s difficult to understand change at times. For most people, especially young people, it brings out emotions that seem impossible to handle. As the movie clearly demonstrates, this is normal and happens to everyone. This is why it becomes essential for young people to have a “safe harbor” for expressing their newly confounding emotions. A parent equipped with the skills to handle the current challenges faced by their children must create an environment where “negative” emotions can be expressed and understood. If not the parent, a trusted adult or professional trained in adolescent psychiatry can provide the guidance children need.
There is no avoiding the fact that tough times are part of life. But, it’s important to remember, as Riley learns from her journey, that sadness is okay sometimes, change can be good, and challenging situations are necessary for growth. It’s all in how we cope with them. Each new emotion brings an opportunity to make a good or bad decision on how we respond. Knowing where to go to get help in making those decisions is essential to the healthy development of a young mind.
Of course, pervasive Sadness is depression and needs to be considered in a wholly different way. In fact, continued depression in young people can be a serious – even tragic – health risk. In most cases, professional intervention is the safest route to a healthy outcome.
Inside Out reminds us that sadness is not always a bad thing. You do not have to be happy all the time. Sadness, along with all our emotions, complement each other. And when sadness is embraced as “normal,” all emotions become more cohesive.