what pixar's 'inside out' teaches us about emotions, life, and relationships

insideout.jpg
insideout

***Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen Inside Out and you don’t like spoilers, stop reading this! Also, drop whatever you’re doing right now and get yourself to a movie theater, STAT.***

This weekend after I saw Disney Pixar’s new film Inside Out, I was beaming. I was overjoyed about both the experience of the movie itself, and also thinking about how it serves as an entertaining mini emotional literacy course for people of all ages, in a culture desperately in need of that. If you’ve seen the movie, then on some level you’ve already been pondering the lessons below — but they are so important that I wanted to write a post to highlight some of the most important takeaways from my perspective as a therapist. I’m also including a little commentary about each one that can help you integrate the lessons from Inside Out into your day-to-day life and relationships. Who knew Pixar would be getting into the personal growth field?!

So-called “negative” emotions aren’t necessarily negative — and they each have an important role.

My clients all know that one of my pet peeves is when people refer to emotions like sadness, fear, guilt, and anger as “negative emotions.” If we’re labeling them as “negative,” then no wonder we want to do whatever it takes to get rid of or avoid them! But guess what happens when you try to avoid feeling, for instance, fear? You won’t do things that fall outside your comfort zone, you won’t take risks, and you end up keeping your life pretty small.

 
In fact, the things that we often do to try to avoid feeling difficult emotions often actually end up hurting us even more in the long run, creating a layer of suffering on top of the original pain. When I ask my new therapy clients about how they’ve dealt with grief and the losses in their life, the most common answer is “I haven’t” or “with my drinking/drugs/eating disorder.” Sadness, as Inside Out so beautifully illustrates, has very important purposes.
 

And of course, we can’t selectively numb. When you try to avoid or short-circuit emotions that uncomfortable, you end up muting the pleasant ones, too, and become a washed-out version of yourself. In the movie, all of Riley’s emotions wanted what was best for her, even the ones that we may have once labeled as "negative"! They each played an important role within her psyche and needed the balance of one another to be able to help Riley make the most effective choices for her overall wellbeing (yin and yang, people, yin and yang).

 
So give it a try: The next time you experience an emotion you might normally label as “negative,” see what it would be like instead to take an approach like, “I notice I’m feeling ______ and it feels like ____ in my body. I am capable of riding the wave of this feeling, and I might need to do ______ to take care of myself so I don’t get too overwhelmed by this.”

 

That said, we need to balance challenging experiences and feelings with uplifting ones, too.

When Joy got sucked up the tube out of headquarters, things got ugly for Riley. (It wasn’t until later that Joy realized it wasn’t just her that Riley needed back in order to be okay — she needed Sadness, too.) Without Joy, Riley felt no motivation or connection to others, and her other emotions could not effectively help her as they’d been able to when she had access to the full spectrum of feelings.

When I say “balance” above, I don’t mean that there is some state of “perfect emotional balance” that you need to achieve, because the fact is that life is unpredictable, and there’s no such thing as perfect or one-size-fits-all.

Frankly, the Positive Psychology movement (positive thinking! affirmations! Law of Attraction!) makes me a little nauseated. Oh, I would love for my clients to just be able to affirm their way to healing from sexual abuse or an eating disorder! But it’s almost insulting to think that if they “just thought more positively,” they wouldn’t feel the way they do. Real mental illness or trauma requires real healing.

I love how neuropsychologist Rick Hanson described his philosophy on this in a recent interview on The One You Feed Podcast:

I don’t believe in positive thinking. I believe in realistic thinking. I want to see the whole mosaic of reality. In Buddhism, the fundamental deep root of evil is ignorance or delusion… so the framework for is to recognize what’s actually true. And as part of that recognition, it’s true that we have a brain that is negatively biased, especially in terms of how we learn from our experiences. And it’s also true that, in terms of the mosaic of reality, there’s a lot of crap out there. Every life has difficult, hard, painful things, and many lives are saturated in hard and painful things — so it’s precisely out of that very clear-eyed, noble take on both the negativity bias in the brain, and the reality of the challenges we’ll all face in this life, that makes it so important to acknowledge the good facts as well as the bad facts… our brain is biased as a kind of well-intended universal learning disability to overlook the good facts, generally speaking, while we continually scan for the bad ones.

Dr. Hanson has a process he calls “Taking in the Good” in which you focus on allowing positive experiences (even as simple as a beautiful sunset) to really “sink in” and get installed in the brain a handful of times everyday, ultimately strengthening the brain's ability to hold onto not just the difficult stuff, but the pleasant stuff, too.

Our personality and responses are shaped by our experiences.

In Riley’s mind, each of her core memories connected to an “island of personality” associated with that memory, ultimately resulting in “what makes Riley Riley.” As an EMDR-trained therapist, I could totally geek out on this one… but suffice to say, this is a pretty scientifically accurate explanation. Our experiences truly do shape us: they shape our mind, which shapes our choices, which shape our relationships and our future experiences, and so on. Riley had a safe, stable family without any significant adverse experiences in her early years, so her core memories were positive and she was a fun-loving, resilient, well-adjusted kid.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a pain-free life, so even sans the San Francisco move, Riley would have had her comeuppance soon enough (after all, puberty is just around the corner). But just think if there had been a different scenario: if Riley’s home life were unpredictable and lonely, an angry alcoholic father, watching her parents fight and have difficulty making ends meet, attending a sub-par school with poor resources and burnt-out teachers, not having nearby safe green spaces to play in.

What kind of core memories do you think would have been “installed” then? Many sad or fearful memories, with fewer joyful ones (because without feeling safe, it’s hard to feel joyful). And these core experiences would have shaped the neural networks in her brain, and thus her personality, in a much different way.

Kids are powerless over their situation and totally dependent on the adults in their lives to meet their physical and emotional needs. And it’s far from a “fair” playing field out there. As adults, we are all responsible for their own choices. But considering the above, I urge you to think twice before judging someone else for behaving in a way that might seem irrational to you.

We are all a product of our environment, and we can only hope that people who were not blessed with safe, loving environments in their childhood will at some point choose to get help and healing (and, along the way, hopefully also have a couple guardian angels looking out for them, like a nurturing grandparent or a kind and attuned school nurse.)

Just as you bring your “stuff” to every relationship and interaction, so does everyone else.

Toward the end of the movie, we get a glimpse into the minds of many other characters, including (hilariously) a random dog and cat. And, not surprisingly, Riley is not the only one with a whole cast of characters in her mind — we all have them! This was one of the funniest parts in the movie, because in addition to great writing, it was just so flippin' *accurate*! We got to hear everyone's internal chatter, and from that perspective, their interactions make so much sense.

If we could only see our spouses or children or coworkers in this way! It’s important to remember that everyone’s got their own history and reasons for saying and doing the things they do (just like you do). When we’re mindful of this, I think we can access a little more compassion for others, even when their choices may not be in alignment with ours.

Again, this doesn’t excuse people for doing cruel things or not taking responsibility for their actions, but it’s just a reminder that we’re all coming into every interaction loaded with our own history, story and perspective on the world. And perhaps the relationships where you’ll learn the most about yourself are the ones where the other person's history and perspective are very different from your own.

Hats off to Disney Pixar for this kick-ass movie that will have a home in therapists’ offices across the world for years to come! I'd love to hear your thoughts about Inside Out in the comments. Also, if you enjoyed my ramblings, make sure you're signed up to receive updates from me (and you'll also get a free gift of my Mind + Body + Spirit Guided Meditation mp3)!