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

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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)!

how to start (and actually stick with) your meditation practice

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As I write this, I’ve just hit an 18-day streak and 57 total times meditating since mid-December. It’s been 70 days since I started tracking, and weirdly, I actually feel more proud of my 57 check-ins than I would if I’d had a perfect 70-day-streak. Why? Well, I can tend to get all-or-nothing with things (especially new habits), and even when I got sick or busy and missed a day or two, I got right back on the horse rather than getting discouraged and stuck in a rut. I finally feel secure in developing a habit that I’ve wanted in my life for years, and in this post I'm sharing tools and tips to help you do the same. But first, let’s rewind…

Howdy, Pot! Name's Kettle...

A few months ago, I felt like such a hypocrite. 

I had consumed seemingly infinite books, blog posts, and podcasts on the wide-ranging, evidence-based benefits of meditation and constantly talked with my clients about the value of mindfulness — yet I wasn’t meditating regularly. (Of course, there are other ways to practice mindfulness besides formal meditation, but still!) Last fall, I was at a point where I would sit to meditate once every week or so, with sporadic spikes of greater or lesser frequency. I wanted to walk my talk, but something was getting in the way.

I vividly remember writing one day in my journal (just checked and it was an entry from October) that I was frustrated with myself for not meditating regularly because I knew too much not to, and wondered how I could get past whatever was blocking me from making it a regular habit. I had been doing so well with creating other new habits in my life like waking up early and working out more regularly than ever before (in a healthy way), but the meditation habit seemed much more elusive.

Any of this sounding familiar to you yet? I've encountered so many people both in my work and online who, like me, talk about wanting to start a meditation practice, but really struggle to stay consistent with it. 

To give a little context about why this has been so difficult for me, I should tell you that I am definitely that chick who wants to roll up the yoga mat after about 30 seconds of savasana. Time to get on to the next thing! No need to lie here and get all comfortable if I’m just going to jump back into the day full-force! I’ve really been working on becoming more okay with stillness, slowing down, and being in a low-charge state, since I feel much more at-home in the high-charge state of GO-GO-GO, DO-DO-DO! Both savasana and meditation are ideal ways for me to practice this, and I’ve learned more recently about how both of these not only promote relaxation, but also integration whether it's integration of the yoga practice, or just of my overall recent experiences. 

Meditation to Integrate Mind + Body + Spirit

This idea of integration is a big part of what has sold me on the whole meditation thing (and truly softening into savasana), because one of my greatest passions is mind + body + spirit integration. So much of the pain that I see with my clients, and that I experience in my own life, occurs because the core aspects of being human become siloed. That could mean:

  • You’re up in your head and ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, overly concerned about what others think about you, etc.
  • You’re working out to look toned and fit without really considering your emotional and spiritual “fitness"
  • You’re into daydreaming and otherworldly divinity and spirituality, but feel disconnected from your own physical body

It should come as no surprise that we feel much more happy, balanced, and fulfilled when these aspects of our lives are integrated rather than fragmented. A consistent meditation practice can shed light on how you may be separating your life into these different buckets, and also gives you the tools to practice integration both during the practice and “off the cushion” in your day-to-day life (I say this in quotes because I, for one, do not meditate on a cushion. No offense, purists…I keep my spine in alignment, but I need some back support!) Generally speaking, I believe our culture lives very much Up In Our Heads, and practicing mindfulness via a body scan meditation, focusing on the breath — and simply learning to pay attention with non-judgment to body sensations, emotions, and thoughts — are all ways that we can better bridge the gaps between these facets of human existence. 

How Behavior Change Really Works

I’ve written a little about habit formation in the past, and I'll focus specifically here on how I turned this goal into a reality, and how you can do the same. Dr. BJ Fogg  founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, created a model of behavior change called the Fogg Behavior Model, which he simplifies as “BMAT,” or Behavior  = motivation X ability X trigger (all three aligning at the same moment.) He posits that when a desired behavior does not occur, at least one of these three elements is missing.

BJ Fogg's BMAT Model

In my case, I had probably moderate motivation level, moderate ability, and insufficient triggers. Here’s how I increased each of these elements enough to create a consistent meditation practice: 

Motivation: On one level, I really wanted this new habit — but I also didn’t love doing it, since I prefer to be on hyper-speed. So, my motivation probably wasn’t going to dramatically change. It was not going to carry me all the way, by any means. In that case, I really needed to focus on the latter two elements…

Ability: Where motivation flags, it’s important to make your desired behavior change easier by finding ways to increase your ability to do it. I like guided meditations, and I found that I was more likely to meditate if I had easy access to good guided meditations. I’ve tried numerous meditation tracks available on Spotify and YouTube, bought a few tracks from folks I’ve found online, and created a couple of my own, too. But I like to have a lot of variety so I can choose the best track for the time I have available and what I have going on at that point in my day. (Yeah, yeah, a bit of a guided meditation snob.) Thus, I’ve experimented with over a half-dozen meditation apps in the past few months. In the next email I’m sending out to my tribe (going out in the next couple of days), I’m including a free downloadable Meditation Apps Resource Guide that will succinctly outline all the apps I’ve tried, the pros and cons of each, and which is my overall favorite. Sign up now to make sure you’re on the list to get that one!

Triggers: Speaking of apps, if you wondered why or how I know the exact number of times I’ve meditated in the past two months, it’s because I started using a free smartphone app called Coach.me that allows you to create your own goals (or join others who are already working toward the same goal), track your progress over time, and have access to the whole community of app users for accountability and Q&A. You also have the option of hiring a coach to help you work toward your goals for $15/week, but I haven’t used that feature so I can’t speak to how it works. You can choose to set reminders for certain goals, so every morning at 7 a.m., my phone reminds me to meditate. I don’t always do it in the mornings, but there are definitely days when that reminder helps me to stop what I’m doing and practice in the morning, which sets me up to go into my day with the clearest mindset.

I actually first learned about Fogg's BMAT model recently on one of my favorite podcasts, The One You Feed, when the guest was Coach.me founder Tony Stubblebine. Tony is an expert in behavior design, and the triggers from his Coach.me app have been a critical element in making meditation a consistent practice for me. (The One You Feed host, Eric Zimmer, talks on the episode about how the same was true for him, and he’s now clocking a meditation streak of over 475 days!) Along with the triggers come the “rewards” of getting to see the days build up, the little “flame” that represents my days in a streak, and the “props” I get from other community members when I complete a check-in. By increasing both my Ability and my Triggers, my so-so motivation level is no longer a barrier preventing me from making meditation a consistent habit. If you want to start meditating, or get more consistent with your existing practice, I highly recommend downloading the Coach.me app to track your goals and improve your success. (If you do get the app, search for me so we can connect!)

I also encourage you to sign up for my bi-weekly emails before I send out the next email this week, where I’ll include a freebie Meditation Apps Resource Guide, exclusive for my email tribe. And when you sign up, you’ll get a free download of my brand new Mind + Body + Spirit Guided Meditation (13 minutes),  which you also can't get anywhere else.

Happy meditating, friends!