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)!

how ritual and sacred objects help us travel from head to heart

Image from Ally at Aquarian Soul

Some of the most significant or meaningful moments in life are the ones that occur when we are purely in the experience, receiving it directly rather than through the filters of ego and thoughts. These moments are rare, but we’ve all experienced them: the pure awe of a perfect sunset or rushing waterfall, the bliss of witnessing or engaging with a joyful animal or baby. I believe one of the core purposes of being alive is to treasure these moments for the precious jewels that they are.

Most often, however, we experience life through several layers: of how something fits into the context of my day, my self-esteem, my safety, my reputation, my pleasure. Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson writes that the human mind is like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. One major reason for this is evolutionary survival — our brain needed to be much more attuned to the possibility of a nearby tiger than a beautiful sunset! Have you ever had one of those days where maybe one or two “negative” or stressful things happened in an otherwise neutral day (probably with some positive moments in there, too) and caught yourself saying “I’m having a crappy day”? I know I have, though I’m much more aware now of that filter of the negativity bias than I was earlier in my life.

So we experience life through a filter of “me, me, me,"latch onto even the smallest negative experiences, don’t hold on well to the positive ones, and often bury the traumatic ones, making it difficult to fully heal.**  Oh, brain, what are we gonna do with you? 

The good news is that we can help our brains do better. While I could probably write a whole book on this topic,  I’ll focus specifically on one underlying theme for right now:

By taking conscious action to help our experiences make the journey from head to heart, we can better cherish the joy in life, and more quickly and fully heal from the inevitable pain.

This core truth is why ritual and sacred objects are such powerful tools for healing and feeling fully alive.

Ritual

The word “ritual” can be defined and interpreted in many ways, but here I will define it as “a ceremony or series of actions typically performed in a set sequence.” Rituals are a significant part of most religious traditions, and of course they also exist outside the world of religion, too. Whether you find comfort in religious rituals or not, developing your own unique rituals and adding ritual and ceremony to your life is one way of intentionally honoring both joy and pain.

Just look at one of the most common rituals, the funeral or wake. This act of celebrating and mourning the deceased can be a powerful and memorable event if it’s crafted with care— and consider how different it would be if we just took care of the logistics of the person’s death and went back to work! Why only reserve ritual for the biggest events like death? There is much to be honored and acknowledged during life, and adding ritual can definitely help us make that head-to-heart leap. A major distinction is that often, we only think or talk about things, which often only accesses the cognitive level of the experience. When we add ritual to the equation, there is more feeling to it — more of a sense of actually being with the experience in the body and emotionally connected with whatever is happening.

Your rituals could be small or big, daily or annual. They could done in private, shared with your family, or a room full of strangers at a yoga retreat. Maybe you develop a ritual with your partner of embracing in a 30-second hug before leaving for work in the morning. (It’s 30 seconds of your day, but can you imagine how different it would feel from a regular rushed goodbye?)  It should also be noted that if rituals become a chore or you lack flexibility with them (i.e. if your whole day is thrown off if your blender broke and you can’t have your green smoothie!), you need to recalibrate. Rigidity is not your friend.

One mini-ritual that Rick Hanson recommends for helping our brains actually start to notice and hold onto more positive experiences is what he calls “Taking In the Good.” Hanson defines this as "the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory,” using the 4 steps, HEAL:

(1) Have a positive experience. This is simply activating a positive experience — creating one, or consciously noticing that you’re having a positive experience.

(2) Enrich it. Intentionally stay with the experience for 10-20 seconds. It might not sound like much, but we rarely do for that long! Take a few moments to really savor it.

(3) Absorb it. Imagine being like a sponge and soaking the experience in — really internalizing it. Picture it like a jewel entering the treasure chest of your heart.

(4)Link positive and negative material. This step is optional, but can deepen the healing impact of the positive experience by linking it to relevant pain from your past. Are you experiencing a moment of feeling particularly loved and included? Think of a time earlier in your life when you felt alone or excluded, and imagine delivering this current feeling to your past self in that painful moment.

Hanson recommends using this process or ritual 2-3 times a day to start to really make a difference in the wiring of your brain. To me, this is a simple way of installing these everyday positive experiences (and the more important ones that you really want to keep with you) in the heart or spirit, not just in the mind. You can read more in-depth about the science behind this practice in Hanson’s newest book, Hardwiring Happiness, and download a free 10-minute guided practice that takes you through the HEAL steps.

Adding more elements of ritual to daily life is an excellent way to live with greater intention.

>>Do you have any favorite soul-nourishing rituals? What other ways could you build more ceremony into your life?

Sacred Objects

I’ve just recently begun exploring the realm of sacred objects, which I define as any material object that enhances the emotional or spiritual journey in some way. This can certainly be a controversial topic, since some would argue that the most spiritual among us — monks, nuns, and others who devote their lives to spirituality — don’t need “things” to be spiritual, and in fact, prefer to own few things at all. To all the minimalists out there: more power to you. I see a lot of value in that lifestyle, but personally, I am a bit of a nester. I am getting more particular about the kinds of “things” I keep around, because a junky environment full of unnecessary mass-manufactured crap makes me feel junky inside, too. (Note to Husband: I’m planning to do a Throw Out 100 Things Challenge soon, so hide your good stuff in the basement.) ;)

Lately, the only “stuff” I’ve really wanted to acquire falls into this “sacred objects” category. The most significant, which are almost strange to think of as material objects, are books. Specifically, books that help me learn more about myself at a deeper level and develop a better understanding of humanity, the world, and my place in in it as a woman, healer, and teacher. (And I have to say, I stressed a little over those words because it might sound like I think I have this all figured out. But really, I am just a fellow traveler who happens to be called to walk with others and help guide their travels using the shared experiences of many others that I now carry with me.)  I won’t rattle off the whole list of recent and soon-to-be-acquired books here, but I’ve been digging into Caroline Myss’s books, just ordered Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith, and I’m loving the Spirited e-book by Rachel MacDonald and Tara Bliss, two of my biggest role models.

I’ve also been learning about crystals (Hibiscus Moon is a kick-ass crystal expert) and how they can be used to enhance energy and healing. I have a small collection so far, and am enjoying learning which crystals are best to enhance certain qualities or feelings. I hold a crystal during meditation, carry one in my purse (rotating crystals based on which one feels right at the time), and have been adding rose quartz to my water occasionally. I love that crystals align so well with chakra balancing, since each chakra’s corresponding color can be matched with numerous crystals of that color.  I’m excited to continue my education about crystals so I can begin integrating them into my work with clients.

During all this recent exploration, I’ve been experimenting with several new rituals in my morning routine (now that I actually have time in the mornings) that incorporate sacred objects, and one of my favorites is lighting a candle and taking a few drops of my Lotus Wei Inspired Action flower elixir before I start my reading or writing for the day. These simple acts (that take less than a minute) help put me in a more connected, ready-to-go mindset than just sitting down, opening up my laptop, and typing away. Integrating meaningful objects like these into my day helps me feel more emotionally and spiritually connected, and less swept-up in the momentum of the daily grind.

Your sacred objects might include candles, a journal, mala beadsoracle cardsessential oils, crystals, jewelry, plants, incense, a vision board, or they might be something totally different and you. When I’m struggling to be accepting or loving toward myself or someone else (or maybe before a challenging group at work), I’ll spritz my face with Infinite Love energy mist. If you want to get scientific about it, can I know for sure that the particular blend of flowers in the spray is actually helping me be more loving, or is it more of a placebo effect? While I personally believe in the power of natural aromatherapy, if there is a placebo effect, I honestly don’t care, because it’s working better for me than not using anything! What I have found so far is that incorporating sacred objects into various places in my life is a powerful, tangible touchstone to reconnect me with what matters the most: tending daily to my mind + body + spirit integration, in alignment with my core values, and always striving to be more present and loving to the people around me. I don’t need objects in order to do that, but as I'm living in this physical world and culture that has the power to splinter my attention in 100 different directions, I’ll take all the help I can get to stay grounded in the real truth.

>>What are the sacred objects in your life? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Even writing this has helped me better solidify the importance of ritual and sacred objects, and I’m excited and energized to continue my exploration of these topics. Until next time… Namaste, y’all.

**In a follow-up post next week, I’ll discuss why experiential therapy is key for healing from trauma by helping us make the leap from head to heart. 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.

self-compassion: how to use it to make a difference in your life

Garden of Mind by Davide  Brusa and Leonardo Dentico Last week, I wrote about the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, and why building a self-compassion practice offers even more benefits for our daily lives and overall wellbeing. Today, I'll go into a brief "how to" on self-compassion to offer a better understanding of ways that you can begin to actually DO it. First and foremost is noticing the word "practice." Just like most worthy ventures in life, self-compassion is not a goal you can check off a list, but a value you can strive to live out through patterns of committed actions (to put it into an ACT framework) -- a direction you can go in, not a destination you can reach. Dr. Kristin Neff provides numerous free exercises for self-compassion on her website, and of course, even more in her book. I'll also offer some of my own suggestions below.

In her research and personal experience, Neff discovered that self-compassion seemed to consist of three primary components:

"First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness -- that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it."

All three elements are required in order to practice true self-compassion. Let's break each of these down a bit more.

Self-Kindness This component requires that we question the voice of our all-too-familiar inner critics. Are you willing to speak to yourself the way that you would speak to a dear friend in the same situation? Self-kindness does not mean coddling ourselves or excusing inappropriate or ineffective behavior. Spiritual and meditation guru Tara Brach writes, "Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance." This reminds me of a line from one of my favorite comic illustrations, "Fat is Not a Feeling" by Corinne Mucha (click through for the badass full comic):

"Hate is not a magic wand that shrinks your thighs."

Along those lines, one of the concepts that changed my life was when I realized I do not have to hate my inner critic, either. I could maybe even be kind to that part, and understanding of the part who did the self-destructive things that infuriated me so much. I was lucky to learn that at the young age of 19 (not that I've practiced it perfectly since then!) at a Geneen Roth workshop when I was still entangled in an eating disorder. When Geneen briefly introduced Internal Family Systems Therapy, it was a lightbulb moment for me. I had to learn that the part of me who binged -- in a reactive fear of my past anorexia -- needed to be loved, too, even though it felt like a monster that took over my body and turned it into something that repulsed me. That part was just trying to protect me from having to experience the fear of what hunger represented, to keep me anesthetized of all my other insecurities. And if I waited to be kind to myself until my body looked the way I wanted it to, I'd be waiting forever. I'll never forget the day that I stood naked after a shower in front of a bathroom mirror at that retreat, put my hands around my belly button in the shape of a heart, and cried. I was forgiving myself, and making a decision in that moment to start practicing kindness with all the parts of me, even when it was really hard to be kind.

Although I didn't know it in that moment, one of the things that I was doing with that gentle touch was giving my body a shot of oxytocin (the hormone of love and bonding, or sometimes adorably referred to as "the cuddle hormone"). As Neff describes, physical touch releases oxytocin, which "provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions and calms cardiovascular stress." Her research has gone further to show that it does not have to be the physical touch of another -- our own touch can release the same soothing hormone. So whether it's a hand your heart, a massaging stroke on the back of your neck, or wrapping your arms around each other with a loving squeeze -- basically anything works if it's done with the intent to self-soothe. And some ways are perfectly subtle enough to be done surreptitiously in public without others wondering what the heck you're doing.

Common Humanity One of the mind's favorite things to tell you when you're struggling is that you are alone: you are the only one in this situation, the only person who could have let things happen this way, and the only one who feels like this. In these moments, it's critical for us take a step back and remind ourselves that our suffering is not what makes us unique, it's what makes us human. Neff points out that the word compassion actually means "to suffer with." Try not to get caught up on the specifics of your situation that "no one else could possibly understand" -- what's more important is to remember that this intense grief or fear that you're feeling is something that others in your life -- and across the world -- have felt for as long as humankind's existence. When we know we're not alone in our pain, it doesn't make the pain go away -- but it allows us to connect, which can provide soothing in the moment healing in the long run. As a Unitarian Universalist, I have to throw in that one of our seven principles is "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." When I remember that I am part of this interdependent web, it brings me a sense of peace and belonging. Connecting to our common humanity also reminds us that none of us are perfect -- and when you think others' lives are perfect, remember that you can't compare your insides to someone else's outsides.

Mindfulness It's pretty difficult to be compassionate with our own pain if we're not mindful of it! Mindfulness in regards to self-compassion involves stepping back from our autopilot mode to be present to the difficult experience rather than jumping into reactivity or getting stuck in our unhelpful stories about the situation. I love this analogy that neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson uses:

"Imagine that your mind is like a garden. You could simply be with it, looking at its weeds and flowers without judging or changing anything. Or, you could pull weeds by decreasing what’s negative in your mind. Or, you could grow flowers by increasing the positive in your mind. In essence, you can manage your mind in three primary ways: let be, let go, or let in. When something difficult or uncomfortable happens—when a storm comes to your garden—these three ways to engage your mind give you a very useful, step-by-step sequence."

Hanson describes that different people have different tendencies with pain: some tend to want to jump right over the pain into happiness, and others tend to wallow in the pain long after it's useful. (This parallels ACT's core indicators of psychological inflexibility -- experiential avoidance and fusion, respectively.) Are you aware of your own tendency? If you are a jumper, then you need to practice just being with your garden -- observing it -- before giving into desires to "fix" or move past it. If you're a wallower, first mindfully observing your garden and then truly allowing yourself to move through the pain (pulling weeds and planting flowers) is critical.

Recently on Conan O'Brien, comedian Louis CK poked at about our culture's desire to avoid any ounce of pain, and how this prevents us also from fully experiencing other emotions such as joy and happiness. The clip already has over six million views, and if you haven't already seen it, it is well worth your five minutes! Being mindful of our pain means neither avoiding nor fusing with it, neither minimizing nor exaggerating it, but seeing it for what it is and allowing ourselves to be with and then move through it. 

I hope this post has been helpful you to consider ways that you can integrate these three core components of self-compassion more into your day-to-day life. I appreciate any comments about the post or what helps you practice self-compassion. If you're interested in digging deeper into this concept, Kristin Neff has a wonderful list of links on her website to all kinds of self-compassion resources.

What I listened to while writing this post: Horner, James - Braveheart - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

8 Comments

Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.