A therapist’s take on Inside Out

A therapist’s take on Inside Out

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Disney Pixar’s new hit film, Inside Out. And, I’m guessing, you’ve also heard that it’s not the average children’s movie: Inside Out’s plot revolves around characters that represent the emotions present within a child’s (Riley’s) mind. Throughout the movie, these emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger) interact in an attempt to keep Riley’s life going smoothly throughout a difficult transition for her: moving to an entirely new city with her parents.

While it’s worth a trip to the theater for entertainment alone, Inside Out has provided a ground-breaking opportunity to open up a larger conversation about the role that emotions play in our lives, how they interact, and why they are important. By personifying some of the most universal emotions into memorable characters, we are able to visualize and imagine the ways in which our versions of these characters (our emotions) are interacting in a given moment. As Bethesda MD therapists well know, an increased awareness of our emotions in a given moment can greatly improve our ability to manage them appropriately. Don’t be surprised if you hear me referring to this movie in a  Bethesda MD therapy session!

While the film’s target audience is children, I believe that there are valuable messages to be heard for people of all ages from watching Inside Out. Without giving everything away (we don’t want any spoilers!), here are some of the messages that I gleaned from the movie:

  • It’s normal to experience difficult times when we face new challenges. Inside Out normalizes the fact that sometimes hard things happen to us throughout our lives, even if we seem to be the happiest and most well-adjusted of people (as Riley seems to be prior to her big move). Certain emotions may come up more for us during these times than others, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that we will feel that way forever – if we can work through them, we will find a way to adjust and recover, just as Riley did.
  • Emotions are active – they direct our behavior and influence our thoughts. In the movie, when a different emotion character takes the helm of the motherboard of Riley’s mind, we can see a marked change in the way she acts and speaks. Although not explicitly stated, Inside Out shows just how effective our emotions can be at directing our lives – for the better, or for the worse. Having this knowledge and gaining awareness of one’s emotions (especially which one is “leading” us at the moment) can help us to direct that influence productively.
  • Each emotion has a purpose and deserves its place, no matter how “bad” it feels. Even though anger tends to get a bad rap for its association with aggression, etc., anger in itself is not a negative thing. Feeling angry when something upsets us is natural and it’s okay to feel it as long as we can control how it affects our actions. Anger has a place, and sometimes can even be helpful if it motivates us to enact positive change. In addition, allowing yourself to feel sad when something makes you upset just might help you get through it better than trying to cover up that sadness. In essence, accepting our emotions can help us heal.
  • Our emotions aren’t entirely independent – they communicate with each other and interact to influence us in unique ways. When we feel nostalgic, for example, we often feel a combination of sadness in missing something and joy in having experienced something great and memorable. Or, when someone we love hurts us, we might feel lots of anger at their behavior combined with some quiet fear that they don’t care about us the way we’d hoped. When we’re feeling sad, sometimes we tell ourselves to try to feel happy instead. In these and many other ways, our emotions are fluid and can “talk” to each other, like the characters in the movie. It’s important to pay attention to which emotions communicate the best, worst, or not at all, and evaluate whether that’s helpful.

The concept of the ways in which our emotions influence us is very abstract. In my opinion, Inside Out gives us a wonderful way to concretize these ideas and understand them in new ways. As a therapist in Bethesda MD, I am very grateful that these ideas have become mainstream. The messages I listed above are just a few of the possible many that can be heard throughout the movie. If you’ve already seen the movie, what other messages did you take away? What others do you feel still need to be portrayed somehow?