The Gift of Sadness: How ‘Inside Out’ Shows Us That All Emotions Matter

 

Inside Out, the new Disney/Pixar movie about a little girl named Riley and some major life changes she goes through, is told through the lens and view of five of her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. It is a delightful feast for the eyes as most of the movie takes place inside of her head and invites us to take a ride on the Train of Thoughts, to play with her imaginary friend BingBong, to build aspects of her personality like Family and Silliness, to delve into her subconscious, and to sing along with the rainbow-haired pony that colors her dreams.

Much has been written by members of the psychology and counseling community (such as myself) about the way that this movie portrays our emotions and the important role that each of them play. It is pretty exciting to find a major Hollywood movie that looks so deeply at the emotional experiences we all feel, normalizes them, and does such a good job at it.

I am not going to give away any major spoilers, as I highly recommend that you go see this movie for yourself, but it is widely known that each of the emotions is given a personality and a role in determining Riley’s state of mental being.

Riley experiences a major life change in the movie, moving to California from Minnesota, and Joy, the brightest and most exuberant emotion, is determined to keep Riley a “brave and happy girl” even though other emotions are along for the ride.

Sadness is a star player in the movie too, and initially gets painted as a lazy and annoying emotion who Joy tries to keep away from Riley’s memories and feelings in order for her to stay a “happy girl” (sometimes we just don’t want to or can’t be happy. . .and that is okay).

Trying to keep Sadness in a corner where she cannot touch anything, as Joy attempts to do in the movie, causes all sorts of problems. As Riley plummets into depression, she risks losing things that are dearest to her, like her morality, family connections, friendships, her love for hockey and her sense of silliness.

Sadness didn’t just stay in the corner where she was shoved. She knew that in order to save Riley from the depths of depression, she needed to help.

Really? Sadness can help to relieve depression? Yes, if sadness is allowed to be felt.

As Anita Sanz, clinical psychologist says:

“Not being able to feel what is normal to feel in a situation is what causes problems for all people, just as it did for Riley.
If you’ve been abused or traumatized, there are all kinds of feelings that you don’t get a chance to feel or “process” because you’re too busy trying to survive. If you’re trying to feel something other than what’s really inside, or trying to be someone you’re not, same problem: There’s incongruence or a mismatch between the inside and the outside.”

Furthermore, the movie helps to identify the feelings of loss that Riley is experiencing by allowing Sadness to ultimately be part of the control panel in her mind.

The loss of childhood, the loss of her home and friends, among other losses, are not fully realized or digested if Sadness is shunned to a corner. Only when Sadness was allowed to touch some of Riley’s memories was Riley able to define the loss she was feeling and begin to form a new identity that could help her move forward and connect to what really matters to her.

Researchers who study emotion concur that all emotions (not just Joy) play their part in allowing us to move through and process our experiences.

Drs. Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman echo:

‘And toward the end of the film, it is Sadness that leads Riley to reunite with her parents, involving forms of touch and emotional sounds called “vocal bursts” — which one of us has studied in the lab — that convey the profound delights of reunion.’

One message I took home from the movie: Embrace sadness. Embrace Anger. Even embrace Disgust.

Because these, along with our other emotions, make up who we are, allow us to construct aspects to our personality and help us to build deep, intimate, meaningful relationships with others.

That, and go back and reconnect with your imaginary friend ☺

What about you? Have you seen Inside Out? What did you think and how do you feel about how it portrays emotions?