And the Oscar Goes To...

"Inside Out" Wins My Vote for Best Psychology Teaching Tool Ever

Posted Mar 04, 2016

    Pixar’s “Inside Out” not only secured the Oscar for Best Animated Feature this week, it also won my vote as the best mainstream teaching tool about human emotions ever. As a therapist, I often feel like an armchair tour guide. Using various “maps” and my knowledge from years of traversing the emotional terrain, I help them navigate the territory of the mind and make sense of what they discover. Pixar’s “Inside Out” took that journey one step further, introducing the indigenous people of these lands: the animated, personified emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear.

    If you haven’t seen this Pixar gem, it’s about what happens inside the mind of a happy little girl named Riley who loses her joy, literally, when her parents move across the country. In the beginning, we meet five characters representing the five basic emotions (which, incidentally, I learned as glad, sad, mad, bad and afraid) who reside in the Headquarters of Riley’s conscious mind. Though “Joy” is the dominant emotion, each take turns influencing Riley’s emotions and memories using a control console. Together, they ensure that Riley is protected, understood, and has enough joyful experiences to log into her long-term memory and fill the islands of happy places that comprise her personality

    “Joy” is successful at keeping “Sadness” at bay, until the cross-country move so unsettles Riley that the emotional odd couple is accidentally swept into the recesses of long-term memory, leaving “Anger,” “Fear” and “Disgust” at the controls. The course of the movie follows Joy and Sadness as they try to find their way back through the maze of long-term memory, abstract thinking, dreamland, imagination, train of thought, and the unconscious while Riley undergoes a radical change in behavior. 

    Aside from the film’s undeniable entertainment value - in Imagination Land, Joy and Sadness meet a fantasy teen heart-throb who would “die for Riley” - I’ve found it to be a much welcome frame of reference for helping people (myself included) visualize how the seemingly mercurial world of emotions work and, particularly, how unexpressed grief can lead to depression.

    For example, after recommending the film to a client getting divorced, she shared that it seemed like “Sadness” had taken over her mind’s control panel and would never leave. However, I noticed that “Sadness” was a natural response to loss. It was “Fear” that was making up the story that the sadness will last forever, not because fear is evil, but because that’s what “Fear” is wired to do when it senses danger. I also reminded her that, just like in the film’s ending (spoiler alert), “Joy” was standing by, waiting patiently for “Sadness” to help her come to terms with her lost marriage.

    Which leads me to the second important point the film makes: none of the animated emotions are cast as villains. This runs counter to our dualistic notions that only joy is good, while sadness, fear, anger, disgust are undesirable. But in truth, all our emotions serve a critical function in keeping us balanced and, well, alive - fear and disgust protects us, anger expresses our needs and boundaries, joy ensures flourishing, and sadness allows us come to terms with life’s inevitable losses and clear the way to joy. Other emotions like frustration or melancholy are merely extensions of these basic feelings.

    Of course, sometimes certain go-to emotions hog the controls when we’re stressed, throwing us off balance. Perhaps we are easily angered, thrown into fear mode, or look for joy in booze or drugs to avoid feeling less pleasant emotions. But if we can take a cue from Inside Out and Rumi’s famous poem “The Guest House,” we can might visualize which animated emotion is at the controls. From there, we might be curious about what they’re doing there - “Fear, are you trying to protect me again” and even talk back to them, “Hey, Fear, not to worry. I got this.”

The Guest House

By Jelaluddin Rumi

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.