By Kelly Moore, PsyD
As a psychologist and a mother, Disney-Pixar's latest film, "Inside Out" is a dream come true in many ways. If you haven't seen it yet, here is the synopsis: Riley, a young tween has lead a fairly charmed life- stable home environment, supportive and loving parents, and great friends- until her dad has a job transition and the family has to leave their Midwest home and head to San Francisco. What happens next is literally all in Riley's head. Meet the five primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. The film's overall premise is that after a series of events, core memories that make up Riley's personality structure become "infected" with Sadness and after she and Joy end up being sucked away from the brain's Headquarters (get it? HEADquarters!), Riley becomes a shadow of who she once was-being governed solely by Anger, Fear, and Disgust. What follows is an adventure in her brain as Joy and Sadness seek to capture back Riley's core memories before her personality structures fall apart one piece at a time. While this is happening, we get a brilliantly executed snapshot of how the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves memories, without it being too challenging for children (or adults) to understand.
As a psychologist, I believe there are many reasons why this movie is a must see for everyone, but I have narrowed it down to five.
#1: Make every moment count - Core Memories are fairly arbitrary
One of the most interesting parts in the film is the focus on the value of core memories. As the movie progresses, we come to realize that the selection of core memories is fairly arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. It would be wise of us all to keep in mind that our interactions with others, especially our children, could become a core memory. We want to ensure that if that is the case that we are helping instill memories reflecting resilience and strength. This brings me to reason number 2...
#2: A Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy attitude is not always appropriate or necessary for developing a healthy, high functioning adult
Joy is the primary character in the movie as its story teller, but it's her transformation that sets the story up for the final outcome as she realizes that Riley's happiness is not only derived from her "happy" memories, but also from her recall of times when she was able to recover from difficult situations with the help of those around her. Joy comes to realize through her journey in Riley's mind that Riley's well-being is less about her isolating from her other basic emotions, but rather from having the opportunity to feel them and recover from them. Again, the lesson in the movie is seemingly more about learning the value of resilience and that part of healthy functioning is being able to experience the breadth of emotions, while having the coping skills and people around you to help you when you're down.
#3: The healing power of validation
If you blink, you might miss what was, to me, the most important scene in the movie. During Sadness and Joy's adventure in Riley's mind, they meet a former imaginary friend that seeks to help them. When the friend becomes too sad to move forward in the journey, he collapses to the ground, defeated. Joy- true to character- gives him the good ole "buck up, everything will be fine, be happy!!" speech but it is to no avail. In a touching moment, Sadness takes a seat next to him and just says something to the effect of "I bet you feel really sad about this. It must be awful to feel like this, right?" And after a few moments, their friend is ready to get back on the journey. Joy is baffled. How did Sadness, so blue, and so somber, get him back up and going again? It was simply validation. She labeled his feeling and then and gave him a moment to feel it and then offered a plan to move forward. Was one of the writers of this film a mindfulness expert?! Talk about being in the present and allowing yourself to feel! When a child is feeling a loss of motivation or intense emotions, sometimes it's better to just be near, and let them feel those feelings. Emotions other than joy are often difficult to sit with, but we need them to build our tolerance, and to see our ability to recover and get back on track.
#4: It labels the basic emotions
I have a 3 and 7 year old and after seeing the movie, at least three times in the past month, my 3 year old has used a color to try to tell me why he is having his latest toddler tantrum (e.g., Him: "I'm red Mommy- I'm angry!" Me: "Yes. Yes you are..."). Score for the psychologist mom! This film, if nothing else, offers the simplest way to label the 5 basic emotions. The ability to label an emotion is an important part of our work with our therapy clients in many cases. We want people to be able to identify and own their feelings- whatever they are. For kids, this is an easy way to help them do better at teasing out emotions that tend to be expressed the same way, but are in fact different- like sadness and anger. Try printing out images of each of the characters and having a child use that as a guide. It gets them in the habit of not just expressing the emotion behaviorally, but articulating it as well.
#5: Our brains will work hard to protect us and is quite resilient!
This theme pops up throughout the film: All of Riley's primary emotions want to protect her as she goes through her transition to a new place; her dream production team makes sure that she wakes up if one becomes too scary; the things that scare her most are buried in her subconscious, the memories she doesn't need anymore are thrown into the pit of forgetfulness so she has room for new memories. And in the end- SPOILER ALERT- Riley adjusts! Once Joy realizes the value in each of her emotional counterparts, she and Sadness make it back and work together with the others to help Riley get back on track. Resilience wins!!
Overall, the film offers a creative and well designed overview of the important role emotions play in how our memories are preserved and retrieved, and how our minds work to adjust to new situations. Or more simply put....Go see it! It's our 'One Practice One Movie' winner!