Learning to Accept Our Emotions: Lessons from Disney’s ‘Inside Out’

By Jennifer Wolkin, Ph.D

 I rrecently had the opportunity to see Disney Pixar’s latest animated feature, “Inside Out.” I didn’t need much prompting: it’s a movie about feelings, and I’m a psychologist. It did not disappoint.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the film’s premise (spoiler alert): An 11-year-old girl named Riley moves cross-country with her family. A move is a huge transition, especially at such an impressionable age, and she experiences a gamut of emotions as she leaves her home, friends, and hockey league behind. Riley’s feelings — the main characters of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust — provide a glimpse into the workings of Riley’s mind as she navigates this life-changing experience.

Many of the movie’s messages measured up from a neuroscientific perspective (for example, the way a day full of short-term/working memories is consolidated during sleep). While the film gave up some scientific integrity for the sake of storytelling, its poetic license didn’t drive too far away from reality. We are made up of personality traits that wax and wane in prominence and under different circumstances.

“Inside Out” provides an empowering message about how to understand, connect to, and accept our feelings and memories in a way that is conducive to thriving. It did this in five ways:

  1. All of our emotions exist for a purpose.Emotions are neither inherently good nor bad. To think of them in such dichotomous terms is to do oneself a disservice. Every emotion tells us something about our inner experience that might be informing our outer experience. In fact, Rumi, the Sufi poet, said we should treat every emotion as a visitor, without looking to get rid of any of them. Instead, we should try to understand their message and purpose.Recent research indicates that well-being is actually predicated on having a wider range of emotions. The more you can feel, the better off you are.
  2. To have emotion is to have a compass.It’s much healthier to have emotions than not to feel at all. In the movie, Joy tried to have Sadness stay as far away from Riley as possible. The inability to feel sadness, coupled with her mother’s request for Riley to stay happy, ultimately led to a cold and numb existence. This state only generated poor judgment and unhealthy choices. It wasn’t until she allowed herself to feel sadness that Riley was able to see more clearly and reach out for support.
  3. Our realities and memories are filtered through our emotional lens.Our present reality is seen through the framework of our past experience. The memories we look back upon are colored by our present-moment experience. In Riley’s case, she recalled a championship hockey game several times during the movie. At one point she remembers missing the winning shot and feeling sad about it. At another point, she remembers the same moment, but recalls smiling as she is championed by her teammates who pick her up onto their shoulders to let her know how valuable she is to the team. The only difference was that in the second case, the memory was being recalled through a lens of joy.We need to remember that our memories are a part of our personal narrative, but that in many ways, we construct the narrative we believe. We can change our story at any time. We can’t delete certain paragraphs that ooze with negative facts and daunting realities. We can’t cut out chapters that we would rather not have had. They will always be there, and that’s OK. Research suggests that the actual experiences we have affect us less than the story we tell ourselves about them.
  4. Having the language to talk about emotions is empowering.As long as more than a modicum of scientific integrity exists, whether science was upheld to the nth degree in the movie doesn’t really matter. If children learn early that it’s not just OK, but crucial to feel all of their emotions, we can hope to see more adjusted adolescents and adults.
  5. Feeling our emotions is a universal human experience.Pixar knew what it was doing when it used five scientifically validated universal emotions, a la Dr. Paul Ekman’s work. (The sixth universal emotion is surprise.) Through his research he showed that certain emotions are felt and expressed through universal facial expressions across cultures worldwide. And so, the movie reminds us of our intrinsic humanity, how similar we all actually are despite our differences.This is a very powerful idea, especially in the wake of discrimination based on skin color or gender and sexual identity. At the end of the day, no matter who you are, you experience the capacity for the same gamut of emotions. Therefore, if we can realize that we are all just fighting our own hard battles, we might show up in this world with more compassion and less judgment.

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