The film Inside Out came out in 2015, but if you haven’t thought about it since then, it’s worth a rewatch. For a cute kids’ movie about the “voices inside your head,” it’s got a lot of wisdom to keep anyone on track, especially when their emotions are on the fritz.
Quick recap: Riley is an eleven-year-old girl who moves across the country with her family, away from everything familiar and friendly. In the emotional chaos that follows, Riley’s five core emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, struggle to give her the tools to cope with the changes.
The brilliance of the movie is that the ideas driving the plot are all backed up by core tenets of mainstream psychology. What I’ve learned over and over again in therapy, the movie has reinforced. Here are a few of timeless lessons Inside Out teaches.
Every emotion has an important job
There’s never a reason to permanently suppress an emotion. Sometimes you have to push a particularly big one aside while you cope with what’s in front of you, but eventually, you have to let it say what it has to say. Not all emotions are fun, but all of them have a job to do that’s totally irreplaceable. Remember how Joy is determined not to let Sadness touch anything important in the psyche? She draws a little circle on the ground and tells her to stay inside it. Can you blame her? Sadness is a real bummer. Why be sad when you can be happy? Why not . . . just not be sad?
But of course, sadness has an absolutely crucial role to play, in Riley’s life and in ours. It is the sad side of Riley’s humanity that shows her friends and family when she needs extra love and support. It’s Sadness, not Joy, that gives her the capacity for empathy. Joy might be everyone’s favorite emotion, but we need more than joy to thrive.
Get yourself used to thinking of your emotions as characters
I’ve started asking my preschooler, “Do you have the red guy in your head?” I’m asking him if he’s angry, but it’s more than that. The image of his anger as a separate character from himself is a powerful one. Because he isn’t an angry ogre; a part of him is angry. It’s such a big difference. When only a part of you is angry, you can still make choices. Your feeling of anger is a player, sure, but there’s more to you than anger.
This practice of separating out our emotional “characters” from the self is one of the basic tenets of a highly effective form of therapy called Internal Family Systems. It’s not just for kids. If I’m completely discouraged, but I know how to say “a part of me is sad and afraid,” then I don’t have to be flooded by those emotions. I can accept the feelings as real and valuable, but keep my freedom and my sense of clarity.
Your body needs to be healthy, but your mind needs to be healthy, too
Remember that dreadful scene when Riley runs away? She’s seriously depressed at this point, and some of her core emotions are totally out of the picture. Joy and sadness are lost, and she’s become numb. She’s not okay. We’re used to thinking of health as a physical thing, but it means so much more than that. To be fully healthy, everything that makes us human needs to be in order. That includes our mental and emotional health, even though that’s invisible.
Emotional health means something different for every person. Maybe it means it’s worth going to therapy, even if you’re not currently in crisis. Maybe it means surrounding yourself with people who make you feel safe and confident, rather than defensive and insecure. Maybe it means making more time for the kind of self-care that makes you feel whole and human again. Whatever you need to sustain your emotional health, that need is as real and urgent as your physical needs for food and sleep.
Nothing lasts forever
When Riley moves houses, it’s hard not to see her whole future stretching out before her, bleak and lonely. She’s got no friends, her parents are stressed out of their minds, and nothing’s familiar. That is real, but equally real is the scene at the end of the movie when she’s gotten used to her new city. She did make friends, and she did find her feet. It’s a great reminder that even the worst situations―even the ones that activate the heck out of our most uncomfortable emotions―are temporary. When you’re in the middle of the worst of it, don’t forget that your happy ending is still to come.
Connection is key to happiness
We get so caught up in self-sufficiency sometimes that we forget how much we need connection. Even the most introverted of introverts can’t supply their own personal fulfillment, and that’s okay. Riley doesn’t learn to be content without her friends. Her emotional health is all tied up in her community and support because human beings are oriented toward community. All of Riley’s “core islands of personality,” that is, the traits that define her, have to do with how she relates to other people: her honestly, her friendship, her goofiness, her family, her love of hockey―it’s not an accident that these aren’t traits that exist in a vacuum. They are how she connects to her world.
Riley’s happiness comes through those forms of connection, and that’s true for adults as well. We need healthy relationships with other people to be happy. When we are cut off from friends, family, romantic or platonic love . . . we're not quite whole. Nobody’s so self-sufficient as to not need other people―and that’s okay.