Have you ever wondered what’s going inside your head? Pixar has given us a new tool for this. “Inside Out,” their newest release, is a drama on the inside of a girl’s head named Riley.
The main characters are a panel of creatures who stand in for Riley’s emotions. Anyone who’s been to counseling might be familiar with them. Joy is the most active and she often tries to help Riley by monitoring all the other emotions who are aptly named Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.
The story begins at Riley’s birth where Joy is the first to appear. As Riley grows up with Joy, Sadness, Anger and Fear take their turns leading her thoughts. Fear occasionally pops in to teach Riley how to remain safe. Anger finds a way to inspire Riley into action and Disgust (an alternative emotion made up for the movie) works to repel Riley from obnoxious situations. But the one emotion that seems to be shoved to the back seat is Sadness—this happens especially when Joy is in the driver’s seat.
Have you ever seen those memes on social media that tell you to forget the past and be happy? While there is truth to not wallowing in the misery of the past, this story explains why we need to remember the past and allow our sadness to touch us so we can move forward to joy.
While Joy tries to keep Sadness from touching Riley’s core memories, the internal plot going on in Riley’s head is both inspired and complicated by her real life. When Riley is eleven her family moves from Minnesota to California—setting off a chain of events that is scary and painful for Riley.
When the family’s moving van gets lost, Riley is left sleeping on the floor with only a few of her familiar things. Then her father is having stress with his new job. Meanwhile everything is different out west. Wherever Riley turns in her new neighborhood, things are different than what she is used to and she eventually discovers that even pizza is not always what she thinks it should be.
At school, the teacher asks her to tell about Minnesota where she came from and suddenly she becomes very sad when she realizes she will not be seeing her old friends back home anymore. Inside her head, Joy freaks out when Sadness touches one of Riley’s core memories and tells Sadness not to touch any of them.
One of Riley stress factors is because she has no core memories of her new home to get her through these rough times. If you were an ACON who moved constantly, this is what might have happened inside your head too. When we face stressful times, we rely on familiar patterns of friends and places, but moving disrupts this.
The family crisis outside of Riley’s head causes lots of confusion for her panel of emotions inside. Riley’s is stressed about her new school and leaving all her old friends, but when her mother comes in to tell her good night, she says “Where is my happy girl? Daddy needs us to be happy.”
Riley wants to please her parents so she blocks out her own confusion and pain to smile on the outside, but this causes an inner turmoil among the panel of emotions inside her head. Fear pushes the panic button a few times, while Sadness starts touching all of Riley’s core memories. Joy feels this will ruin Riley’s memories so she tries to keep Sadness from touching them. Joy and Sadness fight it out and the result is that neither of them are available for Riley because they get lost in her long term memory vault.
While Joy and Sadness are trying to find their way back to Riley’s thinking center, Anger and Fear take over the controls. Riley decides to steal money from her mom’s purse to jump on a bus and go back where she came from. Riley is now not only in an emotional crisis, but she is possibly in physical danger because Anger has over ruled Fear.
Joy and Sadness are still lost, but they start to talk about their favorite memories of Riley. What Joy remembers as a wonderful Joy-filled experience, Sadness only remembers as a Sadness orchestrated experience. It turns out they are both right—that Joy and Sadness are flip sides to the same core memory and that’s when Joy realizes that Riley needs Sadness to be able to experience Joy.
This goes along with Brené Brown’s research that we cannot selectively numb our emotions. We can’t ignore our sadness and still experience joy. This is where we ACONs cannot listen to our narcissistic parents or our flying monkey relatives, we can only be responsible for our own healing and that includes honoring the sad moments in our lives. This is the only path to joy.
It is only when Riley finally experiences sadness that she decides to turn back to home and safety. That includes more sadness as she finally tells her parents what has been going on inside her head and how she is sad over the move. Once she does this, she is free to experience joy again. Lucky for Riley, her parents are not narcs and they listen to her sadness.
For a healthy family dynamic, the sadness of a child must connect with empathy. As the writers of the Empathy Trap have explained narcissists lack empathy and we need all empathy to heal. When we were told to ignore our pain, it only increased our fear and anger, but we need sadness to honor our losses so we can experience joy.
I don’t know about you, but as a Christian, I was taught that sadness is bad. That Jesus loves happy girls. This is also where many Christians have failed to love others. When they tell us that Jesus needs happy witnesses or likes happy Christians, they are failing to allow us to process our pain. The most healing thing a Christian can do is show empathy for those who are hurting.
This attitude if judging someone as though they have no right to their emotions is not reflective of Jesus. Jesus was a man of sorrows. He wept because of He empathized with the pain of the people He created.
This might seem like a silly story, but it has a lot of truth in it. It illustrates the emotional struggles going on in all of our minds and explains why some people are so angry and scared. They have simply shut down and are making their decisions from the fear center of the brain.
I would recommend this movie to everyone who had a hard childhood. It’s well worth the price of admission. But even more important, I hope that all ACONs can realize we have the right to remember our past—even our sad memories because without honoring our pain, we might struggle for years to find joy.