When I first heard about Disney Pixar’s new film Inside Out, I knew it would be a winner. What I wasn’t prepared for was how well it handles emotions, personality and their psychological underpinnings.
Here’s five lessons about mental health you can take away from Inside Out and how they can help both writing complex characters and your personal wellbeing!
HERE BE SPOILERS – PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Forced Joy is Unhealthy
If you are trying to make yourself or others feel happy all the time, you are heading for trouble. When Riley’s mom tells her that they both need to stay happy for their father, a whole load of warning klaxons went off in my psychiatry brain. No one can be happy all the time. I am a natural optimist but I don’t smile every hour of every day.
In Inside Out, the character of Joy wants everything in Riley’s life to be happy. It is her desperation to achieve this that leads to Riley’s (and Joy and Sadness’) catastrophe. When big life events happen, it’s natural to feel sadness, anger, fear and even disgust. Denying them is like letting a wound fester – much worse consequences down the line.
If one emotion is driving all your interactions, something has gone wrong. The adult characters in the film all have emotions seated at a large table – each one has a place in driving that character, though one has the “hot seat” in the centre. My friends and I were talking about who has the driving seat in our lives – I’m definitely a Joy, while my husband is a Sadness. One of my more cutting, sarcastic friends is Disgust and I’m sure we all know a few Angers.
But if that emotion drives all the time and excludes the others, that represents A Big Problem. The characters of Inside Out could be illnesses: Sadness might be depression, Disgust can form OCD, Anger can lead to aggression and violence problems, and Fear can lead to a number of anxiety disorders. Something is needed to redress the balance.
At a critical point in the film, the emotional console at Headquarters shuts down and greys out – Riley feels nothing at all. This is often considered one of the worst situations in mental health, particular for people with depression. It’s not that they’re sad – they just don’t care anymore. It’s also a symptom of burnout and increasingly common in the workplace, particularly frontline emergency services.
What can be done about it? It seems to represent a psychological shutdown – everything is overwhelming, so feeling nothing is most protective. A process of rest, recuperation and acknowledging what led to the problem, as well as professional mental health care, can help deal with the underlying situation.
At the end of Inside Out, Riley’s memories aren’t sharply divided according to her emotions but a mixture – Joy with Sadness, Anger with Fear, etc. One of the thought distortions often seen in disorders of mood, anxiety and personality is “black and white thinking”. This means that something must either be good or bad, positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful. In its extreme form, it’s known as splitting.
However, shades of grey are the norm. The ability to accept that a moment can be both happy and sad – from where we take the word bittersweet – is part of emotional maturity. To get all psychodynamic on you, Melanie Klein developed the concept of the paranoid-schizoid position, also called “good breast, bad breast”. It refers to an infant being unable to realise that things can have both good and bad parts, like the mother who owns both the breast that gives nourishment and the one that does not provide when the infant is hungry.But this is an infant phase – moving beyond it is part of growing into adulthood.
For me, the most powerful part of the film was Sadness and particularly Joy’s relationship with her. At the start, Joy never wanted to let Sadness drive. She tried to stop her touching the memories as she was “turning them sad”. She wouldn’t let Sadness talk about things that made her feel sad and she tried to contain her within a tiny circle – a classic repression if ever there was one.
And when Sadness made a core memory (an important concept in Inside Out and, well, life), the fight between them led to both of them being expelled from Headquarters. However, Joy starts to appreciate Sadness. Joy cannot rouse Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend, but by validating his hurt and upset, Sadness enabled him to move on and help them. By the end, Joy realises that sometimes Sadness needs to drive and Riley is better for it (I may also have cried at that point).
Recent concerns in psychiatry have highlighted the problem of medicalising natural sadness. For example, giving antidepressants for a normal grief reaction. You should feel sad when a loved one dies. You should feel sad when a life event causes upheaval in your life. It was only when Riley expressed her sadness that she allowed her parents to express theirs, and brought them all closer together.
What are your thoughts on Inside Out? Was there a particular message or benefit you took from the film? Let me know in the comments!