How Realistic Is the Psychology in Inside Out?

Joy and Sadness navigate through Imagination Land in Inside Out.

Image courtesy Disney/Pixar

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Note: This post includes spoilers.

Answer by Anita Sanz, clinical psychologist:

I just saw Inside Out with my family, and I really enjoyed the movie. I’ll leave it to the memory experts to comment on whether the way the film portrayed the way that short-term memories are encoded, stored, and used is close to accurate. I loved the way it was done using the little balls, tinted with the color of emotions.

Instead, I’ll write about one (and I believe the most important) thing the movie got right: its message about the importance of emotional congruence for optimal mental health.

Western culture values certain personality traits and behaviors such as extroversion, assertiveness, achievement, efficiency, and optimism over others such as introversion, sensitivity, sustained attentiveness, the ability to listen, and emotionality.

And because of the value on external and social activity, happiness and the expression of “being OK” is most definitely valued above sadness and the expression of “not being OK.” It makes people uncomfortable to see other people sad, to see their children sad, and to be sad themselves.

But life doesn’t always give us situations or events where the appropriate emotion to feel would be happiness or joy. Losses, deaths, traumas, and sudden dramatic changes (like what life threw at Riley in the movie) are more likely to cause a person to feel sad or to grieve. Riley was feeling excited and a little scared at beginning in her new school, but she was also feeling sad about all the losses she had just experienced.

Feeling sad about those losses, which was the emotion congruent to the experience of loss, wouldn’t have caused Riley any problems.

The problem, as was beautifully illustrated in the movie, was that Joy decided that in order for Riley to continue to be the “brave and happy girl” that she thought her parents needed her to be, Sadness was going to have to be relegated to a corner and sit this new experience out, or she would ruin things.

Not being able to feel what is normal to feel in a situation is what causes problems for all people, just as it did for Riley.

If you’ve been abused or traumatized, there are all kinds of feelings that you don’t get a chance to feel or “process” because you’re too busy trying to survive. If you’re trying to feel something other than what’s really inside, or trying to be someone you’re not, same problem: There’s incongruence or a mismatch between the inside and the outside.

In the movie, Sadness wasn’t going to just “sit it out” in the Circle of Sadness. Sadness knew she was absolutely vital to Riley’s ability to ultimately be happy and healthy, if not immediately happy.

Joy and the others didn’t understand this, not until the end of the movie. Joy finally realizes that Riley needed Sadness to be congruent, to feel her real feelings of loss instead of pretending she was okay or acting out by running away. Joy witnessed the power that Sadness had to transform grief when Sadness sat with BingBong and just let him talk and cry. Sadness was therapeutic by simply letting him be how he was in that moment, which allowed him to move into the next moment more easily.

That incident eventually turned on the lightbulb for Joy and she insisted that Sadness “run the show,” and she ended up allowing Riley to have a truly authentic and cathartic cry with her parents, repairing and healing their relationship so they could begin to move forward in the new normal for their family.

It’s important to note that it seemed like Riley was becoming depressed as the movie went on. She stopped interacting with friends, violated some core values, lost her ability to laugh and be silly, lost interest in her hobbies and sport, and then ran away from home.

She was becoming depressed not because she wasn’t happy, but because she wasn’t allowed to be sad when she needed to be, when that would have been the congruent emotion to her life situation.

She didn’t need an anti-depressant. She didn’t need to become happy. She needed to be allowed to be sad, which would then allow her to move to some other emotions. Maybe not as easily and quickly as a Hollywood ending would like to suggest, but emotions that need to be felt can yield the control panel to others, once they’ve had their turn.

In therapy, we often tell people that their emotions are more like an ON-OFF switch, as opposed to a dial where you can just point toward the positive emotions of joy, peace, happiness and away from the negative emotions of anger, fear, and sadness.  If you try to turn off one emotion, your ability to feel the others is compromised.

In the movie, Joy tried to turn off Sadness, and that left the other emotions portrayed—Fear, Disgust, and Anger—to try to run the show. Even with those emotions left, without Joy and Sadness working together, everything in Riley’s life literally fell apart.

Some useful and current themes from therapy and parenting were brought out in Inside Out, and for that, I’m grateful as a therapist. Anything that normalizes sadness as a helpful emotion makes me happy!

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