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5 Life Lessons INSIDE OUT Teaches About Emotions

Pixar Animation Studios is known for more than its groundbreaking, unique animation style and fun Easter eggs. Pixar has powerful stories from unique perspectives that center emotional intelligence, compelling characters, and vital life lessons for fans of all ages. 2015’s Inside Out dials into this formula through the eyes of a preteen girl’s animated emotions.

Riley’s world, and emotional core, is shaken when she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her five key emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—have to learn how to evolve to guide Riley through a pivotal life change. Their mission to restore Riley’s key memories and her “personality” islands offers us a lot of valuable lessons about recognizing, respecting, validating, and processing our own complex and fluid emotions. It’s not an easy task for humans of any age, and world-shifting events like COVID-19 among heartbreaking tragedies has made it even harder to cope with a flood of feelings.

These five Inside Out life lessons that will encourage us to be kinder to ourselves, and each other.

Tap into Your Core Memories

Like Riley, we all have a center of core memories. They are the pivotal and important moments in our lives that have shaped us into the person we are today. As we get older, those memories may be attached to a mix of emotions. Or we may look back on them through a rose-colored, nostalgic lens. Either way, it’s important to tap into those core memories because, as the film says, they are what make you… you.

Joy hugs a core memory ball in Inside Out

Walt Disney Studios/Pixar Animation Studios

They remind you of the times you felt triumphant, when you took a leap of faith, or even a negative experience that fuels your desire to fight for others. Those memories inform you about the things you truly love, enjoy, or need to avoid for your own mental and emotional well-being. You’ll remember that life hasn’t been perfect but you are capable, unique, and loved by someone.

Embrace Sadness

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest lessons. In Inside Out, the other emotions were determined to not allow Sadness to have space in Riley’s life. It was a direct reflection of how Riley’s parents imprinted on her subconscious; they expected her to always be their happy girl and take everything in stride, even during this difficult transition.

This is mirrored in Riley’s mind with Joy’s determination to put Sadness in a proverbial box without realizing that she has a place and space in Riley’s life as a human being. It took her having conflict and her own breakdown to realize that emotions often work in tandem. (For instance, when Riley was sad about losing the game, her teammates and parents came to cheer her up.) It also gave her the motivation to push forward and get out of the lost memory pile. Sadness helps Riley realize she shouldn’t run away and should open up to her parents about her feelings.

According to Psych Central, we deal with the pressure to “appear happy” all the time so we don’t seem like a downer, which leads us to not confront our sadness. Messages of being “strong” and having “good vibes” rule on social media, but the encouragement to steer clear of sadness often starts in childhood. Grownups will angrily tell crying kids to stop crying, even when they have a “good reason.” That early messaging informs us that we cannot be openly sad because it makes us, and others, uncomfortable.

Sadness doesn’t feel pleasant but it’s a necessary emotion. We are human beings and have the right to experience a range of emotions. It is okay to cry. Sadness allows us to listen to ourselves and process our emotions instead of burying them for temporary comfort. If we try to ignore it, we are only setting ourselves up for a future explosion. Sadness also taps into our own empathetic core, gives us a needed release, and can help us view a situation with emotional clarity. Embrace Sadness.

It should be added that there is a difference between feeling temporary sadness and experiencing depression. A Medical News Today report says life events like losing a loved one, job, or failing at something can lead to sadness; a person experiencing this can usually find some relief through crying or talking with someone. In short, sadness is linked to something specific and passes with time. But if a person is not able to resume normal function after an extended time or their mood stays lower for two weeks, then it could be a sign of depression. While sadness is usually tied to some specific trigger, depression can arise without a specific cause.

Depression symptoms include loss of interest in enjoyable activities, lack of motivation, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, and other feelings of discouragement. If you are in a crisis and/or experiencing suicidal thoughts, resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), which connects you with a trained counselor at a crisis center in your area. Or you can reach out directly to your medical professional for assistance. It’s important to seek help so you can get the emotional and/or medical support you need to begin a path towards recovery.

Emotions Aren’t Good or Bad

We tend to categorize our emotions: joy is good, sadness is bad, anger is bad. We are typically taught that it’s important to put on a brave face, to respond to, “How are you?” in positive or neutral way, and that the “good” emotions are the most important. In reality, emotions are not good or bad—they just are what they are. Marcia Reynolds, PsyD., addresses this in a Psychology Today piece about “bad” emotions.

“I would like you to consider a different view of emotions. All emotions are a part of your human experience. You can’t experience joy without sorrow, peace without anger, and courage without fear. Life is richer when we allow ourselves to move through the dark as well as the light.”
Inside Out emotions stand at console

Walt Disney Studios/Pixar Animation Studios

It’s the way we project our feelings out into the world that can lead to negative or positive interactions. For example, it’s not okay to angrily lash out at someone who calls out a truth that makes you feel uncomfortable or upset. However, anger is productive in the face of injustice because it incites action and causes disenfranchised people to fight for what’s right. It can give you positive drive and motivation.

We have to learn to respect all of our emotional centers, acknowledge when we are feeling something, sit with that feeling, and make a wise choice about how we engage with that emotion.

You Can’t Govern Others’ Emotions

Riley’s parents expect her to be happy and go with the flow because that’s “what she always does,” without considering that maybe she has often feigned happiness for their approval. Riley had a right to be sad and angry after losing her stability and familiarity so quickly.

Sometimes we expect others to react to things in a way that is “sensible” from our perspective. Our own experiences and privileges inform what triggers us, motivates us, and causes a shift from our norm. It’s the same with everyone else because, well, we are all unique people.

Even if think we know someone well, we don’t know all the intricacies that lead to certain emotions controlling their dashboard at the moment. Each person has their own set of core memories and some of them may be painful, sad, or anxiety-filled. Give people the room to feel what they feel.

Active Listening Is Where It’s At

During Sadness and Joy’s Inside Out adventure, Bing Bong has a breakdown after realizing he is losing his place in Riley’s life. Joy tries to get him to divert away from what he is feeling, but Sadness takes the time to listen to Bing Bong. She gives him the space to honestly embrace his emotions and supports him for just a few minutes. Those moments help him cope with the truth, accept that his time is ending, and continue to move forward to help Joy and Sadness get back to the control center.

Inside Out Sadness sits with Bing Bong

Walt Disney Studios/Pixar Animation Studios

A key element in being a supportive friend or partner is actively listening to the person, not necessarily to respond or sway them to another emotional place, but to simply offer a safe space. It’s what we want when we open up to others, right?

Inside Out reminds us to embrace the wholeness of ourselves, give ourselves permission to not be “okay,” and that we have to give those around us a chance to work through their emotional realizations. It’s not about trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings but rather go towards them to get honest with ourselves and grow.

Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios/Pixar Animation Studios