Do you ever feel that you need to show a brave and coping face whilst tending to suppress or push your sadness away? Are you worried that if you allowed yourself to be in touch with your sadness, that it might feel unmanageable or overwhelming? If you resonate with this, if you have not already, you might be curious to watch the latest children’s Pixar film, ‘Inside Out’. Stop reading now, if you don’t want any spoilers!

‘Inside Out’ is the story of a joyful, eleven year old girl called Riley, with the stars of this animation being five emotions in her head, namely Anger, Joy, Sadness, Disgust and Fear. Riley is a sweet child who radiates energy, enthusiasm and passion for life. She is fortunately blessed with supportive and loving parents, so starts her early life with a core base of love and stability. Riley’s character illustrates clearly on screen the free unbridled expression of all her feelings from rage to joy, as you would hope that a young child might feel safe to do. Seeing Riley as a baby and toddler, as her memories are recalled, it captures so vividly the real innocent delight of a young child with endless smiles, giggles and silliness as she charges around the house with carefree abandon.

This golden early childhood is somewhat disrupted when Riley moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley is suddenly catapulted into an unfamiliar world and consequently struggles. This is a move away from her longstanding friends and beloved home. She also leaves her ice hockey team which had formed a major part of her identity and self-esteem. With the move, her parents experience financial struggles and this understandably creates tension, which she has probably been fortunate not to experience greatly before. Her parents also expect her to put on a brave face to help keep the family peace. Riley is dealing with much change whilst feeling isolated and alone.

As a voyeur of the film you get to witness first-hand the range of emotions that Riley experiences as she undergoes this difficult transition. Each of Riley’s emotions demonstrates a valuable purpose and function. Prior to the move, ‘Joy’ was clearly a leading player. As expected, the other emotions get to play much greater roles as she tries to settle in San Francisco.

As the story unravels, it becomes apparent that ‘Joy’ does not see the value of ‘Sadness’ and attempts every way possible to prevent Riley from experiencing this emotion, with devastating consequences. Riley becomes stuck in ‘Fear’, ‘Anger’ and ‘Disgust’ and subsequently starts to feel numb. Isolated and confused, she considers running away from home and withdraws significantly from living. Riley definitely leans towards feeling depressed. The take home message is the real value of fully experiencing all our emotions. Only once Riley can express her sadness too, is she then able to experience true joy.

5 things to learn from ‘Inside Out’

  • The film can help simplify our emotional world in a very accessible way. This can be used on a very personal level as you take time to tune in more specifically to how you are feeling, and also supporting children to do the same. There is much value to be gained from this as you touch base with your core and authentic self (rather than perhaps going with how you ‘should’ feel).
  • It helps demonstrate the value and necessity in being able to experience the whole range of emotions. Rather than trying to block out sadness, instead feeling safe to embrace it. This then enables you to also connect fully with joy. If you recognise that you often feel quite ‘flat’ emotionally, maybe you are not connecting fully with your all your feelings?
  • If someone feels safe to express sadness, this can be outwardly obvious through tears or facial expression. Communicating sadness allows us to connect with others and be vulnerable. We can feel supported. We can become closer to the people that matter to us.
  • If you have children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, it can challenge constructively how you communicate with them. It also triggers you to think about how you were parented too. How often do you tell yourself or others to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘put on a brave face’, swiftly sweeping aside your sadness to show the world a face of happiness and coping?
  • You may also reflect on the cost of not accessing your full range of feelings. How else may these feelings become expressed through other outlets such as alcohol, food, over-work, shopping or other distractions?  Feelings don’t usually go away, however hard we might try to bury them.

Riley is fortunate in the film to have support around her and of course this children’s film is going to have a happy ending. For some, this might just feel too idealistic or unreal, particularly if you are feeling overwhelmingly depressed or stuck whilst also feeling unsupported. This could be a time when finding a counsellor might be an option to consider; finding a safe and supportive confidential space to begin to explore your emotional world. 

Harriet Frew is a therapist on the welldoing directory.