Inside 'Inside Out'

A few years ago, Pixar knocked it out of the park (yet again) with Inside Out. This special film creatively depicted the significant role our emotions play in our day to day interactions with the world. It showed that each emotion is necessary and vital. Even more impactful, the film discussed the importance of grieving our losses. 

[We have] to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner, leading scientist in the study of emotions and a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, was one of the psychologists who served as a consultant for Pixar's Inside Out. He shared in a PacificStandard magazine interview with J. Wesley Judd, "Well, I think that the film really got a couple of big ideas about emotions right. One, [emotions] are really critical to how we look at the world — our perception and our attention and our memories and our judgment. They guide us in our handling of really important life circumstances, like moves and developmental changes...People in different traditions like to refer to emotions with a social idiom or a grammar of social interactions. Emotions are the structure, the substance, of our interactions with other people. If I’m falling in love with somebody, everything that I do in that euphoria of love — buying flowers, reciting poetry, touching the individual’s hair — it’s textured by the feeling, and it sets up these patterns of how we relate to each other. Those scenes in particular with Riley’s fights with parents and running away and coming back are all about sadness. That’s what it really got right. Emotions shape how we relate to other people."

One thing I personally and professionally appreciated about the film was its portrayal of Sadness. The film normalized an emotion often discarded because it is uncomfortable and is often a response to a loss. Often times, people will come into my office struggling with their sadness. Their sadness confuses them and they want to ostracize or minimize it. But it's a real emotion and true to the human experience.

Keltner and his colleague, Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote a New York Times article entitled, "The Science of 'Inside Out'" explaining that sadness is a healthy part of emotional development.

Dr. Keltner says, "One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can’t. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear."

1. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- rational thinking.
2. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

He writes, "The real star of the film is Sadness, for "Inside Out" is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness."

The articles continues by explaining insights from the science of emotion, "First, emotions organize- rather than disrupt-rational thinking. Traditionally in Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation." 

"Second, emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals." 

""Inside Out" offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen's emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike."

Sadness purposefully contributes something beautiful to life. Keltner explains the "vital function of Sadness" is to guide the main character "to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity." 

As a counselor, I want to help clients become acquainted with their sadness, their grief, by identifying and acknowledging their loss and its affect. In doing so, over time, their grief can add new textures and significant meaning to their lives. There is strength in the sorrow and beauty in the tears.

Sadness can be one of our best teachers. We have much to learn from her. Will we be willing students?

Tiffany Dang

Tiffany Dang, LPC, Austin, TX