Psychology of Inside Out and Back Again

Disney Pixar’s Inside Out is a film that shows us how an ordinary event in life can take us through a remarkable emotional journey within ourselves. Frankly, Inside Out may be more effective in teaching the concept of Emotional Intelligence better than any psychology text. Emotional Intelligence (also called EQ) is our ability to understand our own emotions and the emotions of others.

It’s what helps us differentiate between similar or confusing feelings (like when we think we are mad at someone, but realize we’re actually feeling hurt and sad). It is how we use emotional information to guide our thinking and behaviour (like when we’re scared and we need to get ourselves out of dangerous situations quickly). And it helps us to give support to others when they need comfort (like when we feel compelled to reach out and hug someone who is upset). Communicating our needs, empathizing with others, and solving problems effectively all require emotional intelligence. And, unlike other forms of intelligence, emotional intelligence can be taught.

The premise (logic) of Inside Out is simple. We’re introduced to five characters: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who represent core human emotions. Joy is exuberant (happy) , witty (humorous), and entertainingly energetic. She’s planful (always full of ideas), future-oriented (plans ahead before thinking) and her motto is, “always think positive.” Sadness is quiet, gloomy and constantly observing the negative in every situation.

Everything Sadness does–the way she talks, moves, and thinks–is notably slow. Fear, of course, is anxiety-ridden, jumpy, and irrational and tends to predict catastrophes. He ruminates (thinks deeply) about the “what-ifs” in life, always concluding that the outcome will be disastrous. Anger is grumbly, reactive, easily annoyed and is prone to outbursts characterized by eruptions of flames atop his head (he is adorably combustible). And Disgust is avoidant, wary and judgmental of new situations.

The plot of the film is fairly simple, as well: Joy and her crew of emotions live inside the brain of 11-year old Riley Anderson, a seemingly average, happy girl who plays hockey with her best friend in Minnesota. But like cortical layers of the brain, Inside Out gets much more complex as we travel deeper and deeper into its parts and functions. We’re informed that each emotion has a basic responsibility: Joy is the primary driver of the “control center,” representing the excited, explorative nature seen in normal developing youths.

Fear and Disgust, we are told, keep us safe. For instance, Fear keeps Toddler Riley from tripping on an electrical cord. Fear would also cause her to cry for her caregivers if she is left alone (its evolutionary function is to protect us from predators). Disgust protects us from being poisoned “physically and socially.” Anger in the form of frustration is a constant figure in Riley’s infancy and early years; simply dropping a spoon can cause an outburst.

After the emotions are described, another layer unfolds: We learn how Riley’s personality is formed throughout her early childhood, and how emotions play a part in that formation. Important events like bonding with her father, being soothed by her mother, and reaching developmental milestones create memories. Those memories (represented by luminous orbs collected in the brain’s control center) are the building blocks of Riley’s fundamental personality traits.).

The Islands are named Family, Honesty, Friendship, Goofball, and Hockey. Obviously, this concept is simplified as these aren’t meant to map exact personality traits but they are similarly enduring, fundamental aspects of what makes Riley who she is. For example, during her early years, through meaningful interactions with her father, she picks up on his silly, playful sense of humour, and develops her own “goofy” characteristics that make up Goofball Island (here’s where we see that one’s personality isn’t just shaped by what we experience –it’s also inherited). The Islands look like distant, fantastically fun, mini amusement parks –and they are special to Riley.

It’s important to note that Riley’s personality islands are influenced by positive experiences like happiness, success, mastery, satisfaction, a sense of security and safety. The corresponding luminous globes glow gold! Joy acknowledges that some memories in Riley’s life are negative, but she ensures that only the positive ones reach the islands. It’s hinted here that upsetting events may disrupt Riley’s ability to develop normally. Toxic stress, created by repeated and chronic parental neglect or abuse, can actually lead to insufficient brain growth and consequential emotional, behavioural, and social deficits. Fully functioning “islands” (i.e., interconnected clusters of neurons) may not form if traumatic stressors are introduced into Riley’s early environment.

Without warning, a major stressor occurs in Riley’s life: She has to move across the country. Her parents inform her that the family is relocating to San Francisco, California, and suddenly a lot of changes are in play. Riley realizes she must live in a small, older house in the city, go to a new school, make all new friends, and try out for a new hockey team. The stressor of moving is not traumatic, but it is undoubtedly disruptive to her functioning, particularly because she is 11 going on 12 years old.

This is the time where major emotional, behavioural, and social transitions occur and last through teenage years. For example, we see some of those new social pressures portrayed at Riley’s school in the form of cliques and even peer bullying. It’s important to know that the interplay of transitional stress and biology can play a role in emotional adjustment.

Further in the film, we begin to learn that interactions between emotions are telling. For instance, Joy grows annoyed with Sadness’s constant negativity and hopelessness. She draws a circle in the back of the control room and orders Sadness to stay inside of it, far away from the control center’s buttons, the other emotions, and any other aspect of the brain that could be “contaminated.” Joy can’t seem to see any value in Sadness, assigning her no real purpose or responsibility in Riley’s brain. In that moment, Joy’s doing what we regularly do: Try to avoid sadness. In fact, it’s only human to push away the discomfort of sadness, grief, and anxiety. Joy’s attempt to contain and even minimize Sadness is an incredibly relatable thing.

Note about how Sadness is treated here: Individuals who have what psychologists call “depressogenic schema” are often rejected by others. When we have depressogenic schema, we are constantly thinking negatively about ourselves, the world around us, and our future. Sadness exhibits some of those exaggerations in thinking; rather than trying to make things better or look on the bright side like Joy, she focuses on the worst aspects.

Thoughts like, “I’ll never be good enough”, “Things will only get worse,” and “I’m just going to let everyone down” are examples of blue thoughts we might have. Just like with Sadness, those dire predictions are sometimes seen by others as burdensome, displeasing, and even annoying. This negative attribution style is why youths who are depressed tend to have difficulty making or maintaining friendships. It isn’t surprising to see that Sadness is the most unpopular member of the brain bunch.

Interestingly, we start to see Riley emulate Sadness’s blue thoughts. Riley’s not quick to adjust to her new life and begins to make some harsh judgments about her situation. “This is the worst house I’ve ever seen.” “I’ll never make friends like the ones I had in Minnesota.” Something called prospection (how we think about the future) is a significant determinant in the development of early-onset depression.

For instance, the prospective styles that are more likely to lead to clinical depression include poor generation of possible futures (i.e., lacking the skill to think of many realistic outcomes, like telling oneself “I’m going to be friendless forever” instead of “maybe I’ll make one or two friends the first year”) and poor evaluation of possible futures (i.e., inability to see outcomes rationally and accurately, like “Even though there are try-outs every year, I’ll never make it on the team.” vs. “OK, I’m not currently on the hockey team, but I can practice over the winter and try out next season.”).

Not surprisingly, thinking in this rigid, closed-off way can lead to more feelings of hopelessness, which generates even more negative distortions (twists or changes) . Sadness exemplifies (symbolizes) this cycle, seeming as if she’s permanently “stuck” there.

Amidst the onset of multiple negative emotions—the sadness of leaving her best friend back in Minnesota, the anger she feels with her father being caught up in his work, the disgust at how run-down her new house feels, and the anxiety of starting her first day of school—Riley encounters a singular distressing event. She is called on by her new teacher, who asks her to introduce herself to her classmates.

As Riley recalls her “old life” in Minnesota, she realizes how much she misses it, and bursts into tears. Riley is horrified that this happened to her in front of everyone. But she’s also very confused by her own reaction. She feels sad, even when she’s remembering happier times. The combination of embarrassment, shame, and self-disappointment creates a core memory that is sent to her brain’s control center. That memory orb glows blue.

Joy is panicked. She believes that a core memory formed out of negative emotions is bad for Riley. Only joy-filled memories could possibly make Riley the spunky (determined), gregarious (enjoying company) , talented young girl that she is. Joy frantically attempts to rid the negative memory from the brain’s system, leading to the catalyst that sends Joy and Sadness into the vast outer regions of Riley’s brain.

Anger, Fear, and Disgust remain at the helm, unsure about how to direct and manage Riley’s experiences. With Joy and Sadness gone, Riley isn’t able to access her own happiness and sorrow, which are important emotional states. Consequently, she is withdrawn, apathetic, and bitter…and downright unrecognizable. Her parents begin to worry. Riley’s emotional presentation is actually quite similar to adolescents and teens who experience transitional depression. Irritability, rather than sadness, is often the predominant mood in depressed youngsters. Instead of extreme melancholy, youths often present as grumpy, hostile, and easily frustrated and are prone to angry outbursts.

Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness take us through some pretty emotional adventures of their own in the brain’s outer regions, as they traverse the endless storage maze of Long-Term Memory, discover wild ideas in the Land of Imagination, and barely survive the physically-altering zone of Abstract Thinking. They need to get back to Headquarters, but their attempts are met with dead-ends. As they persevere, Joy and Sadness are challenged to expand their emotional capacity: Joy finds herself struggling with disappointment, frustration, and hopelessness for the first time.

Sadness realizes that her pessimism and passivity are not going to help her get back to the control center. And they meet Bing Bong, Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend. Bing Bong is a nomadic (wandering) traveller with the face of an elephant, tail of a cat, and a cuddly body that resembles cotton candy. His ridiculously silly appearance matches his innocently carefree, zany (peculiar) personality. And while his quirky personality is light-hearted and childish at first blush, he ends up helping Joy and Sadness realize their full emotional potential.

Bing Bong confesses that he’s not seen Riley in some time, but hopes to re-establish their relationship and resume their journeys on his song-powered red wagon. “We were going to go to the moon,” he explains to Joy and Sadness. Unfortunately, Bing Bong’s plans are disrupted when his red wagon is dumped into the forgotten zone, the deep canyon where remnants of Riley’s personality disappear forever. Devastated, Bing Bong flops down and cries. His red wagon, the symbolic vehicle of Riley’s childhood imagination, is lost forever. Bing Bong realizes that he, too, is lost, and that Riley may never remember him again. In typical form, Joy attempts to inspire cheerfulness, jumping quickly to reframe the moment into something more positive. It doesn’t work.

It’s here that Sadness, the former outcast, steps into her calling. Quietly, she sits by Bing Bong, first allowing him a moment to shed his tears. She watches him cry. Then, she reaches out to him subtly and thoughtfully. With an understanding nod, she tells him, “You’re sad.” It’s what he needed to hear. He begins to open up, describing his feelings and the reasons he’s sad. By showing empathy, Sadness helps Bing Bong understand his own emotions, feel validated, and find relief knowing that someone else cares about him.

Along with Joy, we learn an important but hard-hitting fact. We don’t need joy all the time. It’s OK to feel sad. Moreover, experiencing and processing sadness can actually prepare us for the emotional challenges we’ll face in the future. It’s important for us to learn that we can overcome feelings associated with pain and loss. This could mean we are better prepared emotionally to deal with the impact of trauma, suffering, or grief.

For Joy, it will be grief.

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