So it’s the long school summer holidays again and I face the challenge common to most parents of balancing work with entertaining the children. On lovely weather days like today that entails writing this blog whilst the children play in the fountains at Granary Square in London’s Kings Cross. At times like this my main state of mind is gratitude.
On more typically British summer days the fail safe entertainment is a trip to the cinema. On one such rainy day last week I took my two to see Disney Pixar’s latest release Inside Out. Now that we are past the Bambi and Dumbo stage the kids films are pretty enjoyable for adults (although I must say that I loved Bambi and Dumbo too) and, as a Psychotherapist, I was particularly looking forward to seeing Inside Out, as the main action of the film is set in the inside workings of the character’s minds. The premise is that the mind is run by five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, shown primarily in the mind of Riley, an 11 year old girl. The first emotion to arrive after Riley’s birth is Joy, and Joy pretty much runs the show until Riley’s family relocate. At this point Riley is faced with the challenge of losing her friends and her childhood home and the emotion of Sadness starts to have a greater influence on her. A situation develops that results in Joy and Sadness being absent from the control panel of Riley’s mind for some time and life really becomes difficult for Riley with Anger, Fear and Disgust in charge. The central message of the film, for me at least, is that Joy can’t always be in charge and in fact, it’s not appropriate or helpful for Joy to be the primary emotion. Joy learns that Sadness, in particular, attracts more love and support for Riley at times of need than Joy can. The other core message of the film is that all of the emotions are allowed to be there and are necessary to the balance of the character’s life.
The film’s message that Joy doesn’t need to be in charge all of the time reminds me of the ongoing focus in popular psychology literature on the pursuit of happiness. Although I wouldn’t argue with the aim of feeling happy, it is unrealistic to expect oneself to be happy all of the time and holding that expectation can actually increase the chances of feeling exactly the opposite. Human experience is complex and to have a singular goal of ‘happiness’ takes away the subtleties and nuances of other feelings, reducing the richness of life. As we have all read somewhere, you can’t know happiness, or Joy in the film’s narrative, without knowing Sadness.
I’m also in full support of the film’s point that all emotions are allowed. I cringe at the phrase ‘negative emotion’ that is so frequently used in my profession. All of the emotions in the film other than Joy could be classed as ‘negative’ and, therefore, up for reduction or elimination in some forms of therapy. We feel Anger when our values have been offended or we have been threatened. That sounds useful to me. We feel Fear when we are in danger. Our survival chances would be severely limited without that emotion. Disgust guides us away from people, places, practices and even food and drink items that may be dangerous for us, although in the film this is mainly focussed on broccoli for Riley. Sadness is so closely connected to the so called ‘positive’ human traits of empathy, compassion, love and connection as to be inseparable from them, as Sadness is from Joy in the film. We need all emotions in balance as either one of these five feelings being in charge would be detrimental to a person’s life experience.
I’m not going to examine the question of whether or not the five chosen emotions were the ‘right’ ones as, clearly, the film needed to be contained to some level and, broadly, I think Disney did a great job with the choices they made. What is missing, of course, is the concept of a rational mind, which is so familiar to psychotherapy thinking. Riley’s mind is exclusively managed by emotions. Mindfulness tells us that when we combine the reasonable, rational, left brain with the emotions and sensations of the right brain we find our Wise Mind, a place where can access all of our resources. This is not addressed in the film although the idea of integration is. At the beginning of the film Riley has a number of separate personality islands in her mind, such as Goofball Island, representing her fun side, Honesty Island, symbolising her value of telling the truth, Family Island …. you get the idea. During the challenge of the home relocation each of these islands is systematically and dramatically destroyed, until the film’s happy resolution (this is Disney after all) when a new, singular, larger and fully integrated personality island develops, along with an expanded console for the emotions to drive Riley’s life experience.
One of the aspects of this film that I think will be useful to my work as a Psychotherapist is the clear visual image I now have to support clients who feel like they are managed by one primary, (usually judged as negative), emotion. I can see in my mind’s eye the characters of Fear and Sadness when I’m working with my clients who are dominated by anxiety or depression and I can imagine these characters pushing Joy out of the way whilst they run the console of my client’s mind. For those clients who have seen the film, we have this shared internal image and, consequently, a shared language which is helping me to guide them into a more compassionate relationship with the part of them that is currently running the show of their mind.
Other attractions to the film from a psychotherapy point of view are the film’s attempts at acknowledging the subconscious, dreams, our internal thought train, short, long term and core memories. All in all Inside Out really is an accomplished film, beyond its significant value as a piece of entertainment.
As I turn my attention back to the children running about in the fountains in Granary Square I have to admit that the main emotion on show here, as well as in my heart, is Joy. Although that little boy over there is securing the full attention of his mother as he cries with sadness at being told it’s time to go home and that little girl is holding her father’s hand very tightly as she looks in fear at the water …
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