(Note: There are no spoilers in this post!)
It could have been awful. A movie that teaches kids about emotions could have been dry and preachy. Instead, Pixar’s Inside Out is an exciting and compelling tour of inner life that’s grounded in science plus an authentic understanding of how kids feel.
In the film, an 11-year-old girl named Riley is plucked from her comfortable, happy life in Minnesota when her family moves to San Francisco. Five characters, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust depict the emotions in her head as she struggles to adjust to her new home. This set of basic emotions draws from Paul Ekman’s classic research on facial expressions that are consistent across cultures (although Ekman also included Surprise.) The film cleverly connects observable events and actions in Riley’s external life to the antics of the emotion characters in her colorful and complicated mind. Along the way, it points to three important lessons about emotions.
Lesson 1: We all have emotions.
The first lesson from Inside Out is that we all have emotions. This sounds so basic, but it’s a tremendously important lesson! Emotions are abstract concepts. We can’t see them or touch them, but they have a powerful effect on our thoughts and actions. Inside Out presents emotions as likeable, colorful little critters, which makes them easy for kids to imagine and to talk about. We see the power of emotions through the changes in Riley’s behavior when different emotions take charge of her inner control board. She acts differently when she’s driven by, for example, Fear versus Anger.
Inside Out portrays Riley’s emotional experiences in a very real way that will squeeze your heart and connect with your own poignant memories, even if you’ve never been an eleven-year-old girl! As adults–with bills and carpools and deadlines–it’s easy to forget how deep and complicated kids feelings can be.
One of the most entertaining parts of the movie is a set of scenes at the end, where we get a glimpse inside the heads of other people, besides Riley. We see vividly that moms, dads, teachers, and even cats and dogs have emotions. This points to the very important idea of perspective taking, or what psychologists call “Theory of Mind,” which is the ability to imagine accurately how someone else is thinking or feeling. It’s easier to connect with others when we can see things from their perspective as well as our own.
Lesson 2: Emotions—even unpleasant ones—are useful.
Another key lesson from Inside Out is that all emotions—even unpleasant ones—are useful.
Too often in American culture we hear a shallow “Don’t worry—be happy” message. Emotions are dismissed as unnecessary “drama.” Even our Constitution emphasizes “the pursuit of happiness.” All of this suggests that it’s somehow bad or weak to feel other-than-happy. Certainly being locked into negative emotions leads to misery, such as when sadness sinks into depression, or anger becomes a habit, or chronic fear prevents us from doing things we want or need to do, but all emotions serve important functions.
Emotions add depth and richness to our experience, and they help us respond in useful ways. In the movie, Joy explains that Fear keeps Riley safe from danger, Anger helps her stand up for herself, and Disgust keeps Riley from poisoning herself. (Research tells us that Disgust is also important for guiding moral decisions. Why don’t we eat dogs? We could give lots of rationale explanations, but the real reason is that the idea of eating dogs evokes an “Ewwww!” response in our culture.) It takes Joy (and Riley) awhile to figure out the function of Sadness.
Emotions are a source of information about our environment and ourselves. They’re not “things to be gotten rid of.” Like our vision, hearing, and senses of smell and touch, emotions help us navigate our world. They’re a rapid response system that allows us to quickly apprehend what’s happening, and they motivate certain actions. Fear motivates us to run. Anger motivates us to fight. Disgust motivates us to avoid, and Sadness motivates us to seek comfort. All cultures have more negative emotions than positive emotions because we need them for survival. Being able to experience and understand the whole palate of emotions is essential to living life in 3D color instead of just flat black and white.
Lesson 3: We can grow in our ability to experience and understand emotions.
A third, very important lesson from Inside Out is that we can grow in our ability to experience and understand emotions. By the end of the movie, Riley’s struggles help her develop a much more elaborate control board that allows her to experience more subtle and nuanced feelings.
Child development research tells us that as children grow, their emotional lives become richer and more complex. Babies are born with the ability to experience and express the emotions of joy, fear, anger, sadness, surprise, and disgust, but they can’t do much more than cry, squirm, or suck to cope with these emotions.
Toddlers experience a lot of strong emotions—especially frustration when adults thwart them by doing things like washing their faces and buckling them into car seats! Because they have a sense of self, they also begin to experience self-conscious emotions such as pride and embarrassment. There’s no guesswork when it comes to toddlers’ emotions—they’re right out there for all to see. Toddlers can use simple phrases to say what they want, but mostly their coping is physical: grabbing, clinging, cuddling.
The preschool years are the beginning of the unconscious, when kids can push feelings out of awareness. They may project or deny feelings or just regress to more babyish behavior, such as wetting themselves, when they feel overwhelmed. This is also the age when children can begin to have simple conversations about feelings. Being able to “use their words” to ask for what they want or need, makes them less likely to resort to hitting.
By the elementary school years, most children know lots of feeling words, and they can often explain why they’re feeling a particular way. They’re also better at calming themselves by thinking and can do things deliberately to try to feel better. The challenging part of this age for parents is that children become better able to hide how they feel. This helps in social situations—such as when they pretend that they’re not bothered by teasing, or that they’re pleased by the ugly sweater from Grandma—but it sometimes makes it harder for parents to know what’s going on. Friendship issues can bring up a lot of emotions for kids this age.
Emotions in the teen years become even more complicated. Teens are acutely conscious of what others might think of them, which can lead to big swings in their emotions. Hormones and trying to navigate peer groups and romantic interests add additional layers of intensity. The early high school years tend to be a period of intense self-examination as teens try to discover their “real self” and sometimes agonize over contradictions.
As parents, we can play an important role by being loving and present witnesses to our children’s emotions. One of the most moving scenes in the movie is when Sadness simply acknowledges a character’s loss. She says gently, “I’m very sorry that you lost something that you love. That must make you very sad.” By just sitting with the emotion rather than talking over it or trying to distract it away, she allows the character to understand and accept his experience.
Plus one: We can make choices in how we think and act that affect how we feel.
No movie can cover everything we know about emotions. Certainly, there are important feelings that the film doesn’t directly address, such as shame, guilt, love, compassion, and awe. But, as a clinician, I think there’s one very important idea we need to add on top of the lessons of the movie: We can make choices in how we think and act that affect how we feel.
Inside Out focuses on how our emotions affect our thoughts and behavior, but the flip side of that is the key to emotion regulation.
We have choices in how we think about what’s happening around and in us. If we assume, “He did that out of deliberate meanness!” we’re going to feel angrier than if we think “It was an accident. He didn’t mean to do that!” If we tell ourselves “This is the worst thing in the world!” we’re going to feel more upset than if we think, “I don’t like this, but I can handle it. I’ve dealt with hard things before, so I’ll get through this.” If we berate ourselves by thinking, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way!” we add to our suffering more than if we view ourselves with compassion.
We also have choices about how we respond when we feel emotional. One of my main interests is the way people express emotions, because that’s the link between inner experience and the outside world. It matters what emotions we express, how we express them and to whom. It’s generally not a good idea to throw a full-out tantrum, but waiting and talking things over in a calmer moment can help us resolve problems. Grieving alone is agony, but sharing our sadness with someone who cares about us can help us understand our experiences in new ways and bring us needed comfort. We tend to want to show the world only our polished outside, but being able to be open about our vulnerability with trustworthy people is the key to intimacy.
Research tells us that parents who talk about emotions more have kids who understand their own and other people’s emotions better. So, talk about emotions with your child, as they come up in real life or in books, TV shows, or movies. And go see Inside Out. It’s a beautiful and entertaining film that will give you and your kids plenty to talk about and a clever and vivid way to understand emotions.
Have you seen Inside Out ? What did you think of it?
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