A few takeaways from Pixar’s Inside Out

Went to go see Pixar’s latest film Inside Out on Father’s Day with the family.
It was a lot of fun and a refreshingly insightful look at emotions, memories and childhood.
I think, even more than Toy Story 3, this movie was as much for grown ups and parents to look back and learn from childhood as it is a movie for kids. 
This fascinating interview on NPR with the director Pete Doctor highlights a bit of the creative process and research Pixar had to do to make Inside Out.
Here are a few takeaways from the movie that I thought stood out, that can apply to counseling and makes it appealing to so many people.
Spoiler alert: this blog contains scenes and plot elements from the movie, if you haven’t seen the film yet I suggest you save reading this for later. 
(If you are in the Portland area you can see it for $7 in 3D at Milwaukie Wunderland.)
First, emotions are important.
It’s interesting how the film depicts life as an interplay between five primary emotions: Joy, Fear, disgust, Anger and Sadness in 11 year old Riley’s mind.
Basically, emotions are in charge.
They literally are the running the show at headquarters. 
I often talk with clients, whether it’s about mood disorders, stress or addiction, that our emotions often override our best thinking or intentions. 
Sometimes, our emotions get the better of us and we can make bad decisions because of them but I like that this movie is giving people, parents and kids the opportunity to talk about their emotions and what is going on inside their minds and hearts.

Transitions are hard
Transitions are hard for kids and adults.
It’s important to be attentive to kids when making a significant change like moving to a new city, moving away from friends.
Even kids who are for the most part positive, confident and happy can struggle with the new and unfamiliar.
The introduction of loss and sadness in their story can be confusing, stressful and even begin to refine them, especially during the pre-teen or teenage years.
I think a lot of folks who struggle with anxiety or depression can look back and identify a precipitating event (or more) that began a struggle with life and their emotions.
I would not be surprised if this movie inspired people to start counseling or take a deeper look at their lives and childhood.

Emotions impact memories
Emotions impact the way we think, the way we filter our thoughts and memories; in the film, emotions literally “touch” and “color” memories.
In the film, memories create little globes. The memories are brought to consciousness, projected onto a screen.
The emotion experienced from the memory depends on which emotion or color is associated with the memory.
A memory that is Joyful (yellow) can turn Sad (blue) is Sadness is allowed to touch it.
Emotions affect clear communication

One of the funniest parts of the film is when Riley is talking with her parents a dinner. It was a great look at how emotions and self-talk interfere with communication between parents and kids. I won’t say too much here other than I loved it and how they visualized I and Riley’s dads reaction to her emotions flaring up is all too true to life. A great scene to use in counseling for sure.

Joy can be annoying sometimes
Her endless positivity and energy could get on the other emotions’ nerves at times. 
When she was able to work with Sadness and Bing Boing and overcome the challenges they faced,  she grew in depth. She wasn’t just a caricature. 
Joy meant even more having gone through her journey and allowing Sadness her place in the story.
We have key elements of our personality and identity
Riley had Five Islands of Personality. These were five key elements that made her who she is, uniquely here: Family, Honesty, Hockey, Friendship and Goofball. I liked how as she grows up her personality islands expand and develop. This element reminded me of some concepts from Adlerian psychology. She experiences security and her sense of self from these important elements. Goofball and honesty are personality or character traits, the other elements could also be considered core values or elements of identity. Family, friendship and even hockey, were a place where she felt connected.  
Each day, our small moments add up. We are making memories.
The depiction of short-term memories going into long-term memory storage.
This reminded me of John Gottman’s work with couples and the principle of a 5-to-1 positive-to-negative ratio of interactions being a hallmark of a healthy relationship.  
The image of the days’ memory balls going to long-term storage is a great illustration  of how the dozens of brief memories and experiences of the day can add up to a day being colored or remembered as primarily or predominantly one emotion or another. 
The idea of Core Memories
Not only are there globes of short-term and long-term memories, she also has core memories, and handful of vital, meaningful, formative memories.
One thing that fascinated me was one of her core memories was a Joyful memory but it was from a day she missed a shot in a hockey game that could have won the game.
When the clip of her memory played, it showed her sitting sad, alone on a tree branch.  However, It ended up being a joyful memory because her parents came to console her and eventually her teammates too. The vignette ends focused on her happy with her teammates as they lift her on their shoulders and throw her in the air. 
If you just looked at that part of the memory, it looks like they are celebrating winning the game.
It highlights the principles that often what we focus on is what we end up feeling and that what we take away from an experience often becomes the most true part or powerful memory we remember or experience.
A quibble I had with the movie
Fear was played for laughs. And he was entertaining. But as my son noted, fear wasn’t very deep. They had “cartoon” fear, but not “real” fear…Fear is serious.” I agree, fear and anxiety can be terrifying. 
Riley did end up having to overcome frightening things and demonstrate courage and character but  depicting Fear as silly makes it to easy to dismiss him and set him aside. It would have been nice to give Fear a little more edge and depth to show the power fear often has in the lives of many people.
Having emotions is better than losing them
The scariest thing about the movie wasn’t the emotion or even the creepy clown in nightmares.
Anger or sadness weren’t the biggest problem.
There is a moment when she is on a bus where she’s on the verge of losing her emotions, her ability to feel, for me, that as the scariest, saddest, part of the movie.
The time where Joy is almost lost forever in the Dump of Riley’s mind also highlights this. 
They don’t expressly name it hope or faith but the movie demonstrates the sadness of when people lose their hope or faith in life, in themselves or even in relationship with others – it’s like a part of them dies and they cease to live fully.
Sadness is a connecting emotion
This idea from the interview with Pete Doctor, one of the researchers they studied emphasized sadness as a community building emotion.
Sadness helps us express and experience empathy, compassion and connection with others.
I think that is one reason why Inside Out and other Pixar movies like Toy Story or UP or even the shorts like Lava, resonate so much with us, is that when we share on social media that these films move us, to tears, and others share that they did too, it connects us by a shared emotional response. 
We have a shared emotional experience, we share those same feelings of Joy and Sadness as we watch, as we reflect on the movie and also as we remember our childhoods.
Coming to terms withour emotions helps us grow up

One of my favorite images of the movie was toward the end when the memory  globes are no longer just one color but a blend of a few colors/emotions, both Joy and Sadness. This seemed to be so true to life. And a more mature understanding of what we experience from our childhood memories as we get older.  As someone who loves to help folks understand, explore and resolve the ambivalence, the mixed thoughts and feelings, they have about life I thought this was a great illustration. 

There’s so much more to the movie to glean, my son said “this movie has layers!” and it’s been fun to think and reflect on it.  I’ll want to watch again. 
This blog was inspired by conversations with the family and by the Helpful Counselor, a school counselor who made a more comprehensive list of 20+ themes that you might enjoy reading and engaging with too.
What parts were meaningful or stood out for you?
What childhood memories did it bring to mind?
If you are a counselor or in counseling, what parts of the movie might you use in your work?

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Licensed professional counselor and health coach in Portland, OR Pre-marital and couples counseling. Individual counseling for anxiety, depression, insomnia, sleep disorders, sexual addiction, porn addiction, career, transitions, grief, burnout, personal growth.

5 thoughts on “A few takeaways from Pixar’s Inside Out”

  1. Awesome review of the movie and explanation of the emotions! I’ve been giving this movie as homework for clients to help understand emotions, I love how they organized it.m

    1. Thanks Jill. I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD. I like to use films in counseling, this one applies to so many different situations.

  2. Great article. It touches on what I was thinking and feeling after the movie. I’m 6 months pregnant, so I’m a little more emotional than normal, but I cried like a baby when Bing Boing allowed himself to be forgotten to save Riley’s “Joy”. A lot of different childhood memories came up for me during the movie, but the one that stood out the most was a time of transition for me when I would listen to Amy Grant “Oh How the Years Go By” over and over again. The cassette it was on “House of Love” came out in 1994 when I was 11, so it was probably when I was a preteen too. Lol.

    1. How sweet Jenn, what a poignant memory! I think the movie evokes both the happy carefree times of childhood and also those times of transition and growing up when life started to get harder. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope you are too hot and uncomfortable where you are.

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