Inside Out: Exploring Emotions with Pixar

Blog · Jul 16, 2015

Spoiler Alert: This article gives away plot elements of the Pixar movie Inside Out.

I’m sure by now you have heard about, or maybe even seen, the new Pixar movie, Inside Out. The story follows a young girl named Riley as she faces the challenges of a cross-country move with her family. But the real stars of the show are the characters depicting Riley’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Dr. Janina Scarlet, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, writes in Psychology Today that “our emotions are all important, every single one of them. They all serve an important function and we cannot selectively feel some but not others.” And Inside Out brilliantly illustrates this importance.

When Riley has difficulty adjusting to her new home, she tries her best to stay happy. In fact, her mother further insists they both need to stay strong for her father. At the emotion control center in Riley’s brain, Joy is notably the emotion predominantly in control, and she tries to keep Sadness contained. At one point, she draws a circle on the floor in an attempt to keep Sadness from interfering.  However, Dr. Scarlet explains that by numbing sadness “we also numb joy.  We need to openly experience all our emotions, and that includes sadness, as painful as it may be sometimes.”

In the story, this co-numbing effect is illustrated with Joy and Sadness’s expulsion from the control station, leaving only Anger, Fear, and Disgust to man the control panel, while Joy and Sadness both try to find their way back.  On the exterior, we journey with Riley through her attempts to fit in and be happy in her new life.  She sets out to make new friends and join a hockey team, but as the circumstances of her new environment prove overwhelming, we continue to follow Riley as she boards a bus to run away to her old hometown.  On the interior, Joy and Sadness navigate challenges to try to rejoin Riley’s other emotions while coming to realize their joint role in protecting her as they inform her and those around her of what she is feeling.

The film illustrates the effects of emotions that have not been appropriately identified, expressed, and managed, and learning to do so allows us to cue others as to how we are feeling.  Dr. Scarlet writes, for example, sadness can produce physical indicators such as “tears running down our face, the pupil dilation, the non-threatening posture.  These signals help others understand we are in need of help.” When we have this open dialogue, there can be a healthy exchange between our neighbors and us.

In the end, we find the role of Sadness is as equally valuable as the role of Joy, for it is Sadness that allows Riley and her parents to reunite. When Riley shows sadness, her parents are empathetic to her struggles. Dr. Scarlet writes when “we stay with this individual and share our emotions together, the resonating effect can produce a healing experience.”Through appropriately identified, managed, and expressed emotions, we can understand and be understood, ultimately allowing us the opportunity to bond in meaningful relationships.

Social Emotional Learning

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