“Inside Out” and an Emotionally Balanced Diet

Learning about your brain is fun. It’s even more fun when it’s a Disney Pixar movie that tidily sums it up using coloured marbles to categorize your short and long-term memories, and ‘islands’ to explain the major areas of your life. If that doesn’t make sense, then you’ll have to watch the movie, which I highly recommend.

Joy and Sadness lost in "long-term memory". Each memory is depicted by individual balls.

Joy and Sadness lost in “long-term memory”. Each memory is depicted by individual balls.

Inside Out follows an 11 year old girl named Riley as she moves with her mom and dad from the mid-west to San Francisco. In the process, she loses her best friend, her hockey team, literally all her possessions as the moving van goes missing, and her parents attention. Her dad is now too busy with his new job, and her mom is busy trying to set up the house and track down their possessions.

I loved Inside Out for its ability to graphically depict mind functions (like why we dream, and short and long-term memory), but the major theme is understanding emotions. Yes, Inside Out is targeted to kids, but it has lots for adults to chew on too.

Human emotions are like the various tastes we can sense in our mouth: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory. Likewise, we all have five major emotional centres, that perform specific functions:

  • Fear alerts us to potential dangers and allows us to decide how to proceed.
  • Anger allows us to protect our boundaries and moves us to rectify an unpleasant situation.
  • Worry allows us to work through our problems and find appropriate solutions.
  • Grief lets us say goodbye to our lost loved ones so we can one day remember them fondly.
  • Happiness lets us be grateful for who and what we have in our life.

When eating, we need all five tastes for a robust gustatory experience. If we only focused on Sweet flavours, then our diet would be artificially limited and our nutritional requirements would not be met.

Same with emotions. I’ve found that our society only wants to consume happy emotions. Yes, happy feels wonderful, and really, who doesn’t want to be happy? But who doesn’t like ice cream either? Or cookies, and chocolate, and blueberry pie?

An emotional diet of only happiness is like a diet of only sweets.

Joy working the Control Panel. The other emotions can look, but not touch.

Joy working the emotional response Control Panel. The other emotions can look, but not touch.

In the Inside Out movie, the young girl Riley has an emotional ‘control panel’ that allows her to react appropriately to her environment. While Riley has all five emotions, “Joy” dominates the control panel and only lets the other emotions touch the control panel for a very limited and specific time. Usually just long enough to get Riley back to happy.

Riley's mom's Control Panel shows all five emotions working together.

Riley’s mom’s Control Panel shows all five emotions working together.

When the adults’ Control Panels are shown, all five emotions are seated at the table and discussion takes place before an appropriate emotional reaction is selected. What I like about this, is it shows that all five major emotions are all valid AND necessary.

While the movie assumes that all adults are highly functioning and emotionally well-rounded, I’ll take a wager that many adults really act like the child Riley, and only let their “Joy” emotion play on the emotional control panel.

What happened to Worry and Disgust?

You’ll notice that my list of five emotions is different from the movie. Here’s why:

Worry is missing from the movie, but the emotion is aptly displayed by Joy, who constantly worries when Riley is not happy. Joy then seeks out several solutions to get her happy again (which is exactly how worry works).

While teenagers might feel that Disgust is a perfectly valid reaction to just about anything mom or dad might say, it’s not really considered a “main” emotion, as least not in the world of healing. It is possible to feel disgust or contempt (a mild form of hate) for someone or something. Hate (using the broad category) is a state of consciousness, but not necessarily an emotion that we routinely use or need. Granted, there are some hateful people, but they are more likely angry, and choose to express it negatively as hate, instead of positively by moving forward.

The Search for Happiness

What I’ve noticed with some adults, and with some aspects of the self-help and healing industries, is that everyone wants to focus on being happy. They literally act like the other emotions don’t exist, and if they do, you need to ignore or distract yourself from these other emotions. If you are not living in happiness all the time, then the implication is that you’ve somehow failed.

There is also the belief that by simply trying to be happy all the time, that you’ll eventually get there.

It is actually by acknowledging and working with the other four emotions as they come up, that one can then find their way to happiness. By meeting an emotion (any emotion!) with an openness to discover where it’s coming from and why, then you can effectively move through or with the emotion. Once done, it’s then possible to return to what I’ll call homeostasis – a state of calm, smooth emotional functioning without blasts of fury, gripped by fear, crashes of grief, or manic highs.

In the movie, our young Riley is normally very happy, but she is quite sad after the move. Her mom is encouraging her to “remain ‘happy” as it helps out the family during this stressful time. As Riley denies her true feelings, she slips deeper and deeper into grief over her losses, and then starts to feel that her options are very limited. At one point, Riley shuts down emotionally.

When her family finally realizes just how sad Riley is, they allow her the space to express her true emotions. As Riley grieves, all her happy memories from her home in the mid-west turn from Happy to Sad. Unfortunately, what the movie does not show, is that after time, when Riley has fully grieved the loss of her childhood home, those memories will come back to her as being a joyous time.

To have an emotionally balanced diet, it’s not only necessary to be aware of all your emotional states, but to recognize when you are in one of them. From there, it’s a short hop to discovering what you need in order to satisfy that emotional state.

Joy (and worry, and anger, and grief and fear) to you!

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Posted in Emotions
2 comments on ““Inside Out” and an Emotionally Balanced Diet
  1. Sarie Hobbs says:

    Wonderfully written, Alisen!!

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