I recently saw Pixar’s latest film, ‘Inside Out’. A friend of mine told me it was a ‘tough watch’ for someone with emotional problems – that’s me – so I went prepared with lots of tissues and the hope that I might learn a thing or two not just about how to talk to my kids about their emotions, but about how to manage my own.
I wasn’t disappointed. The film is about a young girl, Riley, who moves across America for her father’s work, leaving her friends and hobbies behind. The film’s protagonists are Riley’s emotions – Joy (Gold), Sadness (Blue), Anger (Red), Fear (Purple) and Disgust (Green). Riley’s memories are shown as coloured balls (the colour representing the emotion associated with them), and the key aspects of her personality are moulded by ‘core memories’ of special life events. It’s a film that appeals as much to adults as to children, and it hit home for me in a number of ways.
Soon after Riley moves across country, Joy decides to marginalise Sadness in order to protect Riley from her. She is motivated by wanting to please Riley’s mother, who tells Riley it will be easier for her father if they can both appear happy. I winced in my seat – because who hasn’t said something similar to their own children on occasion? I know I have. And yet what is the hidden message we may inadvertently give our children, when we ask them to ‘pretend’ in that way? “Your emotions are not as important as those of someone else; you are responsible for someone else’s happiness”. I believe strongly in ‘good-enough’ parenting, and that there is far too much unnecessary parental guilt around – I do not want to add to it. Children are resilient, parental bonds are strong; we build and rebuild our relationships with our children every day. But for me, that scene was a lesson in remembering to always allow our children to be children, however difficult that may be for us.
Emotionally developed adults have a sense of self-worth which enables them to validate their own emotions and to self-soothe, which means that sometimes they can ‘hide’ their emotions for a time, for the benefit of another. But children do not yet have that capacity – they are still learning who they are, and how much they are worth. We cannot, as Riley’s mother did, try and make them our emotional allies, however well-intentioned we might be. Our kids’ emotions might feel threatening to us (particularly if we feel unhappy or stressed) – but that is our burden to bear. We need to open our arms to their emotions, so that one day, they can do the very same thing for themselves, and then also for others.
Perhaps because it deals with emotions and one’s ‘inner world’ the film has sometimes been portrayed as being about mental illness. However, my own view is that ‘Inside Out’ is not about mental illness – it is about mental wellness, and the role our emotions play in that. This is not to deny that it may speak powerfully to those who have depression, bipolar, or another mental health condition (in my own case, borderline personality disorder). It’s not even to deny that Riley herself shows signs of slipping into depression as the film goes on (feeling numb, becoming a ‘different person’). But to see the film as being specifically about mental illness, risks pathologizing key life experiences and emotions that we will all end up dealing with. A significant minority of the population struggles with mental illness – but we all have mental health, and mental well-being is fundamental to every one of us.
My own mental well-being is affected frequently by the pain that accompanies the joy of my children’s ‘milestone moments’. As any parent will know, these moments have a habit of reminding us that our ‘little people’ will not be little for very long. The question I ask myself repeatedly, is: “how can I fix this, so that my experience of joy is unsullied?”. And so for me, what I see as the key message of ‘Inside Out’, could be life-changing.
And the message is this: that there is no joy without sadness, and accepting that leads to freedom to be ourselves, and ultimately to greater fulfilment. Many of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid difficult or unpleasant emotions, and the attitude that sadness is an undesirable state of being, even ‘wrong’, permeates the very air we breathe. It’s certainly one that I grew up with. And so many of us invest a great deal of energy in trying to pretend we are okay when we are not – both to protect others and ourselves. But it is precisely that effort and the lack of coherence between what we appear to be, and what we really are, that leads, as in Riley’s case, to a deterioration in mental well-being.
You will hear many parents say that all they want for their children is that they are happy. But I think the triumphal point of the film was when Riley generated a core memory that was both gold and blue – a mixture of joy and sadness. The moment when she integrated those experiences and, on some level, recognised both as a fundamental part of herself. Both joy and sadness had made her who she was – and she was so much the richer for it. This film has shown me that when I experience joy tinged with sadness my question should not be ‘how can I fix this’, but ‘how can I accept this’.
I do not wish sadness on my children – but I know that it will be always be a part of their lives. My wish for them is that they can accept it, feel it, make it a part of themselves, and allow it to help them grow – into the most authentic version of themselves that they can be.