Friday, 25 August 2017

Coping with Adversity from "Inside Out"

Pixar film offers fun, valuable insights into maintaining emotional well-being.

The brilliant Disney/Pixar film, Inside Outhas taken the country by storm.

How is it possible that a cartoon about emotions could become so popular?

It succeeds because it reaches out and touches us, from the outside in. It plumbs the depths of our own human experience. And it’s a rich emotional rollercoaster, at turns hilarious, poignant, suspenseful, fascinating, and heartfelt.

It’s also like attending a 102-minute therapy session, the way it shines a light on the inner workings of our brains and our emotional lives and why we struggle at times. It demonstrates clearly and accurately how memories are formed and managed, how personality develops, and most of all, how our emotions drive our behavior, decisions, and our interpretations of reality. (For a swell overview, see the film's trailer here.) Most powerfully, its metaphor of Emotions at Your Central Control Paneloffers up a useful way to reflect on our own feelings and how they can push us to react, sometimes to our disadvantage.

The film begins with the main characters, 11-year-old Riley and her parents, living happily and quietly in Minnesota. But then Dad gets a new job in San Francisco and we witness their struggles to adjust to this big move. With humor and an accurate understanding of our emotional brain, the film spends most of its time in Riley’s head, showing us how Joy tries to stifle Sadness, but the result is that they both get lost, leaving Anger, Disgust, and Fear at the controls, whereupon chaos reigns.

This simple story line will captivate young viewers, and the profound emotional insights will captivate grown-ups.

Listed below are just some of the film's insights, all of which can enhance your own emotional intelligence and spark meaningful conversations with others, including the children.

Insight #1: Joy mustn’t stifle Sadness.

Joy stifling Sadness is a very common condition. We are taught, “don’t cry over spilt milk” and “count your blessings”. We routinely try to get others to look on the bright side, in misguided attempts to help them avoid feeling the pain of sadness. While finding the silver lining is a hallmark of resilience, this film clearly demonstrates that the way you get there is to first allow Sadness to flow through you.

Insight #2: Without Sadness, there is no Joy.

When Joy stifles Sadness, they both get lost. This central storyline is an ingenious demonstration of how and why people who suppress their grief also lose their capacity for joy. Indeed, the more Joy tries to stifle Sadness, the more manic, obnoxious, and lost Joy gets. And the more stifled Sadness gets, the more destructive and pervasive it becomes, leading to core personality breakdown and melancholy.

Insight #3: Sadness plays an important role in adjustment to loss.

Riley is naturally saddened by the move away from her old house, friends, and activities. Riley’s parents are struggling too, but like most of us, they place a premium on being happy, latching onto the idea that Joy is what leads to adjustment and there is no room for Sadness. So they tell Riley to just smile and be happy. But Joy can only prevail when there is nothing to be sad about. Later, after Joy and Sadness get lost, there is a poignant scene where Joy watches Sadness expertly empathize with an Imaginary Friend who is feeling bereft. Sinking into sadness and letting it flow is what frees this character to move forward with a brighter outlook. In other words, when Sadness is called for, let it flow so Sadness can contribute to your resilience instead of becoming destructive.

Insight # 4: Make room for all your feelings, as they are all important.

Too often we value certain feelings over others. But all your feelings help you authentically handle a variety of situations and realize your needs, wants, and values. For example, Anger helps you get mad and stand up for yourself if you’re being mistreated. Disgust helps you be discerning and reach for what’s right for you. Fear helps you be scared and flee/fight/freeze if you’re in danger. And of course, Sadness helps you feel bereft if you’ve lost something dear to you and Joy helps you feel gratitude and seek contentment where you can find it.

But if you don’t make room for certain feelings, others become magnified, leading to dysfunction at the Central Control Panel. For instance, after Joy and Sadness get lost, Riley can only operate out of Anger, Fear, and Disgust, with disastrous (and sometimes funny) results. It’s only when Riley is able to express Sadness that she eventually also regains Joy and balance is restored in how she responds to life. This emotional flow and balance is what helps any of us recover our sense of well-being.

Insight #5: Anger is easily triggered when we are stressed.

There is a priceless scene at the dinner table, where Riley and her parents, all stressed out, start bickering. For all three of them, Anger is seated at the controls, just waiting to feel justified in launching an attack, and the result is breathtaking hilarious. And sotrue. After all, when we are stressed and irritable, we are easily triggered into throwing darts. That’s why it’s often smart to back off when you know you-- or the person you’re interacting with-- has had a hard day, or is hungry, unwell, or sleep deprived.

Insight #6: Anger can be a cover for Fear.

Often, just before Anger takes over, Fear is the first to be triggered, only to be pushed aside by Anger.

For instance, when Riley tries out for the new hockey team, she naturally worries that she won’t be good enough to make the cut. But her mother encourages her to push aside her fears without airing them. So after she makes a mistake on the ice, we see Anger pushing Fear aside and taking over the controls. The result is that Riley storms off, saboutaging her chances of making the team.

Replacing Fear with Anger is so common that you can easily witness it in yourself and others. For instance, we may get mad at our kids when they don’t do as we say, but it’s a cover for our deep-seated and often irrational fears that they’ll forever fight sleep, be messy, and roll their eyes at us—and no doubt, they’ll still be in diapers at their senior proms. So the next time you feel Anger bubbling up, listen to Fear so you can tend to what’s really bothering you. 

Insight #7: Disgust is exhausting.

Make sure you sit through the credits at the end of the film, because you'll get a look inside many of the other characters, including the lead “mean girl” at Riley’s new school. Inside her head, you’ll see that Disgust rules, and it’s ever so tiring. Used appropriately (and sparingly), Disgust can help us steer clear of putting something icky in our mouths or making bad fashion choices. But when it’s the default response toward everyone and everything, we become judgmental, cold, and mean. And that’s exhausting.

Insight #8: Question the emotional rules you live by.

Besides offering a powerful demonstration of the interplay of emotions and how each emotion has value, this film gives you a way to question the rules you adhere to. For Riley, the rule was “Be Happy.” So Joy ruled, tinging Riley's perceptions and memories, and leaving little room for the other emotions, even when the situation called for them to be relevant. As a result, the Central Control Panel wasn’t well staffed, and Riley lost control when met with adversity.

So the next time you feel yourself “losing control”, it might help to pause and become an observer of your Emotions and your Central Control Panel. Who’s got their hands on the lever? Who’s coloring your perception and memories? Who’s not allowed to have a say? How can you find a good balance, giving each of your feelings room to contribute to your emotional life, your assessment of situations, and your responses?

In my opinion, this film should be required viewing for everyone. It might as well be titled Your Owner’s Manual for the Human Brain. Chapter 5: Instructions for Coping with Adversity.


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