The recent Disney/Pixar movie, Inside Out, is surprisingly accurate in its representation of emotions and cognition. The movie’s clever depiction of the function of emotions gives us a great deal to think about. The five emotions personified in the movie are joy, sadness, disgust, anger, and fear, each of which serves different functions for Riley, the child in which they dwell. Joy works hard to keep everything running smoothly, and believes Riley’s well-being relies on her experiencing as little sadness as possible. Throughout the movie, she desperately tries to keep Riley and her memories happy, even resorting to trying to neutralize Sadness by penning her in a chalk-drawn circle or by engaging her in the task of reading all of the “memory storage” manuals.
A pivotal moment for Joy’s understanding of the interplay of emotions occurs when Riley’s imaginary friend becomes sad and tearful. Joy tries to distract and redirect him so as not to be sidetracked by his emotional reaction. But Sadness takes time, directly addresses what is upsetting him, acknowledges how sad he must feel, and listens to his grief. She gently and honestly talks with him. Joy is frustrated at the stalling of their forward progress and fears that Sadness is making it worse for him. After he cries wrapped-candy tears, he wipes his eyes, stands up, and says he’s okay now. Joy is completely mystified by this transformation and begins to see some value in Sadness.
There is a beautiful parallel in this scene with people healing from painful experiences. People need to be heard, to be understood, to be comforted. Our natural inclination is to pass over their emotions. We want to avoid feeling difficult emotions in ourselves or with others, and we fear that we won’t know how to help. Our discomfort leads to treating people in ways that lead to them feeling neglected, judged, or shamed.
Instead, we can do what Sadness did. We can be bold but gentle and speak directly to our friend about what he’s feeling. We can listen, echo his feelings, and just be present. We don’t need to fix or change our friend or her emotions. We don’t need to stop her sadness or make her happy. We just need to be an ally through the tough moments, and over time, these moments lead to healing. There is value in sadness and healing in tears.