A Sideways Look at Inside Out

There are several well written pieces about how Inside Out shows that sadness is a valuable emotion and we don’t have to constantly strive to be happy in order to bottle up other emotions. I’m all for this message as well and like most mental health practitioners I loved the film. I was fortunately able to see the film last month but only now have time to blog about it.

I knew so many folks who walked out of that theater and thought “That’s what it’s like to have a happy childhood.” They loved the film and cried with Riley just like we all did. But they also cried for themselves too because they were reminded of their grief for having never had a loving family.

The illustration of core beliefs as “islands,” that together form Riley’s personality, was fascinating and beautiful. I mean just look at them! Riley’s core beliefs consisted mostly of positive beliefs about her family, that they loved her and supported her, as well as beliefs about her own skills as a hockey player. Riley’s move is incredibly stressful for her and threatens these islands since she feels she is losing everything that weaves her life together.

Look at these beautiful core beliefs! Loving family, great friends, hockey & goofball, respectively. This is an image taken from the movie. Official Movie Page Link

I do not want to minimize the stress that moving can have on someone, especially a child. However, Riley has a loving family and while the move is stressful, she has a lot of resources (her loving parents, her own Joy & Sadness). There are many people who grow up in families that are not loving, may even be neglectful or abusive, or simply have much fewer resources.

This would have been a much different movie if Riley’s parents were abusive or impoverished.

What would that movie have looked like. I work with individuals who have core beliefs about themselves that stem from abusive childhood homes. Unlike Riley’s family island, which was bouncing with joy, their family island is scary, a place they don’t want to go. While Riley often has confidence (that is tested in the movie, but ultimately returns) that things will be okay, she is capable; folks who grow up in abusive homes often have an ingrained beliefs they are broken or psychologically disfigured, bad people who cannot do anything right.

As we see in the film, the islands can change. For Riley, they need to evolve because she’s in a new environment and growing up. She has a strong foundation to build from but some people have to build new islands without this foundation. It’s as daunting as it sounds. Here’s the good news: just as Riley’s islands can change, so can anyone’s. If you notice, Riley’s islands are based on relationships. Even the “hockey” island has moments of her teammates celebrating her and the “goofball” island is based on her jovial relationship with her parents. And if someone has scary islands from an abusive childhood, that’s also based on relationships with parents.

This is where a healing relationship with someone can help. The “I’m broken and can’t do anything, life is awful” islands can be reshaped into places that say “I can do this,” “I’m lovable,” “Life is an adventure!” Therapists are trained to develop healthy relationships with clients and the space that happens between people, that relationship, is how messages get laid down layer upon layer until they form new islands. It doesn’t have to be a therapist, many people have positive relationships with a coach, teacher or church member who helps them hear these positive messages often enough they can build an island.

Inside Out gives therapists another tool

We’ve been given wonderful visuals and language by Inside Out; we now can help clients build more beautiful islands filled with positive core beliefs . Anyone who has seen the movie will understand how core beliefs are created by experiences and relationships with others and we can just use the movie’s visuals as short hand. If you like to incorporate visualizations into your work you can help clients visualize their current islands and what they hope their inner islands look like when therapy is completed. There’s also Headquarters, where all the emotions process events and drive behavior. There was no “rational mind” depicted in the film and for the most part, this is very accurate. Our behavior is far more driven by emotions than reasonable argument. This is another chance to make talking about how emotions influence behavior accessible to clients.

Fear, Sadness, Joy, Disgust and Anger in the control room hilariously called Head Quarters.

Most importantly, if you have scary islands that fill your head with self-talk, you’re not alone. If you feel that your Head Quarters is more often run by Anger, Fear or Sadness instead of those emotions working together with Joy, you are not alone. And you don’t have to face that alone either. If you need help finding a therapist in your area Psychology Today is a great directory that most therapists use.