Dr. Fran Walfish — Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and costar on We TV's Sex Box — takes a look deeper in Pixar's Inside Out. Find out why she believes Inside Out is also relatable for adults on psychological as well as emotional levels.
It comes as no surprise to me that Disney/Pixar's Inside Out debut broke ticket sale records. This film is relatable not only to children but also to adults. As a psychotherapist I spend a great deal of therapy hours helping patients identify their feelings moment-to-moment. Living in these fast-paced times cluttered with super-speed electronic gadgets and overloaded schedules, people have become conditioned to avoid checking in with themselves emotionally. This neglect, or avoidance, can cause a buildup of unwanted, unpleasant feelings that may reach a boiling point and emerge unexpectedly prompting the person to land on my therapy couch. Often, the initial phase of therapy is learning how to gauge one's own emotions.
I read a review of Inside Out by Kenneth Turan in the L.A. Times that said the director and co-screenwriters of this film "consulted closely with serious scientists, some of whom claimed humans have to deal with up to 27 different emotions. The five that made most lists were selected." In fact, there are many more than 27 different emotions. I imagine that the filmmakers chose to narrow the focus on five primary emotions for the sake of clarity and avoiding the complexity of confusing their young target audience. There is a common belief among clinicians that there are four basic emotions: happy (joy), anger, sad, and fear. There is discrepancy among professionals about which is the fifth emotion. Some identify it as love while others say it is shame or guilt. Here, in Inside Out, the fifth emotion is identified as disgust. This is very relatable, and perhaps the fifth given the increase in incidences of child and adolescent targeted bullying. People have different default emotions. Infants are born with a natural propensity for joy. We come in with a clean slate of goodness and joy. In other words, anger is not an innate character trait. It is a reaction to an environmental stimulus or issue. Even when a baby is difficult to soothe it's default emotion is joy. But, things can change. When a person has endured a hard life he can become a hard person. His default emotion may become anger. An example may be kids who are consistently mistreated and abused. Their default emotion may become anger or sadness. When apathy is at the control center is does not mean there is a void of emotion. The undercurrent of apathy is depression or sadness.
The ability to hold complex mixed emotions is vital to a healthy psychological development. A perfect example is that of a child graduating preschool and preparing to transition into Kindergarten. It is natural and normal for the youngster to experience sadness when saying goodbye to her beloved friends and teachers while, at the same time, feeling joy and excitement about beginning a new school and the prospect of meeting new friends. These two opposite feelings joy and sadness must be contained at the same time within the child. It is considered psychological pathology when a child or adult can only hold good or bad emotion at one time. (This is one of the diagnostic traits of the Borderline Personality Disorder.) Containing both good and bad together is viewed as healthy. An example is that there are people we love who can illicit powerful anger in us. It is possible to love and hate one person (a spouse, parent, child, employer, or friend).
I can only assume that the filmmakers needed to simplify an extremely complex explanation for teen angst and mood swings. For instance, there are strong hormonal influences operating during adolescence that have a definite effect on teen's angst and mood swings. Also, the psychological goal of adolescence parallels that of the toddler phase of development. During toddlerhood, the youngster must claim himself as a separate being from Mommy and Daddy. He does this by saying "No", having normal temper tantrums, and not always complying with commands and directives. Things settle down from ages 7-12 years (Latency Phase) when kids go underground with their emotions, defenses are taking form gelling into placing, and it takes more effort to verbally tap what your child is genuinely feeling. Then, things rev up again during adolescence in order for the teen to come out at age 18 resolved about the Separation Process. This means opposition and defiance, angst, and moodiness increase as the teen is developing his own ideas and opinions about relationships, religion, love, people, politics, money, ethics, morals, and character. In the film, when joy and sadness accidentally get locked out of the control center, and fear, anger, and disgust are fighting more often this could be an example of kids obsessively worrying about how their perceived by others and their extreme sensitivity during adolescence to feeling judged.
Traumas or life events like moving can actually require more time to identify mixed emotions and process the experience and store a memory. That is accurate. We, as adults, experience this all the time. When you have a fight with you partner/spouse or your employer chooses your rival for the job promotion over you, it may take hours to days to fully figure out how you feel. Sometimes, we must go through a myriad of emotions until we process the entire experience and land in a place of resolution where we store the memory in the positive or negative category. The brain and how it works collaboratively with emotion is an extremely complicated and exquisitely delicate process to awe and respect.
My greatest hope for viewers is to take away the powerful importance of emotion and the dance feelings do with cognitive intellect. Parents today place such a strong emphasis and high expectation on academic achievement, grade performance, IQ, and the pedigree school/university their kids go to, that they neglect to pay attention to feelings. We are living in a generation of kids and adolescence with sleep and anxiety disorders. I can assure parents that when they address their child's emotions with empathy, the child's anxiety is replaced with soothing calm and comfort. My wish is for Inside Out to be the template for more positive take away to educate hungry children, adults, and parents in America and the world over.