“Inside Out”: 5 Important Take Away Messages for Navigating the World of Emotion

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I first saw a preview for the Disney/Pixar film “Inside Out” at a therapist’s training, no doubt! Immediately excited by the concept of a film that attempts to explain the function of emotions, I couldn’t wait to get to the theater. Anticipation was high, and the film delivered! Not all the metaphors are precisely accurate from a purely neuropsychological frame, but for a family film, they did an excellent job. The creative team beautifully executed the personification of brain and personality function in the mind of 11-year-old girl, Riley, as she negotiates the major life change of moving to a new city far from home. From this narrative, the main characters of her emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear take the audience on a wildly informative and entertaining ride.

There are so many things I could say about this film, and have ad nauseam to my sweet patient husband! For today’s blog post, however, I’m going to keep it simple. Here are 5 important take-away messages from “Inside Out” to help you better navigate the world of emotion.

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  1. We have all our emotions for a reason, including “negative” emotions
    A major theme of “Inside Out” is the battle between the main characters, Riley’s emotions of Joy and Sadness. As Riley traverses the huge adjustment of moving across the country, time and again Sadness bellows out in complaint and Joy attempts to contain this truth. However, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that Sadness has a critical role to play in Riley’s processing of change and ultimate self-preservation. Without Sadness, necessary grief and healing connection aren’t possible. This is true for the necessity of all our emotions, including emotions beyond the scope of this film.
  2. Emotional experiences are often complex
    We often try to squeeze our emotions into neat definitions as a way to understand what is actually a very complex experience! “Inside Out” shows us that we can actually feel many emotions, even seemingly opposing emotions, at the exact same time. Riley learns she can be sad about missing her old life while also feeling happy that her parents are offering her comfort. Acknowledgement and synthesis of complex emotional experiences creates a rich and meaningful life.
  3. Emotions can influence our interpretations, memories, and personality traits
    Emotions protect us in many ways – joy helps us continue to engage in life-affirming behaviors, fear keeps us from threats of harm, sadness can draw important comfort to us, and on and on. But emotions are not unilateral facts. They do, however, have a powerful ability to color the facts of life to their hue. This happens not just in depressing times, but in healthy times, too, with a cascade of influence from how we interpret our world, to how we code and recode memory, and even to our personalities as they develop and change over time. It’s extremely important to honor the internal experience of our emotional truths while also appreciating the limits of emotion to fully ascertain external truth.
  4. Emotional validation is not only empowering, it’s essential
    In the film, Riley’s well-meaning parents ask her to show her happy face during the stressful time of the move. Unbeknownst to them, however, their lack of empathic attunement to her understandable fear and sadness made it much more difficult for her to process her loss and adjust to her new life. As children, we largely rely on others to validate our experiences and make them real for us. As adults, we can provide some validation for ourselves, but never cease to need others in this way. Showing up for ourselves and others to say, “What I’m/you’re feeling makes sense” is an essential part of integrating and healing from our experiences.
  5. Connection with others is how we heal and thrive
    Self-validation is a good start. Additional coping tools such as mindfulness, exercise, and creative expression (to name a few) are also incredibly helpful in creating an adaptive life that doesn’t veer off track at the least little bump in the road. But even with all of this, it is through connection with others that we experience our richest meaning and our deepest healing. Reaching out in a moment of anguish or need and having someone reach back is the exact medicine the moment calls for. As social creatures we simply do not know how to heal our wounds or build vital lives without authentic connection with others.

If you are confused about your emotional experiences, wonder if emotion has created unhelpful narratives about your life, or struggle with engaging in healing connection with others, a therapist may be helpful in guiding you to a more contented and meaningful life.

Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, GA. She specializes in providing Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) in helping couples create and enjoy lasting love and affection in their relationships as well as helping women create deeply meaningful lives. All written content owned by Amanda Carver.

Shining the Light on Sneaky Emotions, Part 1: Anger as a Rowdy Ruse

We’ve all been there – the experience where irritation or rage rolls over us and we’re not exactly sure where the thunder came from. “What the #$*@ were you thinking!” “I need to speak to your manager!” “Stop jumping on the couch!”

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Emotions have this way of converting quickly into a message that is more familiar or less disempowering. Emotions even have a way of converting into physical symptoms that may seem much easier to nurture than the confusion of the mind and heart. In psychology we call the former experience a shift from primary to secondary emotions and the latter experience psychosomatic symptoms.

A primary emotion is the initial feeling – primal in nature – that arises in a given situation to communicate something important to us. A secondary emotion is what comes next, either in response to the first emotion or due to the complexity of the emotional experience (i.e.: feeling several emotions at once – very common!). Psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that arise in response to an emotional trigger. The energy of the emotion is converted, so to speak, into headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, or other physical ailments. What’s interesting about secondary emotions and psychosomatic symptoms is that they almost always happen undetected by our conscious experience. This can lead us down dangerously unhelpful paths and often perpetuate a feel-bad cycle. Sneaky, right?

For the next few posts, I’ll highlight some of the most common sneaky emotional experiences as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on and increase your chances of aligning with your authentic experience, solving the problem, and feeling better.

The Collateral Damage of Turing Every Emotion Into Anger

Sadness, anxiety, and shame are extremely uncomfortable and potentially disempowering emotions. As you can imagine, they easily intertwine and are difficult to tolerate, generating an innate desire to hide or retreat and lick our wounds. Due to this, many people swiftly convert these emotions into anger.

You’ve seen this before – an executive loses a promising promotion and becomes irate about a parking ticket that normally wouldn’t have phased her; a parent preoccupied by his own father’s pending heart surgery snaps at his children to stop being so silly; or a partner initiates sexual intimacy and upon being turned down, nastily retorts about the other person’s libido or physical appeal. You’ve seen this during all the squabbling over funeral arrangements, and you’ve certainly seen this in your own or others’ divorces. The sadness, anxiety, and potential shame of these situations convert to anger because anger feels more powerful. It’s as if we suck the energy of our primary emotions out of our personal awareness into a ball of anger to lob at the nearest target we think we can hit – deserved or not. “Get that emotion out of me!” we say with our angry actions.

Although there are certainly ways we consciously harness anger for meaningful change, most often the unconscious conversion to anger is ineffective. You’ve missed out on the important communication your primary emotion was attempting to share with you and are likely focused on the wrong thing, making the situation much worse. In addition to whatever triggered your primary emotion, now you’re also angry – potentially about minor things. And now you’re lashing out at others – potentially others you care about. How hard is it to get the comfort or reassurance that may ease your original concern if you’re busy pointing fingers or yelling at the very people most likely to provide that support? In addition, the ball of anger is now being passed among you and your colleagues, family, or community in a “hot potato” of continuing disconnection.

Next time you find yourself irritably taking your bluer emotions out on others:
1. STOP!
2. Take a very deep breath and a quick moment to check in about what could be really going on. Try to name it – both the trigger and your emotion(s).
3. Consider steps for problem solving or healing that are more fitting to the emotion or situation at hand.

Remember that in addition to the action steps you may take to alleviate your discomfort, sadness also demands comfort while anxiety and shame often seek reassurance. Soothing your original hurts will do wonders for your mood, not to mention how shared vulnerability with our loved ones strengthens those important bonds. Even if you still slide into or decide on anger as a way to cope, this check-in with your truer self will help you harness your anger in more beneficial ways.

Don’t expect this to come easy at first! It will take practice – but the practice is worth learning how to choose the most appropriate salve for your wounds such that you can actually heal them.

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Stay tuned for Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and I’m Not Upset, It’s Just a Stomachache in this 3-part series on sneaky emotions!

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.