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

inside-out
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.

Inside-Out-QA-Joy-Sadness

  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.

Advertisements

How to Help Your Therapist Help You

Honored to have contributed to mindbodygreen with this article about how to get the most out of therapy! How to Help Your Therapist Help You

Do you have ideas about what has helped make your therapy more meaningful or beneficial? Please share!

You’ve mustered up the courage to say, “Something’s off in my life right now.” You seek the assistance of a helping professional to get back on track, and feel relieved almost immediately. You’re starting to make productive choices.

Maybe you’ve realized sadness or anxiety has hijacked your life, or you’re struggling with chronic conflict or lack of connection in your most important relationships. Maybe you’ve realized that despite having everything you always thought you wanted, you’re still not fulfilled. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided you are important enough to seek assistance with creating the life you want.

Some individuals seeking therapy think that their therapist will “fix” the problem that they are facing, even if they don’t realize this dynamic is at play. But therapy is work, for both parties involved. It takes reflection, a healthy balance of self-analysis and self-acceptance, and a commitment to follow-through.

If you’re in psychotherapy or counseling treatment or are considering gaining the assistance of a mental health professional or coach, the following tips will dramatically enhance the return you can gain from this powerful investment — an investment in you. I offer these tips as both a psychotherapist and someone who has benefited from being in therapy.

1. Don’t skimp on sessions — make it a practice.

People sometimes seek therapy services with a “one foot in, one foot out” mentality. This may look like frequently canceled sessions or forgetting or not doing homework. Unless you are on vacation or experiencing a true emergency, it is essential to attend sessions weekly (or at whatever interval you and your therapist have determined is best).

Building a relationship with your therapist and the regular contact that requires is the foundation for gaining the most from your therapy experience! Even on days when you’re feeling down (especially on these days!) or when the sun is shining and you’d rather spend an afternoon at the park, remind yourself that it is a commitment not just with your therapist, but with yourself.

2. Work between sessions. (It’s like “therapy homework.”)

Some therapists assign homework. This could be as simple as thinking about a certain topic or as specific as reading chapters in a book or practicing specific relational or coping strategies. Some therapies are designed to include homework on a regular basis, such as behavioral treatments like CBT or DBT. In other types of therapy, homework is more of a periodic way to enhance your growth experience.

Even if you aren’t assigned specific homework, it’s important to bring the thoughts and questions you engage with in therapy outside the office. Try exploring and practicing techniques you have worked on with your therapist in other relationships. Journal. Talk to supportive friends or family members about the questions you’ve been thinking about. Engaging in the process will help you transform a slow-paced recovery into a life-altering experience where the change you seek gains noticeable traction.

3. Get radically honest.

Therapists are trained professionals who are likely predisposed to offering compassion and support. We’ve taken this natural inclination to be helpful and learned specific ways of interacting with you that may assist with positive outcomes in your life.

Our ability to help you is severely limited if you aren’t honest with us. This includes the big things, like history of abuse or drug and alcohol intake, and the “smaller” things, too, like not having a sincere interest in a homework assignment.

I can’t tell you how many times a case has “cracked open” into meaningful change because a client finally disclosed needed information about him/herself and problems. If you’ve found yourself lying to your therapist, don’t beat yourself up! Shame about problems is normal, as is the impulse to lie. Just take the opportunity to be brave and correct this information with your therapist.

4. Practice transparency.

Somewhat different from telling the truth, being transparent means telling the truth in incredibly subtle and internal ways. It’s having the courage to speak up and say, “No, I don’t think you got that quite right,” or, “I’m struggling with thoughts that you are judging me right now.”

It’s sharing your inner world with your therapist, especially as it relates to your therapist and your treatment. It may seem like you’ll hurt your therapist’s feelings, or that the information is not that important — but trust me, the “meat” of the process of therapy comes in these more intricate interactions where you allow yourself to be a fully authentic person.

Please note that these tips are offered under the assumption that you are working with a competent and compassionate therapist. Good therapists may sometimes point out problems or unhelpful patterns as a way to encourage healing and growth, but they know how to do so without judgment.

It is imperative that you feel safe with your therapist in terms of knowing that your therapist has your best interests at heart and will keep what you share confidential. If this is not the case, please consider speaking openly with your therapist about your concerns, or seeing if a different therapist may be a better fit for you.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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!”

IMG_0425

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.

IMG_0756

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.

Getting Back on the Horse

I’ve been through my fair share of troubles. There was a span of time in my early thirties where I experienced many tremendous losses in quick succession. When I say I spent months hibernating except for work, I wouldn’t be exaggerating. Being asleep where I could either not feel my pain, or could reconnect with a better life through dreamland was far preferable to facing the reality that I had to rebuild my life. And yet I did wake up and slowly but surely rebuilt it. I don’t assume that my personal journey of healing is the one and only way to get back on the horse. I also know sometimes we get knocked down in smaller ways that still feel deeply impacting and strangle us from moving forward. From a personal and professional place, I’ll share some ideas about how to get your feet back under you.

Honor the Pain

In mindfulness there is the concept of neither ignoring nor clinging to thoughts, emotions, or experiences. You let them come and go as ripples in the water of your life. Sometimes this is a really difficult thing to do. You either want to completely push down your upset feelings, or you wallow in them, soaking in the tub of despair until your fingers get pruney. In the most mindful way you can muster, it is imperative to honor your pain. This may mean powerful crying jags, brutally honest journaling, speaking your truth to others, delving into artistic expression, or even allowing time alone to just sit with the sadness or anxiety or anger of your situation and notice it rise and fall again and again. It’s ok to feel bad. Allowing yourself to feel it is the only way to heal it.

Enlist Support

Whether it’s in gaining a wiser perspective of your situation, or in simply having someone to acknowledge your pain with you – enlisting support is essential. Support comes in many forms: friends, family, professionals. Choose carefully! Don’t expect that well intended but emotionally stunted sibling or friend to suddenly know how to validate and encourage you. Instead, seek the guidance of those you know to be supportive, or even from professionals, such as therapists, life coaches, or other healing artists. Allow those offering their support to do so. Accepting a dinner date with your best friend may be tremendously soothing to your bruised ego or aching soul, even if it won’t “fix” it.

Nurture Your Body and Soul

This seems obvious, but it’s often during our most difficult times that we forget the basics, such as sleep, nutritious food, moving our bodies, and engaging in spiritual practice. These basics are essential to your recovery and to making the wisest decisions about how to proceed. I’m not suggesting that you put pressure on yourself to dramatically change your diet or exercise routine in a moment of high stress – but do at least eat, clear your head on a walk around the block, and read an inspiring poem or trusted scripture. Allow yourself to be grateful for the smallest things, knowing that gratitude is not a way to discount your pain – you can hold both in your heart at the same time.

Begin Re-imagining Your Life

When you’ve had a bit of recovery time under your belt, get real about who you are and where you want to be headed. If you’re not sure about your goals and are feeling rather directionless, then check in with personal values, passions, and curiosities. Do you value community? Then begin considering ways to be helpful to others, maybe volunteer work or a change in careers. Are you passionate about decorating and crafts? Then maybe it’s time to figure out new or bigger projects to inspire you. Keep to the promises you’ve made to yourself to be healthier, more authentic, and more engaged with life. Don’t get bogged down imagining a life that can’t be (such as with someone who has broken up with you). But DO allow yourself to dream big – there’s no telling the brilliant, beautiful life you can create!

Start with Teeny Weeny Baby Steps

We’ve all heard the famous Lao-tzu quote, “A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” It’s true! But don’t worry so much about the miles, just take a step. A teeny weeny one. I can’t emphasize the teeny weeny enough. Whether you have a detailed life plan, or just a glimmer of something that could provide you hope, start moving in that direction. Be both structured and spontaneous. Don’t get too caught up in all the planning. This step is mostly about ACTION. Pick at least one thing to do differently, and then DO it … just one tiny little bit at a time.

I promise no matter what curve balls life has thrown you, the heartache and bitterness can fade into gratitude and vitality again, or you may even feel those things for the first time because of the important lessons you’ve learned.

IMG_0617All content owned by Amanda Bowers.