Inside Out and Mental Health

About a week ago I had the good fortune to see Pixar's newest film, Inside Out,  which is all about an eleven-year-old, hockey-playin...

About a week ago I had the good fortune to see Pixar's newest film, Inside Out, which is all about an eleven-year-old, hockey-playing girl named Riley and her emotions (represented in the adorable forms of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) as they tackle all the turmoil you'd expect after a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. I recommend that you should all go see this wonderful film immediately because it's sensational. Now, before we go any further, I have to reveal several crucial details about the plot so read ahead at your own risk!

The way the world of Inside Out works is that we all have five core emotions that live inside our head, guide us, and fulfill a very important job that helps with our overall well-being and development—Joy keeps us happy, Fear keeps us safe, Anger keeps things fair, Disgust keeps us from being poisoned both physically and socially, and one's quite sure what Sadness' job is at the start of the movie. The emotions reside in Headquarters, the conscious mind, where they watch the world through Riley's eyes (until she falls asleep, any way) and help her make decisions from a big control panel. Each time an emotion assists Riley, a little color-coded orb documenting that memory is created and later sent to her long term memory at the end of the day. Sometimes, however, Riley and the emotions make a "core memory" which is then placed in the central hub of Headquarters. Once placed, the core memory creates and then continuously powers an island outside of Headquarters that represents an aspect of Riley's personality. The islands shown in the movie are Goofball Island, Friendship Island, Family Island, Honesty Island, and Hockey Island. While its very cool to see how Pixar interprets these fundamental parts of the mind and how we use them, the crux of the movie is about what happens when things in your movie don't work the way they necessarily should.

In the movie, the plot really gets moving when Sadness becomes compelled to touch Riley's memory orbs, most of which are happy. When Sadness touches an orb, it turns sad and can't be changed back. This particularly upsets Joy, the emotions de facto leader, who wants Riley to be happy as much as possible and thereby limits Sadness' involvement by keeping her away from the console. This backfires on Riley's first day at her new school when Sadness accidentally makes Riley cry in front of her class and makes a new core memory. Joy tries to get rid of the memory, but in the process dislodges the rest of the core memories (shutting down Riley's personality islands) and causes her and Sadness lost in Riley's long-term memory. As a result, Riley is unable to access her core memories or feel joy or sadness. Anger, Disgust, and Fear attempt to maintain Riley's emotional state in Joy's absence, but they inadvertently cause her to distance herself from her parents, friends, and hobbies. Consequently, her personality islands crumble and fall one by one into the Memory Dump, an abyss between Headquarters and the rest of Riley's mind where faded memories are disposed and forgotten. Anger decides to insert an idea to run away to Minnesota into the control console, believing they can produce new happy memories there. Unfortunately, Anger's idea causes Riley's last personality island to crumble and disabled the control console, leaving Riley depressed and apathetic.

I identified with Riley over the course of the movie. Especially since her emotional turmoil stems from a cross-country move. I was the same age as Riley when I had to leave Pittsburgh for Seattle, then was almost thirteen when I returned to Pittsburgh, and was eighteen when I nearly moved to Dallas. Moving is beyond stressful, especially for children (even more so if they've never experienced it until their pre-teen years), and I can be incredibly difficult putting on a brave front in the face of so much upheaval and change. But, even more so, I connected with this movie because I struggle with anxiety and, to a degree, depression as well.

A few years ago, I had a really bad bout of depression that could've been very dangerous if I hadn't tried to work through it. The best way I can describe my experience, and I can't say this is how anyone else with depression feels, was that it was like being stuck at the bottom of a ditch that's impossible to climb out of and every time I tried it felt like the ditch was just getting deeper. On an emotional level, I felt devoid of much of any feeling 80% of the time and all I could hear was this little voice in the back of my head telling me I didn't matter and how everyone probably hated me because I was so worthless. To make matters worse, nothing was stimulating or even really comforting. I had no interest in my hobbies, which until that point had been my defense and safe haven from my troubles, and even the thought of trying to participate in them seemed incredibly daunting. It was lonely and miserable, and I had no idea WHY I was feeling this way. All I knew was that I had no way to fight back, even though fighting back was all I really wanted.

In a way, Sadness' actions in the beginning of the movie are very symbolic of what depression is like. Sadness can't help herself from touching Riley's happy memories (thereby turning them blue forever), but she gets no pleasure from it. She clearly feels awful for harming Riley and the memories but she can't help herself, even if she hates herself for doing it. To borrow the words of the blogger behind Stuck and Singing, Sadness is "for lack of better words, infecting the happiness around her and feels horrible about it. And that’s the point of depression. No one wants to infect things. They just want to be happy and keep people happy."

Remember when I said earlier that the emotions weren't sure what Sadness' role was in guiding Riley? Pixar gave Joy and the audience a rather brilliant and poignant answer. After the last island crumbles, a despondent Joy fiddles with a sad memory that becomes happy when Riley's parents and friends come to comfort her over losing a hockey game, which causes Joy to realize Sadness's true role is creating empathy. After Sadness and Joy get back to Headquarters, Joy encourages Sadness to use the console and stop Riley from running away, which works and reactivates the console. Riley then goes home and, after breaking down to her parents and admitting that she misses her old life, Sadness and Joy work together and create a blended core memory while Riley is being comforted by her family. The movie then finishes by flashing a year later, where the emotions are all working together and creating blended memories and core memories-giving Riley a more emotionally enriched life.

To be honest, I was a bit floored by these moments-especially when the audience learns what Sadness' role is. For a long time after the aforementioned scary bout of depression, I'd tried to avoid being sad and ignore my own sadness whenever possible and focus on being as happy as humanly possible. Which, I'll admit, wasn't the healthiest way to cope even if it felt safer that way. It sounds silly but I learned, just as Joy learned, that all emotions have their purpose and that denying yourself of an emotion like sadness might seem like a good idea on the surface, but denies you from later emotional complexity. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty great takeaway from a movie designed for children.

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  1. I really want to see Inside Out. I heard it deals well with emotions, like you were saying.

    I'm really sorry you had to go through that depressive episode. I know how bad depression can be. When you talked about how awful you felt, the voice in your head telling you you're a terrible person, feeling no pleasure at all from anything, I could totally relate to that. I got diagnosed with Psychotic Depression, which is Major Depression with psychotic features. So you get all the stuff with depression plus some psychosis - which really isn't fun at all. Some of the things I thought were absolutely horrifying. But I'm doing much better now, and I hope you are, too (which it sounds like you are :)

    1. You should! It's really clever and beautifully animated! Bring tissues though.

      Thank you. I actually am doing a lot better. I still struggle managing my anxiety problems (which I've discovered in the source of the depressive episodes) but I haven't been depressed in the last few months so, all things considered, things are good.

      I'm so sorry about your struggles too, I've studied psychotic depression and I know how scary it is. But I'm absolutely thrilled that you're doing better!