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What I Learned from “Inside Out”

Today I watched Pixar’s Inside Out via Amazon rental, at my younger daughter’s insistence. (She watched it with her father yesterday while I was chaperoning a band trip with my older girl.) I expected an enjoyable movie; I did not expect the movie to affect me the way it did.

[If you haven’t seen Inside Out yet, a word of warning: I may very well drop spoilers here and there. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to, you probably should hold off on reading the rest of this until you’ve seen it.]

It’s interesting how very early on, I felt a bit of uneasiness as I watched. I watched as primary character Joy did everything she could to make every day “perfect” (ly happy) for little girl Riley. I think I sensed that everything going on in this movie was happening in a delicate balance, and I was, at some level, afraid of that delicate balance being disrupted somehow.

Of course, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that’s exactly what happened. Sadness kept touching “core memories” and turning them blue, and therefore tinged with sadness, which WHOA you can’t be doing that or poor dear Riley will turn sad. When Joy tried to make Sadness stop doing it, they were both flung from “headquarters” and thrown into a land far outside where they were supposed to be.

It was far too easy for me to relate to Joy. Her constant and consistent desire for everyone and everything to be happy and positive all the time pretty much describes how I live my life and relate to those around me. And it explains why I have a tendency to melt down when I can’t beat back the sadness, or why I have so much trouble dealing with people who are sad. (I’m not proud of the latter, and I’ve prayed to be able to get over this very unpleasant quality in myself.)

I could also relate to Joy’s exasperation regarding Sadness. Watching Sadness flop to the floor and cry made me feel as irritated as it appeared to make Joy feel. I thought about all the times I’ve seen one of my own daughters melt down over something that seemed inconsequential to me. Or if not inconsequential, something that certainly wouldn’t be helped by melting down. I’ve said awful things like “oh for heaven’s sake, you’re going to cry about THIS?” or “look, crying isn’t going to help, take a couple deep breaths and get to the bottom of this!” I’ve said them to my children, and I’ve thought them of adults who seemed to be taking minor problems way too hard or complaining about major problems instead of acting on them.

Meanwhile, I’ve fought rather viciously when confronted with problems that either exasperated me or drove me to the brink of despair. Because sadness is pretty much the one emotion I want to refuse to tolerate. Sadness is painful. Who wants pain? Not me. So I push it far away. If I feel it, I try to distract myself. I try to oppress it. Heaven forbid I let myself feel it. What if I forget how to feel Joy? What if I’m no longer ME?

So pretty much every frame of this movie made sense to me and felt real for me. And then I had two “whooooa never thought of it that way before” moments while watching.

Moment number one: when Sadness was comforting Bing Bong with her own sad feelings. I realized two things here. Number one, sadness has at least one unique purpose that you really can’t get from any other emotion: empathy. Sadness could comfort Bing Bong because she knew what sadness felt like. If you’ve never felt sadness, you can’t reach out to anyone else. And number two: the best way to comfort someone who’s sad is to just LET THEM BE SAD. Validate them. Don’t try to distract them, don’t try to “cheer them up.” Just let them be sad. Don’t abandon them… let them know you’re there for them and you understand sadness… but allow them to feel it.

And moment number two: towards the very end, when Riley returns home after her runaway attempt. Joy not only hands every single core memory to Sadness — GASP NOT THE CORE MEMORIES!!!! — but also encourages Sadness to take control of the center of operations. Because what Riley needed right then was to show her parents her sadness. To FEEL her sadness. And to let her family help her.

I’m tearing up just writing about this because it’s a hard lesson that I don’t think I’ve ever truly realized before.

Sadness is not the enemy.

It’s not the enemy! It’s not!

Please don’t get me wrong. There’s a difference between sadness and depression. Depression is not normal, and it’s not something you can just “work through” on your own. It’s an illness. But sadness? Sadness isn’t an illness. It’s an emotion, and a perfectly healthy, normal emotion to feel when things go wrong.

Even little things.

And when you’re sad, you can try to distract yourself, you can try to cheer yourself up, you can try a million and one ways to fend it off and shove it down and what-have-you… but you’re not going to get better that way. I mean, you might feel better momentarily, but that’s the most it’ll last.

Oh, and one other thing I learned… well, re-learned, I think I already knew this but for some reason I keep forgetting it. When you’re sad, it is a good idea to let someone who loves you know about it.

The pain of sadness is completely capable of shutting us down. It’s capable of shutting ME down, and at no time is that more effective than when I’m alone and refuse to reach out to anyone. But we weren’t designed to handle our pain alone. We were designed to share it with others, and to let others share it with us.

I’ll never forget the look in Riley’s little-girl eyes when she admitted how much she missed Minnesota and her father, with deep pain in his eyes, admitted, “I miss it too.” It was hope. For the first time she realized she wasn’t alone, and not only that, she was normal. It didn’t make the pain go away. But it made the pain easier to handle, because a burden is always lighter when it’s shared among more than one person.

So that’s what I learned from Inside Out:

1. Sadness develops empathy.
2. A sad person should (and maybe must) be given permission to feel sad.
3. Sadness is not the enemy.
4. Sadness can be made bearable through sharing.

I hope I will remember these lessons. I hope I am not only able to allow myself permission to feel sad, but I hope that I will also be way, way better at allowing my children permission to be sad. I hope I will stop feeling exasperated with sad people. I hope I will allow sadness to make me a more empathetic person. And I hope I will remember to share my sadness with people who love me.

And I hope I’ll be able to watch Inside Out a few million times more. It really is an outstanding movie.

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