This post contains spoilers for the Pixar animation Inside Out.
The latest offering from Disney/Pixar is a marked departure from the classic Disney formula. It tells the story of a young girl, forced to move from idyllic Minnesota to grungy San Francisco. There are no monsters to slay, no wicked witches, no dark forests journeyed through.
Except that isn’t strictly true. For the monsters, darkness and villains do exist, all in the protagonist’s mind. Pixar decided to make this story about the inner life of Reilly, the hero of the story. As this article from the Guardian makes clear the psychologists wanted to have more emotions personified. However for narrative reasons five were chosen. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Disgust is fascinating, an attempt to personify the super ego, that regulatory force which tells us we must wear clothes, not pick our noses, fit in with others and accept society’s conventions.
The main focus of the story though is the relationship, and battle, between Joy and Sadness. I expected to spend a pleasant afternoon enjoying a Pixar film. I did not expect to see some of the fractures of the therapeutic world portrayed on-screen, or one of the best depictions of depression I have ever seen.
Joy is the first emotion we see personified. In a wonderful summation of the process of attachment she is brought into being at the moment the infant Reilly knows she is loved by her parents. We would hope that most people’s childhoods would be dominated by Joy, and indeed Joy is very domineering. At moments Joy;s behaviour borders on mania, and she refuses to allow the other emotions space. Reilly must be happy, at all costs!
Early in the film Joy attempts to force Sadness to be happy with what might be described as classic behavioural techniques. Think of happy times, make yourself happy by force of will, don’t let the sad thoughts out. (Made explicit by Joy ordering Sadness to stand within a chalk circle and not leave it under any circumstances) Another technique Joy uses is busy work, telling Sadness to read various technical manuals in order to distract her.
Very often when people are depressed, or suffering from other mental health conditions (sadness is not of course a mental illness but more of that later.) the advice they get is exactly what Joy tries. Many people have described to me failed CBT which used the same ideas. Retrain your thinking, keep yourself busy, keep Sadness trapped in her chalk circle, happiness at any cost. Outside of the therapy room many will have heard similar from friends and relatives,if they simply tried harder they would not be sad.
It strikes me as radical that America, birth place of behavorism, and so often portrayed as a culture where the pursuit of happiness at all costs is the goal, has produced a film which shows how repression and “self talk” not only don’t work but can be dangerous.
For Reilly is reasonably sad, as in leaving your home, friends and everything you know is in anyones life a reason for sadness. If she had been able to simply express the sadness, openly and without censure the final dramatic part of the film would not have happened. Reilly moves from being able to feel into depression. Loosing contact with all of her emotions, she decides to run away. She steals from her parents and takes a bus back to Minnesota. How often do we associate place and mood? How often do we believe that there was a mythical time when everything was perfect?
This is an incredibly bleak, dark moment. Perhaps even more so for an adult watching, aware of the dangers of exploitation a child alone would face. Reilly cannot even feel fear anymore, she has sunk into that darkness which the black dog brings.
As this is happening Joy is on her own journey. She first realises the importance of Sadness when she watches Sadness show empathy. They journey into the subconscious and Joy discovers that our fears, our shadow side can be powerful. Then, when all seems lost, Joy learns that there is no such thing as the perfect happy memory, that only because Sadness exists can Joy exist.
The final moments of the film show Sadness at the controls, Reilly able to feel again, letting her sadness out. The only demon that has been slain is that of always wearing the fake smile, or pretending to be happy when you are not, of the beliefs of behaviorism.
We all have our Minnesota’s and our San Francisco’s, those times and places of remembered happiness and sadness. Sometimes we need to simply talk about those feelings, have them acknowledged, be given permission to let Sadness out of her chalk circle. If we let her take control for a while, even if it is just the 50 minutes of a therapy session, we can allow ourselves to feel all the wonderful rainbow of emotions that are possible.