Reflections from the Inside… Out

Editor’s Note: Emotions — can’t live with them, can’t live without them. How do we make sense of them? As someone who has experience with depression, one of our volunteers shares her personal reflections on Pixar’s latest hit, Inside Out, and hopes to bring encouragement to others through this piece.

Many of us know of a family member or friend who is going through or has gone through an emotionally rough patch, and while we really want to help, we don’t quite know how to help with something we don’t understand. Asking “what’s wrong” seems too daunting, and the lack of a common language may seem too huge a barrier to get a real conversation going.

An emotional disorder is indeed shrouded in mystery, which is why I absolutely loved Inside Out (2015). The film powerfully captures the nuances of emotions, one of the most complex elements of humanity, through a heartwarming Disney plot with a handful of funny, colourful cartoon characters. The poignant portrayal of the characters Joy and Sadness, and importantly, the bond that deepens between them, lends a powerful voice to many of us who find it difficult to connect to a world that is “outside” while we feel trapped “inside” ourselves.

The animation is about 11-year-old Riley and her family’s move, from their hometown in Minnesota to San Francisco, which throws Riley’s emotions into chaos. Portraying singular emotions as individual characters (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust) that exhibit the extremes of each emotion, Inside Out transports us into the world of “brain chemistry”, penetrating the perceptions of “dark” and “irrational” associated with out-of-control emotions, turning it into a fun and light-hearted film that leaves us with much to think about.

The movie spoke to me because of my personal experience with depression, and also the life lessons I learnt through it. Here are four things I think Inside Out can teach all of us about mental health.

1. Choose Joy

A lot of us don’t realise how important “joy” is. As Joy and Sadness’ journey back to Headquarters showed, Joy is accompanied by several other positive traits, like motivation and resilience.

In the movie, ‘personality islands’ are kept powered up by an ongoing fuel of golden (joyful) memories. Joy (the character) was essentially what powered and kept Riley’s dreams, personalities and relationships going.

While ‘being happy’ may be an empty pursuit and an oversimplified guideline to dealing with hard times, choosing Joy is not. Joy is crucial for thriving, and I have found it worthwhile to develop habits of thought and activities that focus on the positive aspect of things no matter how brief, simple or small. Joy can exist even in the midst of challenge or adversity.

Choosing joy can go a long way in recovering motivation for life and in developing resilience to face the valleys.

2. Be patient

It is no surprise that Sadness would manifest as slowed thinking processes and lethargy – natural behaviours in the absence of motivation, optimism or resilience.

Unfortunately, overused depression stereotypes have painted a picture of extreme sadness as simply “obsessing over the weight of life’s problems”, However, this is only one side of the story.

The movie captured the other side beautifully when Sadness said to Joy on the train back to Headquarters, “Sorry, I went sad again, didn’t I?” This highlights that while outward symptoms of an “obsession with pessimism” may be easy to pick up, the constant internal struggles with “being better” are much harder to detect.

Coping with difficult moods is very much a battle of the mind, which takes time, practice and importantly, patience.

Don’t forget to be patient with yourself: even if you ‘go sad’ again, it’s okay! Fighting depression is, for some of us, a lifelong struggle; the important thing is not to give up.

3. Sadness can lead to Compassion

There are things Sadness can do that Joy cannot. When Bing Bong felt forlorn, sat on the edge of the cliff and began to cry tears of candy, it was Sadness who slowed down, sat next to him, and listened. Having someone who empathised gave Bing Bong that much-needed space to process his loss, and eventually gave him strength to continue on in their journey.

The pain we experience bestows upon us a precious gift – empathy. Sadness recognises and empathises with its own kind in someone else. We are made more kind, more compassionate, by the pain we have experienced.

This is the hope and comfort a struggling individual – or anyone who has ever gone through a painful experience – can have.

Sadness, like Joy, has a purpose and we can find meaning through it.

I have found that some of the most giving, loving people I know are also those who have been through real hard knocks in life, who have simply allowed their experiences to be used for the good of others.

4. Community

In a world that values productivity, efficiency, and high-functioning individuals, sadness is often viewed as something of a liability.

Sadness, when out of control, can get in the way of things – just as how Sadness felt compelled to reach out and touch core memories, turning them blue. To fix this, Joy made grand attempts at keeping Sadness from tainting Riley’s golden memories by drawing a circle around Sadness and coaxing Sadness to remain contained within its tight limits.

There is undoubtedly a certain degree of resistance that society at large displays towards ‘negativity. We forget that it is a terrible feeling to be sidelined, which was written in Sadness’ expressions of confusion and guilt whenever the core memories she touched turned blue.

Image Credit: Pixar

What I loved about the film, however, was the admirable patience Joy extended towards Sadness, despite her bewilderment about Sadness’ behaviour and tried to put herself in her shoes. She never gave up on Sadness, chasing Sadness all the way down until they both arrived back in Headquarters.

In fact, at the end of the day, it was Joy who came to the realisation that only Sadness could help make things right for Riley again (“Sadness… Mom and Dad… the team. They came to help… because of Sadness”), and encouraged Sadness to take over the “emotions console”.

As much as we like to be independent, self-sufficient and self-reliant beings, we are made for community.

The strength of support from friends and family cannot be understated in mental health. Giving grace, being patient, showing compassion – to any individual, much less to a hurting individual, can be tremendously powerful and healing.

Life is a myriad of emotions

Inside Out was for me, personally, a timely reminder that struggling is neither a sign of weakness, nor does an admittance of struggle mean we’re “giving in” to the negative emotions we so resist. It is simply being human through and through.

The eventual recovery of Riley’s personality and cheerful temperament by, ironically, Sadness’s touch of the “emotion activation button” reminds us that in the right doses, both positive and negative emotions are a fundamental part of the human experience, and can be a beautiful thing.

Thank you, Pixar, for a truly brilliant film.

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