Emotional Health: The Depth of Disney’s Inside/Out


The Depth of Disney’s Inside/Out

Rabbi Dov Heller, LMFT

The Disney animated movie, Inside/Out, teaches one of the most powerful principles I know for authentic transformation: We experience joy by embracing sadness and other troubling feelings.

At first glance it doesn’t make sense – it even appears counter-intuitive. How can a positive emotional state arise by embracing a negative emotional state? Doesn’t Judaism teach us that the path to joy is by thinking positive thoughts and doing good deeds? Shouldn’t we try to push away sadness and other negative feelings and to see them as a ploy of our lower self (yetzer hara) to pull us down and destroy our joy?

There is certainly a time and place for positive thinking. But there is also a time and place for allowing oneself to access and embrace one’s uncomfortable feelings. In a society that spends so much time, energy, and resources trying to avoid emotional pain and suffering, the message of Inside/Out is one that needs to be heard.

This principle is well known to Judaism, for it is the underlying concept in the experience of mourning. The Torah requires a person to sit shiva for seven days when a parent dies. The assumption is that the loss of a parent is devastating. The surviving child will be in a somewhat traumatized state. Their way out of the pain and sadness is not by avoiding it, but by feeling it. The mourner is not instructed to think positive thoughts or to see his or her thinking as distorted. Instead, the community comes and sits with the mourner, providing what I call “a relational home” for his/her feelings. The mourner is invited to talk about his loss and pain, which is why other are not permitted to speak to the mourner unless invited to do so. The visitor’s job is to have total respect for the feelings of the mourner, which is why it is so inappropriate when visitors try to distract the mourner. (Of course, we know that people often do this because they cannot tolerate the intense feelings in the room or their own feelings in that setting.) The mourner, by feeling his sadness, slowly reintegrates emotionally, and as he reintegrates, he recovers his feelings of vitality. He comes back to life, so to speak.

In Inside/Out, Riley, a pre-teen, experiences a painful loss when her parents decide to move from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco. The movie takes us inside Riley’s mind and her emotional experience of loss. She has lost her friends, her hockey team, her favorite lake (which she skated on with her parents), and the friendly ecology of Minnesota (not present in the dirty city). She’s miserably sad and her parents, who are caught up in their own life drama, fail her by not being there for her and her feelings.

We watch how Riley’s feelings of loss and sadness are not permitted to be felt or expressed. Dad has an agenda to make sure his little girl stays happy, while mom is busy trying to cheer her up by showing her the upside of San Francisco. In one scene, Riley expresses her anger only to be sent to her room. The opportunity for emotional attunement and understanding has gone up in smoke. With the dismissal of her feelings of sadness, she becomes an even angrier little girl. Anger often serves a defensive function, especially when our feelings are dismissed and cannot find a safe, relational home for them. Riley’s emotional world begins to crumble, which the movie very graphically depicts, as her “core memories” fall apart right before our eyes. Her once solid emotional foundation fragments. She is left alone with her painful feelings. In desperation she decides to run away and return to Minnesota. People imprisoned by their emotional pain often become desperate.

Luckily for Riley, she is able to connect with her deep sadness. The most moving moment of the movie is when “Joy” gives permission to “Sadness” to take over. I am sure there was not a dry eye in the theater at that moment. I believe everyone sensed how right and necessary it was for “Joy” to step out of the way and let Riley take ownership of her sadness. Riley returns home and, in the presence of her parents, breaks down in a flood of tears. She is able to express her sadness. Instead of dismissing her feelings, this time, her parents embrace Riley and her feelings.

The Talmud says, “The prisoner cannot free himself from the prison.” Riley’s sadness has found a relational home. The healing process has begun, and her vitality returns. Not only does it return, it expands in wonderfully new ways, as the “feelings engineer” at “headquarters” says, “Your new expanded console is ready to go.” As the movie ends, we see a vitalized, joyful, and expansive Riley skating like her old self in a hockey game.

I believe this message is relevant to so many people seeking to grow spiritually. We cannot grow spiritually if we are not growing emotionally. Emotional pain is not something to be gotten rid of; it is something to be embraced, understood, and integrated, as evidenced by the experience of mourning cited earlier.

From this perspective, I believe that it is a good practice is to take one’s emotional temperature every day. Here are some questions to ask:

  • How do I feel in general today?
  • Am I in any kind of pain that feels intolerable? Name the feeling: sadness, fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, emptiness, lonely, confusion, overwhelmed, panic, anger, etc.
  • Why am I feeling this way? Try to track it down. If necessary, speak to someone you trust to process it.
  • How long have I been feeling this way? (Note: any intolerable feeling experienced for two weeks or longer needs serious attention.)
  • How do I feel about my spiritual commitments?
  • How do I feel about specific mitzvos I do, such as prayer, holidays, Shabbat?

One other suggestion may also be in order here. There are many people who sincerely desire to grow spiritually and who could benefit greatly from psychotherapy, where they would have an opportunity to acknowledge, explore, and understand their feelings.

Sometimes people use spirituality to hide from their feelings or numb them. Spirituality should never be a substitute for emotional honesty and growth. Feelings are vehicles to growth, not obstacles. Feelings are the means by which we become more expansive, deeper, and authentic human beings. This, I believe, is the transformative secret of Disney’s Inside/Out.