5 Mental Health Takeaways from Disney Pixar’s Inside Out

As far back as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with how the mind works. In high school I wrote an essay on the subconscious and later I earned a degree in psychology in college (though I never made a career out of it).

More recently, I started practicing yoga and meditation, as ways to bring the subconscious up to the conscious level on an ongoing basis.

And even MORE recently, as part of my interest in trauma work in the realm of adoption, I’ve begun a year-long self-study of DBT — Dialectical Behavior Therapy. When I read (in either The Atlantic or People — I always get them confused) that Disney Pixar was about to release Inside Out, I did a double-take. Hey — that’s DBT in Buzz Lightyear style!

Based in Headquarters, the control center inside 11-year-old Riley’s mind, five Emotions are hard at work, led by lighthearted optimist Joy (voice of Amy Poehler), whose mission is to make sure Riley stays happy. Fear (voice of Bill Hader) heads up safety, Anger (voice of Lewis Black) ensures all is fair and Disgust (voice of Mindy Kaling) prevents Riley from getting poisoned—both physically and socially. Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith) isn’t exactly sure what her role is, and frankly, neither is anyone else. — Disney Pixar

My family attended a pre-screening the other night (disclosure: we were guests at the theater). Each of us loved the movie, for different reasons. Reed liked it for the cartoon-y feel, bright colors, and fast pace. Tessa liked it for pulling on her heartstrings. Roger liked it for the multi-layered humor that Pixar is so good at (as in virtually any episode of The Simpson, there is in-your-face kid humor alongside more subtle adult humor).

I liked the film because it takes Dialectical Behavior Therapy from flat words and theories into dimensional images and a narrative. Along with basic tenets of attachment parenting, here are my takeaways (which will make sense even if you’ve never heard of DBT).

Disney Pixar InsideOut emotions

1. Every emotion has a purpose. None are “bad,” though some could be overused or neglected/repressed. Part of the journey within the film involves finding the purpose for sadness. It highlighted for me how much emphasis many of us put into NOT feeling sad.

disney pixar's inside out sadness

2. Relationships are key. Relationships allow for connection. Connection allows for resilience. Connection is required before claims can be made on a relationships. Before you correct, connect — as one of my tutors is fond of saying. When dealing with a traumatized kiddo like Riley (her trauma was being uprooted by a life she loved in Minnesota when her family moves to San Francisco), the connection with her parents must be perceived by her before requests of her can be entertained.

disney pixar's inside out relationships

3a. Play builds connection…Inside Out portrays each of Riley’s memories as a large glowing pearl. Memories that have great significance or are oft-repeated are called core memories. Joy explains in the clip above that “each core memory powers a different aspect of Riley’s personality, like my personal favorite, Goofball Island.

Courtesy Goofball Island, many of Riley’s core memories reflect her family’s silliness: food served in a zooming airplane spoon; undies worn on the head;  nekkid toddler Riley shaking her patooty to the sheer glee of her parents.

Riley’s core memories show strong connection within her family, which won’t prevent tough times but will make recovery easier when she encounters them.

disney pixar's inside out play

3b. …and we should invest in connection. The steady building of Goofball Island, Family Island, Friend Island and the other foundations are necessary for Riley to weather emotions she experiences due to stress-inducing events in her life.

Though in my home we are past the zooming airplane spoon and nekkid toddler patooty stages, we can still invest in Family and Goofball Island infrastructure through games and giggles like jumping rope, getting out the Twister mat, playing charades, bouncing on the trampoline.

4. Simply abide. We in the ALI (adoption/loss/infertility) community have a tradition of abiding with someone who is enduring a loss or facing a fear. We don’t dismiss the emotions (“it’ll all be OK”) or tell someone to “get over it.” We don’t avoid tough emotions. We sit with a person while she feeeeeeels it. We walk alongside.

Riley is able to fall back on core memories of being abided with as she deals with her losses and fears. Surprisingly, Sadness plays a key role here, especially when Riley is allowed to feeeeeel sadness and is supported while doing so.

disney pixar's inside out school

5. Becoming your own observer is one way to be mindful. I vaguely remember a similarly-themed FOX-TV series in the early 1990s called Herman’s Head. Perhaps turning our emotions into their own entities is an effective mindfulness technique because it turns us into our own observer even as we are also the observed. That helps us retain a rational element while also being intensely emotional. What would it be like to observe yourself in a moment of highly-charged emotion and lend a color, a name, a personality to that emotion? Would that make it easier to stay in control of the emotion rather than allow the emotion to control you?

disney pixar's inside out anger

Inside Out by Disney•Pixar is a movie my whole family recommends. If you see it, come back and tell me what you think of it.

My friend Addison Cooper has reviewed this film also. Check out what he has to say on Adoption at the Movies.

Open adoption parenting & mindful living