Inside “Inside Out”

Inside Inside Out Jeffrey Deitz MD

My wife and I spent rainy day watching the new Disney Pixar movie Inside Out, an animated feature that takes movie-goers inside the mind of an eleven year old girl named Riley. Riley is overwhelmed with anger and sadness when her family uproots her from an idyllic life in Minnesota and moves to the strange environment of urban San Francisco. To make matters worse, Riley’s father’s business begins to fail and the high cost of living necessitates living in a dreary fixer-upper. As if nothing else could go wrong, the moving van gets lost and Riley is disconnected from the comforts of home that might help ease the transition.
In the movie—and this is something that animation can present extremely effectively—the core of Riley’s inner life is represented as place within Riley’s mind aptly named Command Central. Five basic emotions, each embodied by a character, jockey for control: “Joy” (who looks and acts like a bossy Tinkerbell) is used to controlling of Riley, whose parents need to see her as Happy Girl. They either don’t get, or cannot accept, that Riley—like all youngsters—is a mixture of emotions.
This is a powerful and imaginative way to portray the relationship between a person’s outside, and what’s going on inside their deeper emotional life.
As a result of the abrupt change in Riley’s life, Joy—who is used to dominating Riley’s inner life—loses control. Up until this point in Riley’s emotional development Joy is the protagonist, who sees Sadness as an antagonist whose very existence is a threatens Riley’s emotional stability.
The dramatic tension in the movie arises as Joy recognizes the importance of Sadness (who looks and acts like Lucy Brown with a permanent puss), Anger, Disgust, and Fear, all of whom want their say in controlling Riley’s dreams and behavior. As Riley sinks into depression, Joy and Sadness become separated from Command Central, and Riley’s inner world—represented by islands of good coping such as friendship (Riley’s best friend from home makes her jealous when it looks like Riley can be easily replaced), athleticism (Riley’s an excellent ice-hockey player who loses her confidence and temper om the new hockey team), and family ties (Riley’s father misinterprets his daughter’s sullenness and punishes her for having a bad attitude), crumbles piece by piece. In effect, she loses herself.
What makes the movie ring true emotionally is Joy’s poignant realization that she needs Sadness if Riley is to come to terms with the emotional chaos she faces. What a paradox!—and one whose implication all children (and their parents) need to accept: that in order in to meet the challenges inherent in life’s travails, Joy and Sadness must learn not to just coexist, but to cooperate. Without them, adaptation to change becomes impossible.
Long time ago in 1914, Sigmund Freud penned a classic paper entitled Mourning and Melancholia, in which he took up the subject of grief and depression. Although his theory of depression was misguided, he was right on in recognizing that grief—the feelings of sadness about the loss of a deeply cherished, unambivalent attachment (or in Riley’s case several attachments)—is as central to mental well-being as is scab formation to wound healing. Grief hurts; but it also heals. To avoid the pain of grief is to invite depression and despair. In Inside Out, it is only when Joy lets Sadness take the lead in a moving scene where Riley and her parent share their sadness with each other, that Riley’s psyche reconstitutes, and we see Riley calling on her Inside strengths, to give her confidence that she can meet the challenges coming from without.

Jeffrey Deitz MD is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Connecticut and New York City. For years Deitz wrote for the professional about psychotherapy; he also conducted seminars at international conferences about the role of psychotherapy in treating PTSD and Bipolar Disorder. In 2010, he began publishing in the New York Times and Huffington Post about sports psychology, the power of psychotherapy, and the public health risk of sleep deprivation. Deitz’s first novel, Intensive Therapy: A Novel, a fiction about the life-saving relationship between a psychiatrist and patient has recently been published. For more information visit: