Inside Out: the Adventure of Life and Complex Emotions

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Updated: Apr 29, 2022
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Inside Out teaches emotional acceptance, which is the essential idea that emotions need to be recognized and accepted, rather than suppressed and denied. In the movie, 11-year-old Riley was always told to be her parents’ ‘happy girl,’ so when she was grieving about moving across the country and leaving her friends and life behind, she thought she had to suppress her sadness and act only happy. This backfired, and she was left angry, disgusted, and afraid.

The emotions in this movie are anthropomorphized, so joy is played by a joyous fairy-type of creature, sadness by a blue cylindrical mopey creature, and so forth. All five primary emotions: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger, are represented. This is a wonderful way to teach the concept of emotional de-fusion, from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which means that your emotions are just your emotions, and not reflective of the true state of the world. You need to notice them, accept them, and move forward.

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In this movie, Joy kept trying to take charge and steer Riley toward acting happy, but if you watch the movie, you see how she learns that Sadness is actually an adaptive and useful emotion too. In fact, all of the emotions are adaptive and important, and a human cannot exist without the full range of emotions. When two of the emotions are not allowed to be expressed, the whole ‘control panel’ for Riley’s brain (or really her limbic system) goes dead. That’s like the apathy and detachment of depression.

Another wonderful point made by this movie is about the nature of memories. Memories can be shaped by our emotions; if you are feeling depressed, all your memories can be colored with sadness, but when you’re feeling happy, the same memories are colored with joy. This is an excellent illustration of depressive bias, where depression makes people think that their whole life has been a series of failures.

Memory storage is also covered in Inside Out, and teaches kids about short term and long term memories, and what they call ‘core memories’ which cognitive behavioral therapists would believe shape your ‘schemas,’ or ways that you view the world. If you remember yourself playing with friends and smiling and laughing with peers, you will view the world as a friendly and safe place. If you remember the time that a dog bit you out of nowhere, you will think of the world as dangerous and unpredictable.

Even dreams are explained in the movie, and it may be hard for parents to realize that kids probably don’t understand the link between daily events and memories and dreams unless the connection is discussed explicitly. Here, we see how Riley’s embarrassing moment at school makes it into her dream that night, which turns into a nightmare of exposure and humiliation.

Riley’s parents’ emotions are also shown, with their own five emotions sitting around a console in ‘Headquarters,’ and in a funny montage during the credits, we even see the inner emotional worlds of random characters, like the ‘cool girl’ in Riley’s class who worries that she will be seen as a fraud. This seems like a throwaway cute scene, but it is really eye opening for kids who think that maybe only a kid like Riley (not a typical ‘cool’ kid) experience all this emotional ambivalence.

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Inside Out: The Adventure of Life and Complex Emotions. (2022, Apr 29). Retrieved from