Inside Out: A Psychologist's Take
The personality behind the emotions behind the character.
"Inside Out" has taken America by storm.
It is a touching and fun adventure movie that largely takes place inside the mind of a cute and relatively happy/healthy pre-teen named Riley.
The cast of characters in this animated world are Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger - you know, the basic emotions. According to the literature on universal emotions, Joy is really Happiness and the emotion of Interest is nowhere to be found in this film, but these are merely technicalities.
It is an excellently fun film, and as is often the case with emotions, these characters unfold in ways that are…complex.
For instance, sometimes the emotion-characters are activated in response to what happens in Riley’s life. Riley engages with the world and temporarily experiences a stressful event like slipping on her skates during a hockey game, so she starts to feel sad. As she starts to feel sad the Sadness character in her mind (and on the big screen) howls its response. She, Sadness, is reflecting back what has already happened.
This is the most common and superficial way in which we tend to conceptualize emotional states – predictable and natural internal responses to the outside environment.
But these characters function as more than just mirrors.
Sometimes the emotion-characters show an intention, or initiative which then prompts Riley to act in a given way. For instance, at one point Joy gets the idea to play a positive memory (within Riley’s mind) of an actual previous experience because, well, she wants Riley to become more joyful to combat some temporary unhappiness.
Hence, the emotional states are operating as drivers as well as mirrors.
In fact, much of the plot involves a tug of war between Joy and Sadness (really,depression). As Riley contends with the significant stress of her family’s geographrical transition (new friends, new school & loss of old friends and old routines, etc.), Sadness becomes more active, more powerful and, well, more whiny. In turn, Joy (who appeared to enjoy a history in Riley’s psyche as the leader of the emotional group) must now contend with Sadness head-on. What ensues are lots of pep talks, debates, arm-twists, bonding, and growth.
These characters are not just emotional states, they are self-states. Joy is not merely the emotion of joyfulness, she (why couldn’t Joy have been a “he?”), is the joyful version of Riley in all of her personality-based quirks, intricacies and nuances.
Self-states are not exclusively emotions, but cognitions, behaviors, memories, tendencies and other patterned forms of psychological content as well. So, when Riley gets angry she enters into an angry version of herself that is different from the angry versions of everyone else, and certainly more complex than the simplistic emotion of anger. These self-states are layered with other facets like roles and scripts. Meaning, when Riley angrily interacts with her parents she enters into a child version of her angry self that is different than the angry version of Riley that shows up in a fight with her hometown friend.
It gets complicated.
Perhaps one reason “Inside Out’ has become so critically well-received and popular is because these characters are not simply emotional states but full-fledged personality based self-states.
This, and the fact that the movie is really cute too.
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Dr. Jeremy Clyman earned a master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology (PsyD) from Yeshiva University. He completed three years of doctoral-level clinical externships in neurocognitive assessment, couples and family treatment, and cognitive behavioral for adolescents, adults and older adults.