In our series, Family Night at the Movies, we recommend movies for viewing and later discussion whose message may be helpful for teenagers and their parents.
In one of our previous articles, you can read more about movies as valuable tools in addressing the emotional and social needs of teens.
Our latest choice is Inside Out, the acclaimed Pixar animation movie of 2015 directed by Pete Docter, which deals with the emotions, specifically sadness:
The film is set inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with the main characters actually being her primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who argue and compete with one another. The conflict between Joy and Sadness forms the basis of the action.
When her father’s new job requires that the family moved to San Francisco, Riley’s emotions are thrown into turmoil. She has torn away from her familiar, harmonious Midwestern life and forced to adjust to a new environment. In this classically stressful situation, we watch the battle of her emotions as they try to navigate these new challenges in her life.
Taking into account that the complexity of psychological processes is impossible to fully explore in a movie, Inside Out nevertheless effectively illustrates how our emotions work and how they connect to happenings in the outside world and to our cognitive processes.
Various lessons can be taken from this movie, among them that all emotions are equally important and the danger of the imperative to stay positive all the time. We have addressed these in a previous article, Come to the dark side, we have emotions. Here, we address an important third lesson – the purpose of sadness.
Purpose of Sadness – Adaptation of Loss
Emotions are specific reactions to happenings that are important to us and the purpose of each is an adaptation to the change, reconnection with important others, and ultimately the ability to move on with our lives. We are sad when we anticipate or experience the loss of someone or something valuable to us, so the particular purpose of sadness is a psychological adjustment to loss.
At the beginning of the movie, Joy, Riley’s dominant emotion, introduces the other emotions. She explains why each of them is important to Riley and points out that they all work as a team. However, when she comes to Sadness, Joy just skips it, admitting that she doesn’t really understand its purpose. So, in the face of this stressful situation, Joy prevents Sadness from acting and does not allow Riley to be sad, although that is clearly her most natural emotional reaction. She is losing her old way of life and being forced to adjust to a new one. She misses her old house, her friends, her hockey team, and also her father, who is more frequently absent because of his new job. She is struggling to adapt.
When we allow ourselves to experience certain emotions, many processes in both our mind and body work in concert to prepare us for action. The work of sadness differs in that when we are sad we feel listless and to all appearances become passive. Yet our mind is working actively to try to process the loss and reorganize our inner world in order to adapt to the new reality.
Purpose of Sadness – Relief and Connection
Another important function of sadness is its specific bodily expression. When we experience sadness without repression and let it flow freely through our body, we manifest specific facial expressions and body posture and will cry or sob.
Crying is a natural healing process. When we cry we are relieving tension and pain from our body as if the tears were melting the pain and alleviating our sadness. The release is complete with deep crying that involves sobbing since our distress is expressed through our voice and a different pattern of breathing. After a while, breathing is deeper, the body is relieved of tension and we feel much better. Reassure your children of any age; give them permission, let them know it’s okay to cry.
The specific body language associated with sadness has its social dimension, too. It is obvious to others that we are sad and they may show compassion. This is what, in the end, Joy finally recognized and came to understood to be the purpose of Sadness.
When Joy allowed Sadness to act and Riley finally expressed her sadness, her parents hugged and comforted her. In her distress, Riley’s image of “family” had collapsed and almost caused her to run away. Now the family was once again a team, reunited and reconnected.
Danger of Repressing Sadness
Sadness or any other emotion can be repressed when it is perceived as less valuable. “Being sad is for weaklings. I must be strong.” Our system of values is mainly formed through family and wider cultural influences.
Today we are witnessing a global trend which values “positive thinking”; a sort of industry of happiness to keep us smiling, optimistic, shiny and happy, which is not in accordance with our psychological makeup. Under certain circumstances, it is natural to feel fear, sadness, or anger. Every repression, denial, or compulsion to feel differently than we actually feel, leads to imbalance.
This is exactly what we learn in the movie. Since Joy doesn’t understand the purpose of Sadness and is afraid Sadness will spoil Riley’s happy life and infect her joyful memories, she multitasks in order to keep each new experience positive or funny at all costs.
The pressure to stay positive is even stronger when her mother praises Riley for staying so cheerful despite everything, implying that if both of them just keep smiling it will ease the pressure Riley’s father is going through. We’ll see later in the movie the consequences of this attitude. It is a reminder also for us parents to be careful with the messages we’re sending to our kids. You never know what kind of battle is going on in their heads and how they will interpret our words.
“Don’t feel” or “Don’t feel (certain emotion)” are frequent injunctions that repeat in the back of the minds of depressive or anxious clients going to therapy. The authors of Redecision Therapy, Goulding and Goulding, observed that when sadness is repressed, repression of joy and other pleasant emotions follows. As a consequence, a person is unable to emotionally bond with others.
That is why it is important to reassure your child of any age that feeling sad is okay. How do you do that? By understanding, allowing, and encouraging your child to feel and express sadness (and all other emotions), so cleansing can take place and the child can move forward. It is especially important to discuss later what happened and what made her/him so sad.
With teenagers, you can engage in even deeper conversations and we hope that some of the information in this article will help.
Ask your teens what they’ve learned from the movie. Did they ever feel as Riley did? What is the purpose of sadness, in their opinion? Can they identify their dominant emotion and the one they’re tending to neglect? For more about particular questions and how to lead a conversation after the movie, read here.
by Milena Ćuk,
Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-training