Last updated on 20 February 2022
A few nights ago, I watched Pixar’s Inside Out again with my partner and her niece. A great film, it poignantly illustrates some important lessons about life and the power of empathy in a fun, subtle way.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it tells the story of the emotional life of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, by showing each of her main emotions is a character. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust work as a team, taking turns at Riley’s control panel (which guides Riley’s behavior) while consulting and debating with each other on how to handle different situations in Riley’s life. (Click here for a plot summary and here for a trailer).
Here are some things that I learn watching the movie. Warning: spoilers ahead!
Vulnerability Isn’t A Weakness, It’s A Superpower
During the first act, it’s clear that Joy is the leader of Riley’s emotions. She takes the controls as often as possible, so Riley can be happy. However, as the movie progresses, there are three key moments where Sadness is actually the hero. The first and most illustrative of these is when she and Joy are lost among Riley’s memories and need to find their way back to “Headquarters,” which houses Riley’s control panel.
Along their journey, they come across Riley’s invisible friend from early childhood, Bing Bong, who knows the way back to Headquarters. When he loses something precious though, Bing Bong is overcome with sadness, such that he is unwilling to give Sadness and Joy directions. Knowing this is their only hope, Joy tries to cheer up Bing Bong in different ways, but that doesn’t work.
This is where Sadness shows off her superpower for the first time. She sits down with Bing Bong, acknowledges his feelings, and shares his grief with him. Sadness allows herself to feel with Bing Bong; she empathizes with him!
Bing Bong feels better and guides the trio further along its journey. Sadness allowed herself to be vulnerable, shared in Bing Bong’s sadness, and helped him find his strength.
Lead Without Ego
As Riley’s first emotion, Joy leads the others by taking control as much as she can. Especially when Sadness appears, Riley’s second emotion, Joy physically pushes her away from the controls.
On the challenging first day of Riley’s new school, Joy tries to ensure her own success by assigning the other emotions tasks that keep them away from Riley’s controls. Joy even instructs Sadness to spend the day inside a chalk circle on the floor.
By monopolizing command, Joy keeps the rest of the team from contributing, and it makes Riley’s first day of school a disaster. While lost away from Headquarters though, Joy has to rely on her companions, Sadness and Bing Bong, and learns to appreciate that others can do great things, too.
When Joy and Sadness get back to Headquarters, a crisis is afoot: Riley is in the process of running away from home, and the control panel isn’t responding! Instead of taking over though, Joy guides a reluctant Sadness to the controls.
Sadness saves the day again, unlocking the control panel and guiding Riley to get off the bus and go back home to her parents. Joy, as the team’s leader, recognized what needed to be done, knew who was best to do it, and enabled her to succeed.
Be True To Your Feelings
It’s best for us to be honest about what we’re feeling; “faking it” can be disastrous. While Joy and Sadness are away from Headquarters, the rest of the team remains at Riley’s controls. Disgust, Anger, and Fear try to do things the way Joy would, in essence pretending to be Joy.
While they’re pretending, Riley tries to appear happy but ends up lashing out at her best friend and at her parents. Emotionally isolated from her friends and family, Riley withdraws deeper into melancholy.
All this changes when Riley returns home from almost running away. Joy and Sadness have returned to Headquarters, and Sadness gets control. Riley admits to her parents that she feels sad & misses their old home, and her parents respond by sharing that they feel the same way. Because Riley stops faking happiness by hiding her sadness and anger, she finally embraces how she feels and enriches the relationship with her parents.
“Always Be Kind, For Everyone You Meet Is Carrying a Heavy Burden.” (Even Animals)
Ok, this is a blog about empathy, and the whole movie is pretty much about empathy, so I understand that it’s kinda obvious to mention the empathy lesson here. But the movie’s end credits add a subtle but powerful angle to it.
The “Always be kind…” quote, whoever said it, refers to the fact that everyone we encounter has her own inner world and the conflicts that go with that. The movie shows us that by taking us inside the heads of various characters Riley encounters during the film, even her antagonists.
From our teachers, to our bosses, to the girl who serves us broccoli pizza with organic cheese, to the dog we meet on the sidewalk, we all struggle in much the same ways. So in being kind to others, we’re also being kind to ourselves.
Here are the life lessons I saw in Pixar’s Inside Out.
- Vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s a superpower
- Lead without ego
- Be true to your feelings
- Always be kind, for everyone is carrying a heavy burden (even animals).
Special thanks to Hester Bruikman for inspiring this post!
All images belong to Disney/Pixar.