**This post will have spoilers from the movie, Inside Out, so don’t read ahead if you don’t want the ending to be ruined for you.**
There are lots of articles circulating the internet right now about how psychologists and child therapists have all been thrilled with Inside Out’s message to kids and parents. It’s teaching kids that “big girls DO cry”, and teaching parents that their kids aren’t “giving them a hard time, they’re having a hard time”. We at RELATE echo these messages heartily and are also exhilarated that such a mainstream, successful movie could tackle these themes so flawlessly, while staying scientifically accurate, to boot! We have yet to come across an article, however, that highlights the crucial relationship messages Inside Out offers to adults as well, so we wanted to add our voice to the throngs of people praising Inside Out’s success.
When Riley comes back to her parents at the end of the movie after running away and finally allows sadness to take the controls and tells her parents that she’s lonely and misses her old friends, her parents immediately respond with comfort and love. On the other hand, when Fear, Disgust, and Anger can’t figure out what to do so Riley starts acting harsh and rude, her parents respond in kind. They can’t respond well to the jumble of emotions that make Riley just look “angry” because they’re put “on guard” by this sudden “show of force” and have to protect themselves from getting hurt (i.e. send her to her room).
This is the same exact phenomenon that we experience in our adult intimate relationships (except, we usually don’t send our partners to their rooms, we usually go to our own rooms). When we suppress our vulnerable emotions like sadness (like when Riley lets them get lost), our other emotions (fear, disgust, shame, anger) go into overdrive so we don’t always understand why we respond so harshly to someone or something until we’ve taken the time to slow ourselves down and discover the deeper feelings of hurt and sadness and let them have a voice. There is actually an entire, scientifically researched theory called “Internal Family Systems” that describes this phenomenon as “parts”. We all have these different parts and the parts all have their own role in helping us function, but they struggle when the wrong part has to play a certain role it’s not meant for because we don’t allow our painful emotions a voice. (This is where anxiety and depression start to take hold because our parts are internally fighting for control–like when Riley slips into depression because Fear, Anger, and Disgust couldn’t figure out how to manage without Joy.)
We feel disconnected from our partners when we can’t access our painful emotions like sadness, because as human beings we connect with one another through sharing intimate feelings and fears and allowing others to help us feel safe and comfortable. When Riley starts trying to pretend to be her parents’ “happy girl”, she starts losing parts of herself (literally) because she doesn’t let them see her pain and help her through it. Instead, she shuts them out and causes her parts to struggle with what they’re supposed to be feeling and doing. As soon as she accepts her own painful emotion of sadness, she can finally share it and let them in, which is when she feels connected to them again. This is how we reconnect with each other in our relationships as well. We have to move past the anger and whatever else comes from the scuffle our parts are involved in and access our deeper emotion so we can share it and let our partner in.
Riley’s journey was all about sadness in the movie, but there will come a day for her (and all of us) when it will be fear that’s hiding so well protected that she can’t share it, or shame, or any other of our deep, dark, scary emotions. The trick is to slow down and allow each part of ourselves the space to share what it needs to tell us, and then to share this with our partner so they can respond and reassure us of their love. Just like Riley’s relationship with her parents, our relationships will be stronger as we weather the storms of life with a partner who knows what’s happening for us on the inside. And in time, our parts will stop being so anxious and we’ll feel calm knowing that our partner will always help when we ask for it.
P.S. Joy can be a connecting emotion as well–it doesn’t always have to be sadness or pain, but people don’t typically have as hard of a time sharing joy with others as they do with their scarier emotions.
Written by: Erin