As many of my colleagues and clients know, I love movies! I often reference them in session as a way to connect, provide a reference point, and illustrate a concept. After the release of Pixar’s touching, animated movie “Inside Out,” many conversations have unfolded about the impact of the film on both children and parents. The film is about a young girl who is “uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school” (Imbd.com). While there are many take-home messages from the movie, there are two that stand out above the rest for me. The first is the concept that all of our emotions have merit and are integral parts of creating ourselves. The second is the reminder that our children pick up on the messages we send, even if the message is not 100% accurate or intentional.
Many people have the misconception that negative emotions are “bad” and should be replaced by positive emotions. While it is healthy to reframe situations so that we are able to see the silver lining or the light at the end of the tunnel, it can become unhealthy if we stuff our negative feelings down and only acknowledge the positive ones. As illustrated in the movie, feelings such as sadness and anger have their rightful place in our heads. It is through experiencing all types of emotion that we are able to connect with one another and empathize when those close to us are hurting. More importantly, feelings such as anger and sadness are also ways to connect with ourselves and explore areas that bring forth such feelings. When negative emotions arise, there is typically a trigger and by examining our reactions (emotionally, logically, and behaviorally) we are better able to get to know ourselves. The more connections we make between events, thoughts, and emotion, the better we are able to express our emotions appropriately, tell others what we need to feel supported, and take care of ourselves. Letting ourselves feel negative emotions without judgment can be difficult, especially if we have been sent the message that negative emotions are not allowed.
“Inside Out’s” reminder that the messages we send to our children become part of their inner voice seems to have struck a chord with many parents. As parents we send messages to our children even when we don’t realize it. (Spoiler Alert!) In the movie, the parents realize they have been unintentionally sending their daughter the message that she must always be happy. Though their comments seem benign and even supportive, the unintentional message gets passed on that negative emotions are “bad.” This realization helps the parents understand that what their daughter needs is to feel understood, validated, and reassured. It seems so simple, yet so many have a difficult time just validating others’ emotions rather than trying to “fix” the problem. When we feel heard we are better able to control our emotional expression and figure out what needs to be done to move forward. When we validate our children’s emotions we are sending the message that their emotional response is normal, and then we can come in with ways to manage strong emotions appropriately. Thinking about what messages have been conveyed to us can help us recognize what messages we may passing along unintentionally.
Great family conversations can be started after watching films like “Inside Out.” I recommend capitalizing on these teachable moments because the conversations that result after watching particular movies, television shows, or after reading books, are often valuable ways to open communication without it feeling too intense. Questions can range from: “what did you take away from the movie” or “what was your favorite part” to “I wonder if I’ve sent you mistaken messages” or “What emotions do you feel that weren’t portrayed in the movie?” Just get the conversation started and see where it leads!
Mary Kathleen Hill, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist