Authenticity in Love & Life
A Blog by Elaine Barron, LCSW
Becoming more emotionally aware of one’s own feelings is one of the first steps to becoming known. Many people seem to be on a quest for happiness, not realizing the importance of identifying and experiencing the many other feelings that pass through our “self” on any given day. A few years ago the cartoon movie, “Inside Out”, came out and though it was supposedly a kids’ movie, I found myself identifying many lessons adults can learn about the unseen element of our emotions.
The “Inside Out” movie personifies the emotions of an 11 year old girl named Riley. Since the beginning of her life, Riley’s moments had been largely controlled by her positive emotion, Joy, with occasional appearances of her more negative emotions: Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness
One of the focuses of my practice is getting people to understand the impact of their emotional experiences on their choices, actions, and relationships. I often hand out a feeling wheel that includes at the center the same emotions as the Inside Out emotional characters along with the two additional emotions of Peaceful and Powerful . (I suspect that Inside Out didn’t include these emotions because they are not as predominant in children as they are in adults.) I’ve found the feeling wheel useful because when someone experiences an emotion, he or she can quickly identify which type of feeling it is, using the center of the wheel, tracing it to a more specific nuance of the feeling toward the outer edge of the circle. In most interactions, emotions speak louder than the words. Emotions contribute to vocal changes such as inflection, tone, and volume. These factors significantly impact how the words are interpreted. I believe it’s very important to identify and express feelings, thereby making it possible for the listener to accurately interpret the message that the speaker is trying to communicate.
In the movie, Riley’s “go to” emotion had been Joy. When Riley’s happy life was disrupted by a move, the emotions of Fear, Anger, and Disgust came to the forefront, with Sadness trying to take the controls from Joy. Joy prevailed for a while, by calling on Riley to look at her happy memories in order to add some joy to the bleak new situation. Her parents responded well to her happy little attitude, but it was obvious the tragic loss of all things familiar had affected the whole family. Riley experienced a traumatic incident the first day at her new school. She was called upon by her teacher to introduce herself and tell about her previous life in Minnesota. The recall of past happy memories, brought Sadness to the forefront, when Riley was forced to face the loss of the many positives from her past. As she cried in front of her classmates, she experienced humiliation, which she promptly internalized, becoming a new core memory. When her parents tried to get her to talk about her day, Anger took the controls and she exploded, and ran off to her room, bearing the pain all alone. Joy and Sadness got sucked out of the control room, leaving only Fear, Anger, and Disgust in charge to muddle through taking the controls which would impact Riley’s decisions in Joy’s absence.
Joy and Sadness found themselves in a different part of Riley’s brain, winding their way through shelves of balls representing Riley’s many memories. The memory balls were mostly gold representing joy, with a few red (anger), blue (sadness), fear (purple), and green (disgust) interspersed. At first, as Joy and Sadness began their journey through the recesses of Riley’s brain back to the control center, Joy dragged Sadness along out of obligation, rather than seeing Sadness’s value to Riley. A turning point for Joy came when she realized that a precursor to one of Riley’s happiest memories, had been a time when Sadness had been present in the loss of one of Riley’s hockey games. Riley’s expression of sadness to her parents had led to their comfort and support, which in turn became one of Riley’s core memories, colored with both gold and blue. Once Joy and Sadness returned to the control room in Riley’s brain, she was able to express her sadness to her parents, and in return receive comfort, which was crucial to her adjustment to her new setting. As Riley matured, her emotions became more intertwined and complex, thus necessitating the need for a more extensive control panel.
Inside Out on first glance, may appear to be just another successful Pixar children’s movie. Actually, University of California at Berkley psychologist Dacher Keltner was hired as a consultant to provide an understanding how emotions interact in the brain. I found myself gathering some insight from the movie to apply to my own personal experiences. Pictures can be worth a thousand words.
I’ve learned a lot about emotions over the years. As a child and as a teenager, I just wanted to be happy, and naively thought it possible, having been brought up on fairy tales with “happily ever after” endings. As a 21 year old college student, I experienced the deep well of depression, resulting from the loss of relationships when I transferred to another university. This began a journey of me discounting my emotions, using my will to “act myself into a new way of feeling”. Discounting emotions eventually led to the wasteland of numbness, in which I didn’t feel extreme joy or sadness. I, instead, relied on my more automatic flight or fight emotions of fear or anger, and watered down versions of the other emotions to get me through a “black and white” version of life. Having gone through many personal struggles over the last several years, I learned the importance recognizing and expressing to caring friends and family the negative emotions that came as a result of legitimate traumatic experiences.
Now I recognize as an adult, the essence of my character is related to my many memories. Our ever-fleeting present is our opportunity to make wise decisions that affect our futures. These choices are informed by our past experiences. Sowing healthy decisions in our present sets our direction. Every golden memory has been touched by sadness, if for no other reason than because “it’s over”. And in the blue—which have ranged from inconvenience to devastation—I’ve seen the principle of “God causing all things to work together for good”. In so doing, those memories of sadness, often mixed with fear, have been coated with joy. Somehow, those multi-colored memories contribute to a depth of life that is much richer and meaningful than the simple one-colored memories of childhood.
As Riley experienced comfort when she was able to share her negative emotions with her loving parents, so transformation in individuals becomes possible when deep seated emotions and traumatic experiences, long held as “secrets”, are shared with caring, supportive others.
As a follower of Christ, I know this Bible verse to be true: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away. All things have become new. (I Corinthians 5: 17) Receiving God’s forgiveness for ourselves and practicing forgiveness toward others enables us to start afresh in building all those rich multi-colored memories that add up to a life well-lived.
Elaine Barron is a psychotherapist in Alpharetta, Georgia who is also a Christ follower. She has experienced much in her life that was necessarily the way she would have chosen, but sees those struggles as opportunities for growth and healing, desiring to share with others what she has learned "so far".