The value of emotions for well being

My church has a tradition we call Month of Sundays, in which the entire month (usually one with five Sundays, so it varies by year) is connected by a single theme.  This year the theme is Joy.  I mean, true happiness, not J.O.Y. Last night we had a movie night and we watched the movie Inside Out.  I have to confess that it made me weep.


Inside Out, in case you aren’t familiar with it (this was my first time seeing it), is about a girl named Riley.  She is governed by her five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who live in “head”quarters and are in charge of all of her reactions and incoming and core memories.  For the first eleven years of her life, Riley is a well-adjusted, happy child, and the emotions all live in relative harmony.

Riley then moves from rural Minnesota to San Fransisco, resulting in huge culture shock.  Sadness starts playing a bigger role in her life, and Joy isn’t sure how to keep Riley happy anymore, so she tries to subdue Sadness.  There is an accident in Headquarters and in the process, Joy and Sadness find themselves deep in Riley’s memories, far away from Headquarters where they can help her live and thrive.  The story is about their journey back to headquarters and the discoveries that Joy makes about Sadness along the way.  In the outside world, without Joy and Sadness, Riley predictably slips into depression.


What I loved about this movie was how it showed the value of all of the emotions, even the ones we usually think of as undesirable.  As each emotion is introduced in the first few minutes of the movie, Joy explains that Fear and Disgust keep Riley safe and alive, Anger cares about things being fair, but she doesn’t really know what Sadness does.  Throughout the movie, Joy does her best to prevent Sadness from doing anything at all.  I think this reflects our culture’s obsession with trying to avoid sadness, which is understandable.  I don’t know too many people who truly enjoy being sad.

Of course this has extreme consequences.  Suppressing Sadness causes Riley to lose the core parts of her personality.  Towards the end of the movie, Joy discovers that several of the joyous memories also depend on Sadness.  Sadness is what brings Riley the help that she needs to overcome disappointments, which then allows Joy to dominate the memory.  Joy then learns to appreciate the role that Sadness plays in Riley’s life, and she learns how to work with Sadness rather than against her to save Riley.


My takeaway from this reinforces what I have learned from many wise people.  We need to fully experience all of our emotions, acknowledge them, and accept the help they can offer us.  If we try to suppress one of them, any of them, we cripple ourselves emotionally.  This can lead to mental illness.  The word depression is never used in the movie, and Riley never has a diagnosis.  Her illness lasted only a few long days to a week or so, but it was real nevertheless.

Although many people can overcome their depression without any outside help, as Riley did, many more people cannot.  Once you’ve lost access to an emotion, it is very hard to regain it again.  Joy and Sadness found their way back to headquarters, but there were many, many obstacles and losses along the way.  Riley made some very poor decisions during this time that had the potential to cause long term harm.

If you struggle

If you are struggling with your emotions, please find someone to talk to.  It might be a friend, or a parent, a spouse, or a professional therapist or counselor.  Even talking to a friendly stranger on the bus can be cathartic.  If you find yourself contemplating irreversible decisions, please call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.  They are open 24 hours a day and are ready to help you.


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