The Disney animated movie, Inside Out teaches one of the most powerful principles I know for authentic transformation: We experience joy by embracing sadness (and other troubling feelings).
At first glance it seems counter-intuitive. How can a positive emotional state arise by embracing a negative emotional state? Doesn’t Judaism teach us that the path to joy is by thinking positive thoughts and doing productive behaviors? Shouldn’t we try to push away sadness and other negative feelings and see them as a ploy of our lower self to pull us down and destroy our joy?
There is certainly a time and place for positive thinking. But there is also a time and place for allowing oneself to access and embrace ones uncomfortable feelings. In a society that spends so much time, energy, and resources trying to avoid emotional pain and suffering, the message of Inside Out is one that needs to be heard by everyone.
This principle is well known to Judaism; it’s the underlying principle in the experience of mourning. The Torah requires a person to sit shiva for seven days when a loved one dies. The death of a parent or child is devastating. They way out of the pain and sadness is not to avoid it but by feeling it. The mourner is not instructed to think positive thoughts or see his or her thinking as distorted. Instead the community comes and sits with the mourner providing a safe place for his/her feelings. The mourner is invited to talk about his loss and pain which is why other are not permitted to speak to the mourner unless invited to do so. The visitor’s job is to have total respect for the feelings of the mourner, which is why it is so inappropriate when visitors try to distract the mourner. By feeling his sadness the mourner slowly reintegrates emotionally and recovers his feelings of vitality.
In the movie, Riley, a pre-teen, experiences a painful loss when her parents decide to move from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco. The movie takes us inside Riley’s mind and her emotional experience of loss. She has lost her friends, her hockey team, her favorite lake which she skated on with her parents, and the friendly ecology of Minnesota, not present in the dirty city. She’s miserably sad and her parent’s who are caught up in their own life drama fail her by not being there for her and her feelings.
We watch how Riley’s feelings of loss and sadness are not permitted to be felt or expressed. Dad has an agenda to make sure his little girl stays happy, while mom is busy trying to cheer her up by showing her the upside of San Francisco. In one scene, Riley expresses her anger only to be sent to her room. The opportunity for emotional attunement and understanding has gone up in smoke. By dismissing her feelings of sadness, she becomes an even angrier little girl.
Anger often serves a defensive function especially when our feelings are dismissed and cannot find a safe relational home for them. Riley’s emotional world begins to crumble which the movie very concretely depicts, as her “core memories’ fall apart right before our eyes. Her once solid emotional foundation fragments. She is left alone with her painful feelings. In desperation she decides to run away and return to Minnesota. People imprisoned by their emotional pain become desperate.
Luckily for Riley, she is able to connect with her deep sadness. The most moving moment of the movie is when “Joy” gives permission to “Sadness” to take over. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre at that moment. We understood how necessary it was for Joy to step out of the way and let Riley take ownership of her sadness. Riley returns home and in the presence of her parents, breaks down in a flood of tears. Instead of dismissing her feelings, this time her parents embrace Riley and her feelings.
The Talmud says, “The prisoner cannot free himself from the prison.” Riley’s sadness has found a safe home. The healing process has begun and her vitality returns, expanding in wonderfully new ways.
Emotional pain, like sadness or emptiness, is not something to be gotten rid of, it is something to be embraced, understood, and integrated. Feelings are vehicles to growth, not obstacles. Exploring our feelings helps us to become more expansive, deeper and authentic human beings. This is the transformative secret of Inside Out.