A Psychologist’s take on the new movie – Inside Out

It’s not very often that a movie comes onto mainstream cinemas that fits so nicely into the theme of a ‘psychology blog’ than the new movie, Inside Out.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Inside Out, it’s the latest entry by Pixar.  It tells the story of Riley, a small-town Minnesota 11-year old girl who has to suddenly move house with her parents to San Francisco, about as far away from a small-town existence as you can get. What makes the story interesting, however, is that the movie tells the story of Riley, via her emotions – encapsulated by five distinct emotion personalities sitting in the ‘headquarters’ of her mind.

There’s Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, and we watch as they react to events  in Riley’s world and influence her responses by taking control of the ‘console’ in her brain. As a result, we see them take an active role in the formation of her memories and her personality. Watch the trailer to see how they work together (and how they compare to the emotional counterparts in her parents’ minds).

The movie does an extraordinary job at creating a visual landscape that represents different aspects of our brain and how they work together. There is immense detail – explaining how we forge memories, how we end up forgetting memories over time, how our personality and our tastes and interests dictate our behavior. Some of the details are cute and whimsical, such as the ‘train of thought’ which is an actual train. Other details themselves are firmly rooted in psychological theory; the concept of the ‘five little emotions in our mind’ is borrowed from landmark research in psychology showing the presence of 5 ‘primary emotions’ that transcend all cultures and are recognizable by everyone.

But the movie manages to move beyond the whimsical – it is poignant, funny, charming, but also at times honest, raw, and emotional. And the way it does this is by adding an extra element into the story – how we change as individuals when we go through major life changes.

Why would we want to feel anything other than joy?

We watch the emotions (especially Joy) drive Riley’s behavior in the way we expect them to. When Joy is ‘driving’ Riley will engage in fun, laugh, play and find the best out of a situation. When Anger takes the stage Riley is much different, acting in ways we might expect an 11 year old to express her anger. But what’s interesting is how each emotion is portrayed not as necessarily bad, nor good, but all of them are just doing what they think is best. It’s just that being emotions, they think in one-dimensional ways. Anger solves Riley’s problems through confrontation, while Fear tries to think of a million reasons to avoid those problems.

Often it seems to us that we want to live a life where we are only experiencing positive emotions. But Inside Out challenges that notion, it explores how each emotion has something to offer us in order to grow and change. It begs the question, “what would life be like if we never experienced certain emotions, and what would life be like if we never felt them at all?”

Is there ever any point to having a sad memory of something?

Inside out is a movie about memories, and how we as people are so strongly linked with them. We watch memories play a big role in Riley’s life – from the banal (getting that catchy tune stuck in our head) to big, life changing experiences. But what’s interesting as it shows how memory is not a fixed thing. Memories are forged, they spend time locked in the recesses of the mind, but they also fade away. While it seems like a problem to always be forgetting things, how does it change us as we grow, to discard old ideas in favor of new ones, and new experiences?

But another big-picture question Inside Out asks is, are our memories purely good, or purely bad? Are there experiences that are bitter-sweet in life? Should we try to avoid bad experiences, or do they shape us in unpredictable ways? Is it possible for good to come from a categorically negative experience?

In my life, it makes me look back at times where I found things difficult, or painful, and it begs the question – how did I change as a result of that experience? What have I learned about myself, the world and others because that happened to me? Can I now handle that same situation much better, do I have a new and fresh perspective because my memories aren’t just happy ones, or sad ones, but often a curious mix of the two?

For a movie that ostensibly looks like the wacky adventures of different colored cartoon characters, it is incredibly deep and thoughtful. I thoroughly recommend watching this movie. Ultimately I think its greatest strength is how it is able to make you think by presenting ideas in ways children can understand. I hope that if you watch this movie, that it will prompt you to consider how you see your emotions, your memories, and the idea of growing up. I hope that it leads to some deep and thoughtful conversations.

By Adam Wright, Psychologist

More information can be found about Adam here


The concept of 5 primary emotions comes from the work of psychologist Paul Ekman. More about his work can be found at this website: http://www.beinghuman.org/mind/paul-ekman


7 Secrets of the Mentally Strong

mental strength image
No one wants to be the toxic one. The draining one who exhausts all of their mental energy analysing the many different ways life has been unlucky or unkind to them. Or all the reasons they have to feel sorry for themselves. Let’s be real though, we have all probably found ourselves there on occasion, ultimately leading us down a path of damaging and self-defeating behaviours. But however strongly entrenched these negative patterns are, or however much we are hurting, we do not have to succumb to the allure of negativity, for overcoming misery and misfortune involves making a choice. An important choice. A choice that can remove the shackles keeping us trapped in a web of repeated failure, chronic guilt and pain. One that can help us foster enormous mental strength and acceptance of the person we are. Or the person we want to be.

Feeling mentally strong is not necessarily an automatic gift bestowed on those who easily see the glass as half full. It is a choice that requires cultivation every day (despite what life decides to throw at us). Cultivating this choice repeatedly time and time again creates a habit. And it takes time, patience and a whole lot of hard work to create a new habit (just think of how hard it is to create a habit around regular exercise, eating well or quitting smoking). The good news? Once the new habit is created, the rest is history and we are well on our way to living the life we want.

So how do we train ourselves to exude a ‘can do’ attitude? Well, let’s be real for a minute. Part of this depends on how determined and committed you are to changing. Try to adopt the following principles and evaluate how they make you feel. Chances are you’ll feel a little better. The important thing is to persist- changing negative thought patterns takes time and causes discomfort initially. But practicing these principles repeatedly is a massive step towards breaking out of the vicious cycle of pessimism and toxicity.

1. Realise that the only one who can make yourself feel good is you. People with good self-worth foster internal validation that functions completely independently from others’ opinions of them (the flipside is where you only value yourself when others do, placing an overemphasis and even desperation on the need to please others and be noticed). As the saying goes, ‘what others think of me is none of my business’. Move away from worrying what others think of you and an unhealthy NEED to be liked. If someone likes you, that’s a bonus. If they don’t, move on because someone else will.

2. Avoid comparing yourself with others (this comes from a place of being unsure of your worth). If you find yourself doing this compulsively, you are probably always coming off second best. And how can you foster a positive self-image when you always tell yourself you aren’t good enough?

3. Stop watching for signs of rejection from others and avoid acting based on a fear of getting hurt. If you are acting with this as a motivator then you are ultimately making some bad and self-destructive choices. Be relaxed and confident in the wonderful person you are with your unique gifts and qualities.
Someone can’t get inside and change your feelings of yourself without you letting them.

4. See that no one has a perfect life and is able to be happy all the time. Therefore, when challenges arise they should be viewed as problems needing solutions. Just focusing on the problem and the pain (or the ‘circle of concern’) drains your energy and you will quickly and easily become overwhelmed (and probably build up the problem to catastrophic proportions in the process). Instead, focus on your ‘circle of influence’, or what you can do to solve the problem. If the problem cannot be solved now (or ever), then choose to focus your energy on working at accepting what cannot be changed, thus freeing up your mental energy to change what you can in your life and not stressing on all those things you can’t. The two mantras of the depressed and anxious are the ‘If Onlys’ relating to all the hurt and regret of bad decisions made in the past and the ‘What If’s’ which are the myriad of negative and catastrophic possibilities for the future. These two mantras will only serve to make you unhappy, negative and ‘stuck’.

5. Recognise that the only one responsible (and to blame) for your choices is you. You are not that vulnerable child anymore and you are not the product of other people’s opinions of you (sure these things could contribute to who you have become up until this point but ultimately the job is yours now and into the future). Take your life into your own hands and try to not blame others for your own choices and mistakes. It takes someone with good self worth to admit they are wrong (when this is justified) and to take steps to acknowledge this and repair the relationship (even when the relationship needing repair is with yourself!). Being free of the pressure to please others allows you to take on what you want to and leave the stuff you don’t (could it be that simple?). In the famous words of Dr Seuss:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

6. Stay true to yourself by not fearing your uniqueness from others. For its this individual difference that makes you, you and not the person next to you. When we were children we could live disinhibited and free to play in whatever way we wanted. Then why can’t we accept all the facets of our character as adults? We all function best when we are slightly outside our comfort zones. So get outside of yours and take some calculated risks. It can be quite liberating when you do!

7. Leave others alone to steer their own lives as they see fit, not as you do. It takes a strong person to accept that others think differently to you and that’s ok. You can agree to disagree without sensing that as a personal threat. Others need to grow and learn from their own experiences just as you have. Let them do that and you will empower them in the process. Do not be the one who is a caretaker for someone because YOU have a need to feel valued (coming back to that unhealthy need for external validation). If you find yourself being the caretaker of another adult be warned: you risk not being appreciated. This comes from a view that your behaviour represents an attempt to control rather than to provide genuine support.

Even though we can’t control the adversities that happen to us in life, we can control what lens we choose to see our lives through. Good decision making starts with understanding how powerful our thought patterns are and how closely they dictate our actions. Positive begets positive. Negative begets negative. Approaching life using the above principles helps to create more positive experiences into our lives. This typifies mental strength. And builds our sense of self-worth.

Every moment is a place we’ve never been. Meet today with expectation, enthusiasm and surprise. It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined!


Taming the Black Dog, by Bev Aisbett
All of IT, by Bev Aisbett
7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey

By: Alison Lenehan, Psychologist