Before I saw the latest Pixar film Inside Out I was working on a post, “Wild With Denial,” about how couples get into trouble by denying their problems, denying their emotions – and how it only takes one in denial to throw off The Coupledom. “No we are not having a problem; nope it’s just your peri-menopause; my hours; Susie’s adolescence; your commute; it’s not that bad.” In short, your partner’s reality is not your reality – not yet anyway – so guess what? – it is obviously just you. “We’re fine.”
Not only do individuals in The Coupledom actively participate in pushing down uncomfortable feelings and perceptions but our entire culture thinks that sadness, anger, disgust, envy, jealousy, competitiveness and many more human emotions are best left unacknowledged in ourselves and treated as aliens who must be exorcised from our children. Loss is one of the emotions that our heroine in Inside Out is feeling but it is the emotion that cannot be named – to be sad about leaving a small town in Minnesota to go live in a city as exciting as San Francisco is to disappoint mom and dad who are pretty ecstatic about moving. Don’t want to be disappointing the folks.
As a licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst/couples therapist or whatever designation makes for some communication of what I do, I know that in a social situation many individuals are made uncomfortable knowing what my professional life consists of – helping others identify and alleviate their emotional discomforts. Often folks will ask if I am analyzing them at a party or if my husband and I spend hours analyzing each other. People seem to worry that I can see through them into their individual secret shames, marital discords or deeply personal insecurities. It’s one of those occupational hazards not unlike how folks might feel around a proctologist or a psychic. Their fear is palpable.
So when I saw the Pixar movie my initial reaction was wow, a feature film is outing the emotion of sadness as useful, necessary, beneficial and developmentally important. In fact, without allowing sadness and other not-joyful feelings to be part of our children’s acknowledged experience and language, serious problems can set in – what we shrinks call “acting out,” or depression, or self-medicating.
This outcome is wonderfully depicted in the film and supported by clinical experience. The eleven-year-old runs away because she cannot allow herself to feel how sad she is, how alone she feels, and how much she misses her former home and friends. That she is able to buy a bus ticket and step onto that bus in the darkness of early evening is another story. But it happens – kids run away.
I have listened for decades to adults describe how in their childhood, a death of a parent, a move to a new school and town, a divorce, a sibling death, a protracted illness of a loved one, was not part of the conversation they were able to have with their parents or anyone close to them. They observed the events or were told something had happened, and may have been asked, “How are you doing with this?” Or maybe not. They often answered “O.K.” or “I’m fine” because kids have a hard time labeling and then articulating complex emotions. And they want to please. They also don’t know, unless they are allowed to experience it, that sad feelings don’t last forever. As parents we may unwittingly collude in that belief by avoiding our own sadness, fearing it will bring us and everyone else “down.” Our model of avoidance becomes the method of choice when our children are faced with the prospect of pain.
We are all eager to reassure ourselves that our children are emotionally O.K. even as they experience unsettling events – one parent spliced into shorter segments of the week or month; grief – a classmate dies, a grandparent develops dementia; or disappointment – they don’t make the team, don’t get into the school they want, are rejected by friends. “Its fine Mom.” If it is something we as parents have orchestrated, we are even more freaked out at the possibility that our choices might have “hurt” our children. So we are thrilled when they say, “I’m fine.” We may have to go back to work or go into detox or sell the house. It is normal and necessary at times for our parental decisions to have some painful repercussions for our children. Or our spouses. It is not the painful repercussions of our decisions (often we have no other option) that create emotional havoc. It is the denial of them that does the damage. Pixar’s frenzied characters Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy spin around popping and pinging like balls in a pinball machine trying to keep sad feelings from taking hold of Riley, as if sadness could kill her.
At the heart of the matter is our fear of non-joyful emotions and our efforts to banish them from our homes, our children’s experience and our memories as quickly as possible. That these feelings might take up residence in home and hearth makes us scamper to tamp them down like unwanted sparks flying off the logs in our fireplace – too close to the rug, the curtain, our hearts.
As a graduate student decades ago, one of my supervisors informed me, “There is only one theme in life and it is loss.” Loss!!!! No way! Hard to imagine when in our twenties. There are probably several themes in life, if we narrow living down to themes. But loss is one of the biggest – we are born into mortality and as we move from infancy to toddlerhood, toddler to preschooler, preschooler to kindergartner, there is loss. Loss never stops but it partners with growth and gain. Yet loss is often hushed because it hurts and we think hurting is weakness – being vulnerable – like a weakened abdominal muscle that reduces our core strength to mush. Easy to knock us over. That’s what tugs at us as humans in western culture – vulnerability.
It is my job to guide individuals to the regions of their pain – they are feeling it or not feeling it but acting it out, ignorant often as to its source and its solution. They may blame themselves for it, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” or someone else, as in sessions that begin with “She or He…” rather than “I.” I help them to haul out fear, disgust, anger, sadness, joy and a whole host of other Pixar cast characters, examine their roots, and work on finding useful and effective ways to ease and make use of them. In couples work this is a complex and intricate journey for two people to engage in – outing what hurts – sharing vulnerability. But a very worthy endeavor.
In the New York Times Op Ed article, “The Science of Inside Out” research psychologists Paul Ekman and Daeker Keltner describe their role as consultants to the Pixar creators John Lasseter and Peter Docter (a man who built a tree house to live in with his family). Ekman and Daeker highlight the organizing aspects of emotions – to me, a very welcomed discussion. I loved how that was depicted in the film. Only when sadness was allowed to be part of Riley’s memory and emotional repertoire was she able to reconnect with her emotional bond to her parents, her childhood joys, her fear of the dark night, her grief and her powerful past attachments. Only then were tears allowed to roll down her cheeks in their animated glow. Only then was Riley able to return home and begin the next chapter in her developmental journey.
All our emotions deserve our respect. All emotions are part of a healthy development. It’s not feelings that get us into trouble. It’s denying them, repressing them, disapproving of them and most of all, being frightened of them. Ouch I have a feeling. Oh good, tell me what it is – I’m sure I’ve had that feeling too.
Thank you Pixar. You made my week/month/year.
© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015