By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
Over the July 4th weekend my family and I saw the new Pixar movie Inside Out. Everyone from my 12-year-old son to my 72-year-old mother thought it was terrific. The movie shows the inner workings of the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, as she leaves behind friends she has known all her life. Inside Riley’s mind there are five “characters”, each representing a different emotion—Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness. These characters reside in “headquarters” in Riley’s brain and take turns operating a control console in response to events in Riley’s daily life.
Whereas prior to the move, Riley’s emotional life was fairly orderly, the move represents a developmental crisis that wreaks havoc upon Riley’s emotions. Initially, Riley’s parents are too preoccupied with tasks related to the move to notice her distress. Inside Riley’s mind, Joy tries desperately to remain dominant and to keep Sadness away from the control console, an effort which leaves Anger, Fear and Disgust temporarily in charge of Riley’s emotional life. Sadness is portrayed as a burdensome drag whose mere touch will ruin everything. Eventually, though, Joy learns to value and appreciate Sadness as an essential member of the team of emotions. She grows to understand that Riley’s losses must be acknowledged and grieved. The movie culminates in a scene in which Riley courageously confesses her sadness to her parents who respond with loving, compassionate support. During this very moving encounter, Joy and Sadness both have hands on the control console, representing the reality that important events in our lives are often infused with a mix of emotions—in this case the sadness of loss alongside the joy of emotional connection with supportive others.
By helping our children develop the ability to feel and express sadness, we are also facilitating in them a greater ability to experience joy.
Most adults know intellectually that sadness is a normal, natural emotion and completely appropriate in the face of losses, great and small. Despite this knowledge, many of us resist feeling it ourselves. In fact, we will go to great lengths to deny our sorrow and minimize the impact of our losses. To the extent that we are limited in our capacity to experience sadness, we will have a hard time tolerating our children’s sadness. Conversely, if we are open to our own sadness, we will be more receptive to our children when they feel sad. Riley’s parents are great models in this regard. In the face of Riley’s sorrow, her parents comforted her, validated her feelings, and spoke to her of their own sadness about the move and the things they missed about Minnesota. Riley learned that her feelings were normal and acceptable and that she was not the only one in her family feeling sad.
The movie Inside Out captures a paradox at play in the relationship between sadness and joy. Consider a passage from The Prophet by Kahil Gibran:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked
The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
…Some of you say “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
As Gibran so elegantly expresses, our capacity for joy and sadness are intimately linked. By helping our children develop the ability to feel and express sadness, we are also facilitating in them a greater ability to experience joy.
Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.