We returned home last night after spending a few weeks with my extended family in the Northeast. Yesterday was a long and exhausting travel day. We all felt sad to be leaving family that we only get to see a few times a year. And my son was so upset that he spent the entire day crying at the mere mention of anything regarding our trip.
I wanted to make him feel better. And I wanted to make myself feel better. I wanted to say something funny or distract him with a silly story. Cheering others up or ourselves for that matter, is how most of us deal with sadness. But I know this doesn’t always work. And we can’t protect ourselves from sadness, we can only learn how to soften into it. Although it was hard, I tried to allow him to have his experience, gently reassuring him that it was okay as he moved through the rawness.
I was reminded of the new Pixar movie, Inside Out, which we saw on a dreary day earlier in the summer. I thought of the starring role that Sadness played and how much I appreciated the message that joy can’t exist without it.
I didn’t enjoy everything about the movie especially when I questioned whether someone had dropped LSD into my drink as the characters, Joy and Sadness, got lost in little Riley’s Long Term Memory. Along on the journey with Sadness and Joy is an imaginary friend who is part cotton candy, part elephant, and part something with a bushy tail. They start “deconstructing” and begin to change shapes morphing into abstract images reminiscent of a Picasso painting.
As the movie progressed, it took lots of weird twists and turns but, fortunately, ended on a sweet and poignant note. I most appreciate that Inside Out presented a very realistic portrayal about the challenges of moving to a new town and the opportunity to talk about being sad.
Because I found it to be insightful and clever on so many levels and because I am constantly looking for ways to teach and incorporate emotional understanding into my life, my children’s lives, and the work I do with others, I created a list of how Inside Out inspired me to explore emotions. Especially sadness.
1). All emotions are important and all emotions come and go. Although the movie mostly dealt with Sadness, it also explored the major emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. While emotions like shame, humility, nervousness, jealousy, excitement, compassion, empathy, gratitude, and love were not major players in the film, it certainly creates an opportunity to start a conversation about all emotions. For instance, a friend of mine talked to her son about the particular characters he has in his head. Because he tends to worry, she added “worry” to the list of characters. If a child can identify something such as worry as just one of the many emotions he feels, it can help take away some of its significance and power. And helping children visualize their emotions by identifying them with colorful characters or images helps them befriend their feelings and relate to them in a more proactive and helpful way.
2). Emotions don’t just live in our heads, they live in our bodies too. You can ask kids what it feels like or looks like when they are feeling a certain way. Maybe when they are sad you can inquire about where they feel sadness in their body. Think of “lumps in our throat” or “butterflies in our stomach.” These phrases help kids understand their emotions and the connection between our minds, hearts, and bodies.
3). We cannot experience joy without sadness. I loved the message in the movie that Joy and Sadness need each other. One can’t exist without the other. And sadness is not bad, and we can, in fact, learn a lot from it. Also, joy all of the time can get really annoying and may even hinder us from reaching our full potential and finding true peace and happiness.
4). Anger is to be expected but making choices when we are angry is not wise. When Anger was in charge in the movie, Riley made some really bad choices. If we let anger rule our decision making process without also listening to reason, kindness, and compassion, then we will most likely end up making some really stupid decisions. These decisions may cause more harm and regret in the long run. Teaching our kids (and reminding ourselves…often) how to pause and breathe first when feeling red hot anger, is a great step towards a more mindful existence. We have no control over others, only how we choose to respond to them and perceive our realities. Trying not to take others outbursts or crazy making comments personally is helpful too. And creating space before reacting (and maybe regretting), allows us to respond mindfully coming from a place of choice instead of operating on auto-pilot.
5). Talking about our sadness eventually helps lift us out of our sadness. At the end of Inside Out, Sadness is finally in charge and the little girl, Riley, is able to talk about her sadness instead of just acting indifferent and grumpy. Her whole demeanor changes as she opens up to her parents. Her dad puts his phone away, and her mom stops gabbing incessantly, and they actually listen! Then the parents talk about their feelings too, and one gets the sense that the weight is slowly lifting off all of their shoulders. Finally, it seemed, Riley felt understood and not so alone.
When my son was four, he told me that laughter and tears were pretty much the same thing. I believe he is right, both are outlets for deep feeling, and both help keep us balanced and whole. Without one, we can’t fully experience the other.
For more on the significant role emotion plays in our life and the topic of emotional intelligence, check out Daniel Goldman’s book, Emotional Intelligence.