Inside Out

Jun 27, 2024

Disney and Pixar’s Inside Out came out in 2015 and by all accounts is a critical and box office hit. it has been on my mind to write a review, from a Catholic Christian and Parts Work perspective, for quite some time. With the recent release (June 14, 2024) of Inside Out 2, I decided to review both films. Here’s the first installment as I review the original.

Inside Out has many moments of brilliance. It is a groundbreaking film for the field of parts psychology because it normalizes inner multiplicity. It shows that the inner world is a complex dynamic made up of many parts, sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating. It does so in a way that is light-hearted, playful, and yet convincing. As someone who has been trying to explain inner multiplicity to sceptics for years now, this is no small thing!

This movie shows genuine family love, with two attuned parents who provide secure attachment, and a main character who exudes childhood innocence and joyful energy. The movie is relatable and avoids the forced ideological agendas of so many recent Disney films.

At the same time, I found there were aspects of the main character’s inner multiplicity that seemed confusing or were missing especially from the point of view of the Christian faith and IFS. This film provides a great opportunity to talk to kids (and adults too) about their emotions. Perhaps, this could lead to further discussions about other important elements of our inner world that the film doesn’t so much address such as the intellect, the will, virtues (and vices), the conscience, the inmost self, and how we love ourselves and others in an ordered and healthy way.

Before I explore these topics, here’s a recap in case it has been some time since you’ve seen the first film (or in case, alas, you never saw it in the first place):

SPOILER ALERT! (for the 2015 first Inside Out) Docter, P., & Del Carmen, R. (2015). Inside Out. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

The film begins with the birth of Riley. We see inside Riley’s inner world, inside her mind, a blue haired pixie like character named Joy.  Riley’s two loving parents greet the arrival of their daughter with delight. Baby Riley coos and this moment of delight is captured by Joy in a golden ball that contains this memory. Joy, who exists in her mind’s “headquarters” places the memory inside the mind’s system. Before long other characters inside Riley’s mind show up in the headquarters including Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. As more core memories are created, Riley’s personality forms into various constellations which include Hockey Island, Goofball Island, Friendship Island, Honesty Island, and Family Island. These “islands of personality,” the film explains, “make Riley, Riley.”

Riley is a very positive well-adjusted child living in Minnesota. She has strong family connections, friends and activities. Joy seems to be in charge. She tends to direct the other emotions. When Sadness touches a golden memory ball, it turns blue and doesn’t turn back to yellow. Joy tries to prevent Sadness from touching any of the memories and even tries to consign her to a “circle of sadness.”

When Riley’s father experiences financial stress, Riley’s Fear, Disgust, and Anger seem to conspire together in discontent. Joy tries to cheer them up, but Sadness adds to the discontent. When the family has to move to San Francisco, even Joy sulks away in distress. When Riley’s mother appreciates her for her overall positivity, Joy is reinvigorated.

Despite rallying with positive expectancy, Riley has a difficult first day at her new school. When the teacher asks her to share about her life in Minnesota, Sadness touching core memories and Riley begins to cry. This overwhelms her system and the islands of personality shut down. Joy and Sadness get swept up in a tube and taken out of their headquarters. With only Fear, Disgust, and Anger in charge, Riley sinks into a depression. Riley expresses sarcasm and anger with her parents.

Meanwhile, Joy, carrying a bundle of core memories, tries to find her way back to headquarters with Sadness. They encounter Bing Bong who was Riley’s childhood imaginary friend. They get lost in various places such as Imagination Land.

When Riley learns from her best friend Meg that there’s a new girl in Minnesota who has taken her place, Friendship Island starts to collapse. And when Riley finds herself eating lunch alone at school, Joy and Sadness enter a kind of Abstract Land and Riley experiences Loneliness. Sadness is afraid they’ll be stuck there forever. They try to get on the “Train of Thought” to get back to headquarters, but they miss the train.

Riley’s mother takes her to hockey try-outs but she makes some mistakes and Fear, Disgust, and Anger are in control. She storms out in anger. Joy and Sadness watch as Hockey Island starts to crumble.

Riley is so upset she decides to run away back to Minnesota. She steals money from her mother’s purse to buy a bus ticket as Joy and Sadness see Honesty Island begin crumbling as well. She turns away from her parents, and Family Island begins to collapse too. Joy and Sadness try to intervene by interrupting Riley’s dream to get back on the Train of Thought but in the end this backfires and Joy, with all of Riley’s core memories, and with Bing Bong, fall into a pit where all the lost and forgotten memories reside.

Using a memory of an old song, Joy and Bing Bong attempt to escape this pit but they can only muster enough energy to do so when Bing Bong lets go. Joy watches in tears as Bing Bong fades away telling her to save Riley. While Joy grieves the painful memories, the memories turn blue. But she also sees that despite the pain, there was an important insight. For example, feeling the pain and sadness of losing an important hockey game led her to remembering how her family and friends rallied to her side. She realizes that Riley needs Sadness.

Meanwhile Riley gets on the bus to run away. The console is stuck in headquarters, Fear, Disgust, and Anger are helpless as Riley feels nothing but numbness.

When Joy finds Sadness and they make it back to headquarters, Sadness touches the console which lights up. Riley gets off the bus and heads home. Sadness touches all the memories as Riley breaks down in tears with her parents and shares all her feelings. Her parents share that they feel the same way and there is a beautiful embrace. All the memories return, and Family Island lights up again. We learn that new islands appear such as Fashion Island and Boy Band Island. Riley reengages with hockey and makes new friends. All of her emotions work cooperatively as she adjusts to her new life in San Francisco.

This is a masterful and creative film and one that both children and adults will enjoy. It is a first of its kind as it gives us a profound and imaginative window into the workings of the human mind. There is an exploration of difficult psychological concepts in a delightfully simple way. We learn about memory systems, neural pathways, long term memory, deductive reasoning, critical thinking, imagination, the subconscious, dreams and more in a fun and imaginative manner.

The film portrays the various parts as emotions. This becomes problematic as the film progresses; since each of the emotions at various times experiences other emotions. There are times all the emotions are joyful or scared. There is an important scene where Joy grieves. By anthropomorphizing the emotions, they seem like parts. But unlike parts, they are either on or off, most often on. Anger is either still or raging. Disgust is generally more or less perennially disgusted. Fear is most often a nervous wreck. These characters don’t have much depth other than the emotion they represent. We learn that these emotions serve protective functions (Disgust claims that she saves Riley from poison – even when it’s just broccoli), but we don’t really see this at play. We do learn that Sadness is needed and that she is a kind of complement to Joy. Joy is the most complex of all the characters and the one that the audience will engage with the most. She experiences a range of emotions throughout the film and she’s the de facto heroine. This is one of the ways in which a parts approach is more reflective of our interior world compared to Riley’s cast of emotion-based characters, so it’s not surprising that the emotions begin to act more like parts.

In IFS terms, Joy appears to be the only Manager. She tries to prevent bad things and she’s busy managing the other more reactive Firefighter parts such as Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Perhaps Sadness can be considered an Exile. There’s an important scene in the film where Joy has to rescue and retrieve Sadness. Ultimately, like parts, the emotions in the film need to work cooperatively.

Inside Out  reflects the work of Dr. Robert Plutchik who identified eight primary emotions including joy, anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise, anticipation and trust. He believed these emotions were biologically hardwired. Inside Out also relied on the work of Paul Ekman, who studied facial expressions, and he identified seven universal emotions: joy, anger, fear, disgust, sadness, contempt, and surprise. The common five emotions constitute the characters of Inside Out’s inner world.

When comparing the film’s interior cast of emotion-based characters to a parts perspective, each one of our parts is capable of multiple emotions. Parts are more complex than merely affective states. Each part also have their own perspective on thoughts and memories. This actually more akin to the journey home of Riley’s emotions make as the story progresses, especially the complex character of Joy. I found it interesting that the emotion characters began to operate more like parts as the complexity of Riley’s journey increased. Importantly, parts can change their emotional states. We don’t have an “angry part” who is always generally predisposed toward anger. Instead, we have a part that has been abandoned or frustrated or hurt and chooses to cope with anger. We don’t have a “sad part” who is perennial down. Instead, we have a part that has been hurt and naturally feels sadness. When our parts let go of their extreme roles, or when our parts are unburdened, or when our parts receive the love and care they always needed, they are no longer sad, angry, fearful or disgusted.

Of course this is not a Christian parts documentary so there is no Christian “inmost self” or even an IFS “Self.”  However, I found it surprising that Riley’s interior world included no spiritual or personal “center” at all. In many ways Joy acts like the IFS “Self.” She is in the ego state therapy (EST) or “executive” position. She is the leader, and she directs the other emotions. When she is absent, Fear, Disgust and Anger take over with disastrous consequences. Joy is not only positive, but also compassionate, brave, and resolute. She does the best she can to manage every situation. She looks for the positive in the other emotions. Joy learns that Riley needs Sadness and she’s willing to allow Sadness to lead the system – because she learns that joy and sadness go together. This leads to a release of emotion, reconnection with her family, and a new outlook on life. So, Joy is not the IFS undamaged Self. But she isn’t the EST “inner advisor” or “inner wisdom” state either. She’s Riley’s dominant emotion. This may be a positive view of humanity – that joy is the most core of all the emotions – but it doesn’t explain or portray a deeper spiritual life. Not that I expected the film to do this. But it did make me wonder this: what makes us who we are? Is it the expression of joy? Is it vulnerability? Is it positive emotions and experiences? The presence of a spiritual life, in my view, is one of the ways humanity is created in and reflects the image of God.

[The second film does actually attempt to approach this deeper question: what is the self? What makes us who we are? And so, I hope you’ll read my review of Inside Out 2 to find out more.]

As I further reflect on this first film, in addition to being struck by the lack of the spiritual center for the character of Riley, I was also struck by the egocentric nature of her developmental journey. Perhaps this has to do with the age of the protagonist. After all, most 11-year-olds are still fairly egocentric. Of course, the Christian Parts Work perspective on a healthy journey for Riley would be this: we love ourselves in a proper and ordered way so that we can then love others and ultimately love God more fully. Riley’s emotion-based characters began to display characteristics and interactions more akin to parts, because that is a better model to explain how our interior world operates. I wondered how the “headquarters” would address its missing element of love, as Riley’s journey progressed, and she reconnected emotionally with her parents.

Does Riley learn to love herself in a proper and ordered way?

In some important ways, yes. She learns that she needs to express her emotions rather than suppress them, especially sadness. She doesn’t, however, learn how to address her anger or her disgust or her fear. These emotions are only calm when she finds a resolution, otherwise they are mostly left to their own devices. There isn’t a scene where anger learns to soften so that she can address the underlying hurt feelings. There isn’t a scene where she learns that she can see the positive (even in broccoli pizza) and not have to indulge disgust. There isn’t a scene where, despite difficult circumstances, safety can be felt, and fear reduced. I would argue that she learns very little emotional regulation. Instead, she experiences her feelings in all their turmoil, and she learns to express them. This is an important first step and it gets her off the bus and back home, but it isn’t until she is embraced by her parents that her emotions begin to regulate.

One reason she wouldn’t be able to emotionally regulate is that the emotions of Fear, Disgust, and Anger are not actually parts with true complexity, instead they are one-dimensional characters who don’t so much grow and develop (with the exception of Joy). They are generally either activated or not activated.

Also, and very importantly, there’s no concept of “love” explicitly portrayed in the inner workings of the main character. Joy does appear generally loving but Joy is just one of the emotions, albeit an important one. She is the closest thing to love in Riley’s system. But there isn’t an inmost self, created in the image of God, who can serve as the inner loving ideal parent and a conduit for God’s love and grace. Riley is perpetually at the whim of external circumstances and out of control emotional states. If Joy is anything, she’s a pseudo-self manager attempting to keep things under control. She only has recourse to happy memories when things get rough. And when sadness dissipates those memories, she is helpless.

The Christian view is that we have a spiritual center, an inmost self, a source of grace and love. We can comfort and care for our parts. And when our parts are scared, disgusted, or fearful, we can help them. We have access to God’s love. He is the perfect parent, the perfect lover, the perfect comforter, the perfect counselor. In our distress, we can find consolation in Him.

Again, to be fair, this film’s main character is an 11-year-old child and so we can’t expect her to have sophisticated access to her inner spiritual self. Children rely primarily on their parents and other role models as they grow and develop.

Nevertheless, without this inner security, a security that ultimately comes from God but then is expressed through the inmost self to all our parts, and our personality, like Riley’s, can crumble. Our “islands” have no secure foundation. We live according to the whims of our emotions, which are themselves dictated by our external circumstances. Faith teaches us that even when our circumstances are dire, we are not alone. Even when our enemies are upon us, we have God’s love. And even when things seem impossible, we have hope.

Again, I was not expecting the theological virtues to be a theme of this film. But the film did cause me to pause and ask myself about the experience of God’s love, the gift of faith, and the virtue of hope and how they transform our inner world. I also wondered about the development of cognitive skills and the ability to reason. We don’t see a unified concept of the intellect, nor of the will in this film. Instead, we see how emotions are the drivers behind all our choices. For Riley, emotions don’t just influence us, they control us. In my view, without reason in some way guiding decision making, we cannot truly love ourselves in an ordered and healthy way.

Does Riley learn to love others and ultimately God more fully? She definitely receives plenty of love from her parents who provide a secure base for her even when things are difficult for them. When Riley experiences sadness while on the bus, she realizes she must go back home. We don’t get a lot of information about what happens to her in that moment. It is more of a sudden realization. It seems to me that her motive was a combination of self-preservation and a realization that her parents love her. I didn’t actually see Riley apologize. She didn’t say to her mom, I’m sorry I took your money. She didn’t say to her parents, I’m sorry I scared you half to death. I’m sorry for my angry outbursts. Now, to be fair, she’s only 11 years old, but there was no repentance, and no real empathy expressed toward her parents. The fact that her parents expressed their own struggle seemed to make a difference so perhaps that elicited empathy from Riley, but it seemed more that it helped Riley feel understood. I don’t want to have unrealistic expectation for a girl her age going through a difficult time, but at the end of the day, we didn’t see Riley truly consider things from her parents’ perspective. You can argue that all along she tried to stay positive for the sake of her parents, and this is true, and she did need to feel her own feelings, but I feel it would have been even more impactful had she expressed gratitude, remorse, and empathy as a result of her emotional unburdening. I found that disappointing, not from a parts alignment evaluation, but when considering the impact of a popular film that has and will influence both children and adults as insightful, and even instructive, about their inner world.

It goes without saying in a secular movie that there’s no mention of God and no mention of any kind of spirituality. Riley is not presented as being created in the image of God. Her inner foundation is based on her parents’ love which is depicted in a beautiful and moving way. But her sense of self is all constructed rather than discovered. At the center of Riley’s being, at the center of her personality, there is no bridal chamber as we find in St. Teresa’s Interior Castle, no mirror of the soul as described by St. Athanasius, no “true self” as described by Thomas Merton, nor even an “undamaged Self” according to Richard Schwartz. Perhaps one can make the case that joy is at the center of her being as Joy is there at the beginning. Joy might express the wonder we experience in life as we discover God’s creation if not God Himself. If so, it is a start, but far from the whole story.

So, what truly “makes Riley, Riley”? Is it really just her emotions and her memories? Who is making the final decisions in Riley’s inner world? I’m suddenly imagining a Thomistic version of Inside Out with characters such as Humility, Prudence, and Temperance influencing the characters of Intellect and Will voiced by James Earl Jones and Mark Wahlberg. Alas… probably not a box office hit!

Despite my criticisms, I want to restate that this is a brilliant, imaginative, and insightful film. It is suitable for children of any age with only a few scary scenes for very small children. Children will immediately identify with the characters, and I believe that it can help children of all ages give voice to their feelings. At the end of the day this film advances our collective understanding of inner multiplicity, and our need for emotional vulnerability, and that’s a good thing. 

Final Days to Sign Up for the Resilient Catholics Community!

Did you resonate with Riley in Inside Out? If you are interested in getting to know, accept, understand, and love yourself in your parts, informed by Internal Family Systems and firmly grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person in a very experiential, heartfelt way, then you might be interested in joining the Resilient Catholics Community. We are in the final days of sign-up for the St. Gertrude the Great cohort, which closes at midnight, Eastern time, on Sunday, June 30, 2024.

The Resilient Catholics Community goes beyond what Riley experienced in this popular movie. It’s a structured, year-long program to help you love yourself, which then opens the door to loving God wholeheartedly, and loving all of your neighbor–not just the obvious or appealing parts of him. 

In the RCC, we work to get to the natural roots of why it’s difficult for you to love others in their parts.  In the RCC we seek inner unity – interior integration – in a deliberate, structured way in a way that’s gentle, that feels safe enough, taking time — the course of a year — together, on a pilgrimage to better human formation. 

Catholic adults who agree with what the Church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church  can register for the RCC with this link and you can find out more including hearing the stories of our members on our RCC landing page.  More than 100 have applied so far in this cohort, on their way to join the nearly 300 already in the RCC. 

Remember, registration for the St. Gertrude the Great cohort will close at midnight, Eastern time, on Sunday, June 30, 2024. If you’re ready to sign up, just complete this form, and we’ll be in touch within 24 hours to get you started.

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