Inspiring Your Own Joy: The Lessons of Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’

Woman on roof looks up at bright balloonsSomeone I’m working with in therapy recently asked me whether I’ve seen Pixar’s Inside Out. Shortly after, a friend of mine asked the same question, saying, “You would love it. It’s about emotions.” So I added the movie to my daughter’s Christmas list and finally had the chance to watch it.

Twenty-five minutes in, I was shopping online for Joy and Sadness figurines for my office.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear are five characters living inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley. The movie provides a cute and interesting look at how things such as thoughts, memories, and feelings interact in the conscious and subconscious networks of the brain. What excited me most was how the banter between Joy and Sadness so perfectly depicts a topic I frequently teach in my workshops and therapy sessions—the topic of self-talk.

Self-talk is something we all engage in, be it consciously or in our subconscious minds. All day long, we are thinking various thoughts as we go about our days, completing various tasks and interacting with others. For many people, the thoughts playing in the background of the mind tend to be of an overwhelmingly negative nature. We tend to engage in all-or-nothing thinking, jump to extreme conclusions, magnify our weaknesses, overlook our strengths, and box ourselves into rigid ways of thinking.

The attitude you take and the way you think about various situations will ultimately control how you feel. Over time, the build-up of negative messages and distorted thought patterns can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other issues.

In the movie, Sadness’ character constantly retorts the happy remarks of Joy with ho-hum responses and glass-half-empty views. For example, Sadness says, “I keep making mistakes like that. I’m awful. I know I am.” Joy tells her, “No, you’re not. You can’t focus on what’s going wrong. There’s always a way to turn things around. To find the fun.” She encourages Sadness to think of something funny. Sadness responds, “Remember the funny movie where the dog dies?”

In another scene, Riley’s dad has to leave for work and Sadness jumps to the conclusion, “He doesn’t love us anymore.” These berating remarks and pessimistic ways of thinking are so similar to the negative self-talk messages we all engage in at various times in our lives. When you engage in self-defeating thinking, with a lot of unrealistic expectations and overly critical messaging, you set yourself up to feel bad, incompetent, or inadequate.

The attitude you take and the way you think about various situations will ultimately control how you feel. Over time, the build-up of negative messages and distorted thought patterns can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other issues.

It’s often difficult at first to pick out this voice, as we are not used to actively observing all of our thought processes. Yet, monitoring self-talk is one of the main tools I encourage for building self-esteem. When you begin to pay attention to the messages in your mind, you can eventually work to catch and reframe negative messages into more optimistic, rational, and encouraging statements. Inside Out gives a nice visual of what self-talk is like. It demonstrates the types of messages and attitude that build you up versus drag you down.

People who really struggle with low self-esteem often find it nearly impossible to find a joyful voice. They say things like, “It is just too hard to give myself praise or say positive affirmations when I don’t really believe it.” Or, “I just cannot say anything nice to myself. It feels way too uncomfortable.” When this happens, I encourage the individuals I work with to imagine the self-talk voice as somebody outside of themselves—a caring friend, a loving mentor, or an encouraging coach. Imagine what you would say to a friend or to a small child and give yourself the same level of respect and compassion. The goal is to let the optimism of a voice like Joy’s greatly outweigh the glum of a voice like Sadness’. If giving a name and identity to your own messages helps, go for it.

As we learn toward the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), Sadness does have a real and important place in Riley’s mind. Changing self-talk doesn’t mean ignoring or ridding yourself of negative thoughts or emotions. Instead, it’s about finding a way to rationally acknowledge these feelings and move on without falling into a downward spiral of ruminating on the negative or beating yourself up. The goal is to think and speak to yourself in a kind way. For example, “I made a mistake. I am human.”

Developing this rational, positive voice often involves breaking a long-standing habit and takes time and a lot of practice. Start by paying attention to your own mental chatter; you may discover you, too, have a voice of Sadness that is getting in your way. As you become comfortable identifying this voice, you can begin working to temper the negative messages with more rational and constructive statements. The more you bring forward your own voice of Joy, the happier and more self-assured you will likely become.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
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  • Kyle

    February 18th, 2016 at 9:25 AM

    Once again the only thing that can ever make you truly happy is to come to terms with the fact that you are the only one who ultimately determines that.

  • marleen

    February 18th, 2016 at 10:34 AM

    I have not watched this film yet but it has been referenced on this site a couple of times so I may have to break down and check it out.

  • CHER

    February 18th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    For me the answer is all in the title.
    Look to yourself to create your own joy

  • Nessi

    February 20th, 2016 at 5:18 AM

    I loved watching this movie with my kids! Lots of thoughtful discussion and questions ensued, something you may not usually get when you are thinking solely about animated films.

  • Lillian S

    February 22nd, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    It is very comforting to me to know that even though we are watching a cartoon there is still something so meaningful and important in the message that is being provided. There are funny moments and there are sad moments and then there are teachable moments. I am looking to share all of those lessons with my kids.

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