What Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ Can Teach Us about Trauma, Part I

Girl in Movie Theater Eating PopcornEditor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series that explores how the Pixar movie Inside Out offers a compelling and accessible way to look the impact of trauma and dissociation. Part II appears here.

It’s rare that I give homework to people in therapy. In fact, as a trauma therapist specializing in complex trauma, I find that more often than not some homework assignments can be triggering. So it is a very conscious choice when I ask people to do homework in between sessions.

When I do suggest homework, it is often with the emphasis on increasing their calming and relaxation skills, or to provide additional psycho-education surrounding trauma recovery. Structural dissociation theory, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and the neurological aspects of trauma’s impact on the brain—these topics can present as “heady” or “too academic.” I always look for a more accessible way to describe such topics. Pixar Animation Studios has provided such an opportunity.

To me, the most effective, powerful, inspiring homework and psycho-education opportunities are more organic and experiential in nature.

With this in mind, I recently began asking some people to watch Pixar’s recent movie release, Inside Out. While this article is neither a review nor a place for spoilers, it is a testament to the power of Inside Out to teach people about trauma and dissociation in an inspiring and open-hearted way.

The ‘Inside Out’ Story

In Inside Out, a girl named Riley, the 11-year-old main character, is faced with the challenges of moving from her family’s hometown. Her primary emotions, joy, anger, fear, disgust, and sadness, are represented as characters by the same names, each with influence over the “control console” of her mind, also known as “headquarters.”

Often, we “reject” our emotions, or other aspects of the traumas, because it feels too risky or too dangerous to fully realize them at the time of the experiences.

As Riley navigates the events surrounding her family’s move and the associated traumatic stressors, the primary emotion of “Joy” is no longer at the helm. “Sadness” becomes more prevalent, creating more core memories surrounding her distress at the move. By a variety of methods, “Joy” attempts to bring headquarters back to “normal,” meaning “Joy” at the controls, but as “Anger,” “Fear,” and “Disgust” take over, Riley’s internal world, and the personality islands associated with things she enjoyed—family life, friends, and her love of hockey—disintegrate. She shuts down.

It is not until all of the emotional states accept and integrate “Sadness,” solidifying that each emotion has its place, that new core memories can be built and her healing occurs.

So what does Inside Out have to do with trauma recovery? More than perhaps is clear at the onset.

Core Memories

As I have written in previous articles, it is our unprocessed and fragmented memories, the traumas that are “locked” in their state-dependent form, that cause distressing symptoms in our now. Our emotions, as well as what we saw, believed, and somatically experienced, are “frozen in time” and contribute to our distressing symptoms in the present.

Inside Out does an exceptional job of showing how our fully integrated, realized, and healed “core memories” can be stored in our headquarters in ways that are adaptive. Our system does have fully processed memories—that is, all aspects are acknowledged and healed. Pixar describes them as core memories symbolized by translucent spheres mindfully placed in a conveyor-like storage system. That said, when traumas are not fully healed, we have memories that are fragmented and displaced, even rejected.

Rejecting or Banishing an Aspect of Trauma

Often, we “reject” our emotions, or other aspects of the traumas, because it feels too risky or too dangerous to fully realize them at the time of the experiences. This is illustrated in Inside Out, where “Joy” cannot accept “Sadness.” “Joy” rejects her. Similarly, as we move forward in time, we, too, can become phobic toward some aspects of our trauma(s). In Riley’s case, “Sadness” had a very important job and was an important part of her moving from Minnesota. In fact, as Riley moved through her process of daily living, “Sadness” kept trying to push through—to touch the other memories in order to be acknowledged and processed.

It is not until the characters, the other emotions, become more accepting of “Sadness” that the full healing can occur. As Riley’s internal system, headquarters, becomes able to fully accept ALL aspects of the trauma, including what was once rejected or deemed dangerous to fully realize, “Sadness” is able to take its rightful place.

In the context of structural dissociation theory, no longer did Riley’s system have to feel phobic of that part of the experience. Riley could not fully realize and heal the trauma of her move until “Sadness” was acknowledged by her whole system. “Sadness” did have a place, and was key to healing the whole memory.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Siobhan

    September 22nd, 2015 at 10:17 AM

    I am so happy to read something so moving because I have been wanting to see this movie for a while because I did feel like it has something different and important to say in a way that might reach a whole lot of viewers, even those who may not know that they needed it.

  • Lila

    September 22nd, 2015 at 5:06 PM

    sometimes the best lessons come from children

  • nora

    September 23rd, 2015 at 7:40 AM

    Great film that the kids and i both enjoyed!

  • Bradley

    September 23rd, 2015 at 2:26 PM

    There is this misconception that just because something may be animated that must mean that it is silly and has very little to offer in the way of life lessons. I know that this is simply untrue. I actually think that these are some of the films where is the most to learn from them because their messages are easy to get and appeal to many different ages. Don’t disregard something simply because of the format in which it is presented. Instead I would love it if everyone could be open minded enough to peer beneath the surface a little and take the time to really listen to the message that it is trying to give to you.

  • Aubrey

    September 24th, 2015 at 7:52 AM

    I guess I haven’t heard of the movie because I don’t have kids but it sounds like it would be a beautiful story.

  • Rita

    September 26th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    This was so unexpected for me to stumble across because I have been doing a lot of reading on this and yet still haven’t quite gotten it all figured out.
    maybe this is going to be the thing that I need to see that will help me a little bit more.

  • jill

    September 28th, 2015 at 8:49 AM

    I can’t want til the next installment tomorrow!

  • jill

    September 28th, 2015 at 8:50 AM

    oops should have been can’t wait instead of can’t want

  • Alison F

    September 29th, 2015 at 7:18 AM

    Excellent post. Thank you! The reviews of this movie were awesome, and this article explains the movie in a very accessible way. What a tremendous contribution that has the potential to help so many people. I’m determined to see the movie now and will share this post on Facebook.

  • Ashe

    September 29th, 2015 at 9:27 AM

    Do u think that the film could b used w children who have faced trauma> sort of as a tool for their treatment?

  • Sarah

    September 29th, 2015 at 12:36 PM

    Thanks so much for your comments everyone. YES! I truly believe this is a great movie for kids and especially to help them learn that emotions are okay to have, and truly normal, especially in distressing situations. I strongly support that idea. I am really hoping folks will go and see it and consider the power of it for their own recovery as well. Thanks for reading it and the second post should be up soon!

  • Laura

    October 28th, 2015 at 6:52 AM

    The summary was almost verbatim of my feedback to my husband following the film. As I specialize in trauma & dissociation, I agree on all points mentioned.
    My first remark was that it normalized dissociation in a manner Hollywood rarely does. Yes, movies & stories can be healing & educational.! Thanks for the review.

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