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A mom and trauma therapist reflects on the original Inside Out movie.

Colorful Triptych, Three Cartoon Characters on Bright Colors - Psychotherapist shares insights on Inside Out, original Pixar movie 9 years laters

In anticipation of its sequel, I revisit the original movie, Inside Out, nine years later, with insights from my experiences as a childhood trauma therapist and a mother.

Here’s why I recommend watching Inside Out: It’s a movie not only for children but also for any adults who need to learn or re-learn foundational emotional lessons that may have been lacking in their early childhood.

Colorful Triptych, Three Cartoon Characters on Bright Colors - Psychotherapist shares insights on Inside Out, original Pixar movie 9 years laters

A mom and trauma therapist reflects on the original Inside Out movie.

This past week, my husband and I introduced our five-year-old daughter to Inside Out and then took her to the movie theater to see Inside Out 2 (which, let’s be real, we two 40-year-old adults were basically giddy to see on opening weekend!). 

I saw Inside Out back in 2015 when I was a baby associate therapist, and I remember liking it.

But now, nine years later, I’m both a much more seasoned therapist (with a specialty in relational trauma therapy) and a five (nearly six) year parenting veteran with a lot of thoughts, feelings, and insights about these movies and what I noticed in them.

So today’s piece (and my piece in two weeks) are highlights of what the movies made me – as a seasoned trauma therapist and semi-seasoned mom – think about in our one week double viewing. 

For today’s piece, I’m going to share my insights about Inside Out and then will follow up in two weeks with additional thoughts on Inside Out 2.

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A trauma therapist and mom’s thoughts about Inside Out:

  • As someone with a relational trauma history and as a licensed trauma therapist, I was watching the beginning of Inside Out and feeling really disconnected from the character Joy. Joy doesn’t at all feel like the dominant character sitting around my emotional control panel. Not now and certainly not when I was a kid. And I think many from relational trauma backgrounds might relate to that experience since our early years were likely colored by overwhelm, fear, confusion, and insecure attachments. Indeed, research shows that chronic stress (particularly PTSD) can lead to restricted positive affect access (aka challenges feeling happy emotions, like Joy). If you come from a relational trauma history and this character felt a little alien to you, too, know that that’s normal! I’ve written before about how, in our later trauma recovery work, finding out what brings us joy is a healing task many of us face.
  • Because that was my lived experience, what felt more accurate was to imagine Joy having a minor, supporting character role, and imagining the characters of Anger, Fear, and Sadness really at the helm of my emotional control panel. Indeed, research suggests that anger, sadness, and fear can not only be dominant emotions in childhood colored by trauma but can also be predictors of dominant affect in adulthood, too. So if you, too, felt like the “Boss” of your own control panel was not Joy, you’re not alone.
  • Given all of this, by the time Joy and Sadness start wandering the halls of “long-term memory storage,” and I noticed the dominant color of the memory halls/walls was yellow tinged, I had the thought that my long-term storage memory walls/halls would likely have been more red, purple, and blue (the corresponding colors to Anger, Fear and Sadness) versus that dominant yellow color. We know that traumatic experiences lead to long-term cognitive and emotional consequences, including enhanced memory for fear, persistent hyperarousal, and difficulties in regulating fear responses.
  • When Riley’s mom came up to her bedroom to tuck her in and thank her for being happy despite the stress of their recent move (basically implying that she should continue being that way), my husband and I looked over at each other, each sandwiched on either side of our daughter, shaking our heads and mouthing “No….” to each other. We were both on the same wavelength: Let her have all of her feelings! It’s okay if she’s unhappy and sad about the move! She gets to grieve that loss. The lack of emotional validation shook us, and while this gets resolved later in the movie, it was a clear-cut moment of “not ideal emotional parenting.”
  • Okay, I admit it. I started bawling when the key lesson of the movie emerged: Riley needed to integrate – not reject! – Sadness in order to free herself from emotional numbing and to get through the painful experience of the move. Clinically, we KNOW that robust mental health encompasses a wide range of emotional experiences, including sadness (and anger, etc), which are part of a fully lived, rich life. Mental health should not be limited to positive affect (aka: Joy alone) but should include the ability to manage and integrate all emotions. Cue my tears of joy to see this lesson displayed so vividly! (And yes, okay, I may have cried a little in relief, too, when she jumped off that bus headed to Oakland, because let’s face it, a tween girl running away from home is a mom’s nightmare!)
  • I truly love the concept of the core memories and the “Islands of Personality” in Inside Out, and yet, again, I think that those of us from relational trauma backgrounds might have “Islands of Personality” shaped by maladaptive thoughts and behaviors versus adaptive ones that our non-traumatized peers might have. Islands like “Dissociation Central” or “Workaholism Equals Acceptance Hub” or “Good Girl Gets Love Bayou” or things like that. And sure, of course there could be positive islands as well like “Animal Lover Island” etc. But, again, the landscape of Riley’s Islands of Personality were normative – not colored by relational trauma experiences and maladaptive beliefs per say. Just another thought I had watching…  
  • The final point I want to highlight from re-watching Inside Out nine years later as a mom and trauma therapist is this: in one of the final scenes when a memory ball emerges and it is both yellow and blue, I was thrilled. My daughter turned to me and said, “Mom, look! It’s a happysad emotion!” In our house, we talk about about combo feelings – happysad (like the feeling I feel when I see photos of my daughter when she was a toddler: happy because I love her so much and sad those days are over) or scited (credit to Glennon Doyle for this wonderful word that illustrates being both excited and scared about something at once). Research shows us that children (especially older children) and adults can experience mixed emotions in complex situations. And I love that Inside Out modeled this! Personally I would have loved to see a purple/red ball come rolling out, too, since for so many of us from relational trauma backgrounds we often use anger as an analgesic emotion (meaning numbing/feels better feeling) to cover up the vulnerability and pain of fear, but I digress…

So while I’m no Roger Ebert, as a mom and licensed trauma therapist, rewatching Inside Out for the first time in nine years with a whole lot more education, life, and all-around seasoning, I 10/10 recommend Inside Out not only to any kiddo but for any of us adults who need to learn/re-learn foundational emotional lessons that may have been lacking in our early childhood.

And for those of us from relational trauma backgrounds, I would invite you to realize that, like with so many expressions of the human experience, this one in Inside Out, while wonderful, was also normative.

Meaning it doesn’t necessarily account for the disadvantaged playing field and warped experience those of us from relational trauma backgrounds had compared to our non traumatized peers. But still, it’s a wonderful little movie. And I can’t wait to share my thoughts about Inside Out 2 with you in a few short weeks because goodness gracious did that yield even more thoughts for me!

And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Have you seen Inside Out? If you come from a relational trauma background, what was one of the key takeaways you took away from it? 

If you feel so inclined, please leave a message so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your share and wisdom.

Finally, as you contemplate beginning relational trauma therapy to recover from your own trauma symptoms, I would strongly encourage you to work with a licensed mental health professional who is also trained in an evidence-based trauma modality (like EMDR).

If you live in either California or Florida, and you would like tailored, expert support, either myself or my talented team of childhood trauma clinicians at my boutique, trauma-informed therapy center – Evergreen Counseling – can be of support to you. 

Please just book a complimentary 20-minute consult call with our center’s clinical intake director and she can match you to an relational trauma therapist on our team who is the best fit for you clinically, relationally, and logistically (and it very well may be me who is the best fit for you as a therapist!).

And if you live outside of California or Florida, please consider exploring my online course specifically designed for childhood trauma recovery.

Finally, if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if you come from a relational trauma history and may deal with childhood trauma symptoms, I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a childhood trauma background?” 

It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.

Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of childhood trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m deep along on my own childhood trauma recovery journey.

My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc. 

So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.

So thank you. 

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Dina says

    Thank you for this incredibly insightful and timely essay. I recently watched the 2015 film for the first time in preparation for seeing the new film (going tonight). I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: a portrayal of Joy (who certainly was not at the helm of my control center as a child) partnering with Sadness! A team?? Together? I am working on this concept right now with my therapist. And my other “friends” Anger, Frustration, Fear…seeing the 2015 film now was a very moving experience for me. And when I read they added Anxiety to the sequel, I thought, I gotta see this! Thanks again Annie, am looking forward to your views on part 2.

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