First published on the website Standard Issue, 26/8/2015
The moral of Pixar’s latest film – it’s OK to feel sad sometimes – is something we should all take on board, says Andrea Mann.
Spoiler alert: Inside Out is as good as everyone says it is. It’s lovely and funny and moving – I was crying with laughter at the rainbow unicorn dream sequence, and properly crying at the end – and it’s also very, very smart. Not least because, at its heart, it has a wise lesson that’s just as important for grown-ups as it is for children.
And that lesson is: allow yourself to feel sadness. Or to put it another way: if you want the rainbow unicorn, you gotta put up with the rain.
Because Pixar knows a thing or two about screenwriting, the moment this lesson is first imparted to the audience is the moment that Joy, our hero inside 11-year-old Riley’s brain, starts to learn it, too. Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend, is inconsolable because the rocket he and Riley created has been destroyed, along with other inventions of her childhood mind. While Joy tries to fix the situation using her typically breezy, optimistic approach, Sadness simply goes to Bing Bong, sits down with him and listens as he talks between sobs. “I understand,” she says quietly. “They took something that you loved. That’s sad.”
“Asking for a 24/7 ‘happy face’ is a lot to put on anyone, adult or child, and what’s more, suppressing these feelings just causes further suffering.”
Within moments, Bing Bong has dried his eyes and is ready to move on with their quest. Equal parts baffled and impressed, Joy asks Sadness: “How did you do that?”
Sadness did it, of course, by acknowledging Bing Bong’s sadness and allowing him to feel it. And while that may sound very simple, it’s amazing how little we do it in life – not just with others, but also with ourselves.
The pressures on us to not show sadness, fear and other emotions we deem to be ‘negative’ – pressures that can come from society, our family, our workplace – are partly the cause. And they can start at a young age. In Inside Out, Riley is praised by her mother for being “our happy girl” through their house move – but underneath, Riley isn’t completely happy at all, being sad, worried and afraid about this big change. What’s doubly poignant about this scene is that not only is Riley not being fully understood, but she’s also implicitly being told that she must continue to be happy – or at least appear to be – in order for her parents, for the family unit, to be happy too.
Asking for a 24/7 ‘happy face’ is a lot to put on anyone, adult or child, and what’s more, suppressing these feelings just causes further suffering. Our emotions leak out in other ways – in our behaviour, in our treatment of ourselves and others – and not only does the feeling not go anywhere, suppressing it makes it harder for it to go anywhere.
Instead, by allowing ourselves to sit in our sadness, we give ourselves a better chance to move through it. No sooner is Bing Bong allowed to feel sad and cry than he picks himself up, dusts himself down and starts all over again. It’s something we see children do every day: they get upset, they cry, then they’re up and running and laughing again.
Even animals do it. As Eckhart Tolle points out in The Power Of Now, when ducks get in a fight, it never lasts long: they just separate, flap their wings to release the surplus energy, and move on. (Try looking out for this next time you see some ducks – although I’m not advocating deliberately starting a fight between them. “Leave him, Jemima! He’s not worth it!”)
We adults can learn from ducks and kids and Bing Bong. Sadly, though, instead of stamping our feet, crying our heart out or flapping our wings, most of us suppress uncomfortable feelings when they come. What’s more, we also go to great lengths to try to keep our lives as fear-free and pain-free as possible, and loathe discomfort or unhappiness when they strike.
“While recognising and accepting sadness is something that Riley’s parents learn to do with their daughter at the end of Inside Out, it’s also something that we grown-ups can benefit from applying to ourselves, too.”
But they will strike – as sure as (duck) eggs is eggs. In fact, what Sadness is doing in that key scene isn’t just recognising Bing Bong’s sadness but also acknowledging that life is intrinsically sad at times. As the film concludes, this essential combination of Joy and Sadness is a recognition of how life really is: both happy and sad. Because no matter how much we try to control things, it’s impossible to avoid painful moments in our lives (and I say this as a person who’s an even bigger cock-eyed optimist than Joy). It’s how we then handle this pain, how we learn to move through it, that’s important. Or as the Buddhist saying goes: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
So, while this lesson – recognising and accepting sadness – is something that Riley’s parents learn to do with their daughter at the end of Inside Out, it’s also something that we grown-ups can benefit from applying to ourselves, too.
We can try to accept life as it is, with its ups and downs, its Joy and Sadness. And we can allow ourselves, and others, to feel pain or sadness when it does come: to sit with what feels uncomfortable and not immediately try to run away from it, deny it or dull it. To be mindful and rest in the moment, even if that moment is bad, and recognise how things actually are, rather than how we’d like them to be. And to trust that in doing this, we will naturally, at the right pace, move through it.
So, the next time you’re feeling sad, why not give yourself permission to sit with that feeling. And if anybody asks you what you’re doing, just tell them you’re letting your Sadness sit with your Bing Bong. And if they look at you strangely when you say that, tell them to see Inside Out.