“I saw the stupidest movie this past weekend, ‘Inside Out,’’ says Stu, a patient who came into therapy at his wife’s insistence. “It’s supposed to be a kid’s movie so we took my five year old son. He thought some of it was funny, but I thought it was just dumb. These ridiculous Feelings running around in the brain controlling this girl, Riley I think her name was. Even her name. What kind of name is Riley? Anyway, of course my wife loved it and we got into a huge argument over the stupid thing.”
I loved the movie too, seeing it as an incredibly clever animated film that captured the need for humans to integrate all of their feelings in order to avoid becoming removed from themselves and others. I am not, however, surprised by Stu’s aversion to the movie. I remain silent.
“She just got so upset that I didn’t, as she said, ‘get’ the movie. She saw that as the root of ‘our problems,’ by which she meant ‘my problems.’”
“Can I ask you what you didn’t like about the movie, Stu?”
“It was just dumb.”
“Maybe it would be helpful though if we could figure out what about the movie you thought was ‘dumb.’
“Did you see it?”
I suspected that Stu would ask this question and knew that I would answer. “Yes, I did.”
“You liked it. I can tell.”
“Yes, I liked the movie, but my opinion really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you didn’t like it and that you thought it was important enough to bring it up here.”
“That’s because Brenda and I got into this big thing about it.”
“Okay. So can we look at what you thought was dumb about the movie?”
“It was just silly. All those Feeling characters running around telling the girl how to feel and making her act one way or another.”
“Was there a particular Feeling character you liked more than the others or one you disliked more?”
“Yeah. I hated that fat, blue Sadness, always moping around, seeing the worst in everything, having to be dragged around by Joy. But Joy was kind of stupid too, constantly seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. I didn’t like Fear because he was too much of a nerd and Disgust didn’t make any sense to me. So I guess I liked Anger the best, at least he was willing to do something.”
Stu has beautifully captured his own personality in his reaction to the various Feeling characters. But I need to be cautious in my response so that I don’t further heighten his defensiveness.
After a brief pause I say, “Anger was very helpful when he burned a hole in the glass and allowed Joy and Sadness back into the control tower to help Riley. That struck me as a good illustration of how anger or assertion can be used to motivate a person to take necessary action, to impel them forward in life. It’s one of the things you’ve definitely been able to do, use your aggression to become a successful businessman.”
“I didn’t think of that, but yeah, that makes sense,” Stu replies more thoughtfully than he’s been all session.
“But Anger could also have gotten Riley in lots of trouble,” I continue.
“You mean when she starts to run away?”
I nod. “And when she starts to run away, did you notice how she was shutting down? To leave, she has to remove herself from her feelings, to not care, for example, that she’s leaving her parents.”
“I get what you’re saying. Anger alone can spell trouble.”
“Yes. And you notice what Joy does when she and Sadness get back in the control tower, she has Sadness take over. Riley needs to get back in touch with her sadness in order to feel that she’ll miss her parents, that she doesn’t want to leave them.”
“Good point.” Pause. “I guess the movie was deeper than I thought.”
Now that Stu seems less defensive, I’m comfortable being more direct. “Sadness – or fear for that matter – aren’t emotions you’re comfortable with. They make you feel vulnerable, weak. But unless you can feel the whole range of emotions, it’s hard to live a full life, with meaningful connections to others. You notice in the movie, it’s also Sadness who’s the most empathic character.”
“Are you saying I have no empathy?” Stu asks, more harshly.
“I think you’re starting to put Anger back up, Stu, because even thinking about feeling sad or scared is in itself pretty scary.”
“Maybe,” he says. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Okay,” I reply, as the hour ends. Stu and I still have lots of work to do.