Sadness: The Heroic Emotion (Inspired by the Movie 'Inside Out')

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Although often used interchangeably, an emotion differs from a feeling. The movie "Inside Out" inspired me to explore that distinction as well as the heroic emotion, sadness.

Pixar's "Inside Out" is an imaginary foray into the workings of the brain. Inspired by his pre-teen daughter, writer and director Pete Docter made the animated film to help us understand our emotional lives. He consulted with psychologist Paul Ekman and University of Berkeley Professor Dacher Keltner, whose studies reveal that there are six core emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. Docter, however, found surprise and fear far too similar so he omitted the latter.

The protagonist in the film is 11-year-old Riley, who has been blessed with attentive, loving parents and a smooth existence until her family decides to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Leaving the familiarity of her home, school, and friends throws her emotions into turmoil.

Each of the previously mentioned emotions are depicted as brightly colored characters: Joy, a cheerful, petite yellow lady; Sadness, a morose blue blob; Anger, a short, red rectangular figure with a masculine voice; Fear, a thin, tallish purple figure; and Disgust, a green slithery female character. All of the emotions live in Headquarters -- Rileys' mind -- and work together to control her thoughts, memories and behavior.

As the movie progresses, Joy and Sadness get sucked into a tube (lost in the recesses of the mind) and lose touch with the other emotions. A triangle of emotions (Anger, Fear and Disgust) remains at the helm, but is inadequate to keep Riley functioning smoothly. In the absence of Joy and Sadness, Anger takes over, motivating Riley to steal her mother's credit card and board a bus back to Minnesota.

The tortuous journey is interspersed with moments of exhalation as Joy and Sadness attempt to take charge again. Joy constantly undermines Sadness, as if Sadness is a negative, damaging emotion. Finally, Joy realizes the importance of Sadness, the natural emotion in the face of loss and the one that helps Riley appreciate loving bonds and return to her family.

The journey is exhausting, interspersed with moments of exhilaration. This viewer is left with the impression that our emotions maintain a tenuous balance, easily disrupted by external events. Sadness is the heroic emotion in Riley's as well as everyone's life.

Now back to emotions versus feelings. The distinction is important.

Through early life experiences, emotions are laid down like railroad tracks; they form our personality structure. Emotions are internal and specific to who we are and need to be acknowledged. If they are not taken into account, they can make us sick, causing a range of symptoms from migraine headaches to psychogenic seizures. By contrast, feelings are reactions to external events and may need to be filtered before they are expressed in daily life.

A patient in my practice, Ms. M. repressed her emotional response toward her roommate, an ex-lover who demeaned her constantly. Over the years, the relationship became increasingly toxic, causing her to have migraine headaches and suicidal thoughts. She began therapy and connected the stimulus (the toxic relationship) with her response (suicidal thoughts). She had repressed her emotional need for a loving relationship, turning her anger against herself. Acknowledging her sadness allowed her to move on to a more gratifying and intimate relationship.

By contrast, Mr. Q. exemplifies the need to restrain feelings. A highly intelligent person, he had to learn to curtail his frustration and anger at work when others failed to meet his expectations to perform at his level.

Conclusion: Acknowledging sadness as a key emotion allows us to process life changes. Distinguishing between emotions and feelings is a guide to maintaining the balance of social adjustment and physical and mental health.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.