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The Purpose of Emotions as Told through ‘Inside Out’

I was a little skeptical of the animated feature film “Inside Out” when I first met Joy. “Not another lesson about replacing everything with positivity,” I thought during the first part of the movie. Her dazzling blue hair, her incessant happy attitude, and her “go-get-‘er” attitude were almost too much for me to handle.

I suppose one could say that Joy is the epitome of happiness. But her heart is in the right place. She really wants the best for 11-year-old Riley (the protagonist).

And then comes Riley’s mom, making me all nervous again. She explains to Riley that her dad is stressed and tells her to put a smile on her face. In other words, “show us a happy face, no matter what’s underneath it, and that will get us through.”

Yikes! My insides tightened. I told myself to take a deep breath as I continued to watch. And thank goodness because this movie sure knew what it was talking about.

Just as Joy is the epitome of happiness, Sadness is the epitome of sadness. And Joy treats her just like our society tends to treat sadness. She tries to distract her, she puts her in corners, she tells her not to touch anything. Joy makes the mistake that we all tend to make now and then: ignore sadness, replace it with positivity, and it will go away. The biggest problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t work. Joy realized this (literally with Sadness not going away), and Riley did, too.

Riley began to feel easily irritated. She snapped at her friend, and even blew up at the table with her dad. She lost interest in hockey, and started to lie to her parents. Because the Control Center wasn’t allowing Sadness to be recognized, Riley wasn’t able to acknowledge that’s how she really felt, so it started coming out in other ways. Anger, Fear, and Disgust began to take over.

Joy wouldn’t allow Riley to express her sadness because she didn’t want her to feel sad — a noble intent with very dangerous consequences. When feelings are ignored, buried deep down, or not allowed to be expressed, they push back harder and create the potential for explosion. Riley’s explosion was running away — it was the only way she saw to make things better.

The hero of this story was Sadness. Sadness taught Joy that all our emotions serve a purpose. Without even realizing it, Sadness reminded Joy that feelings give us information about our experiences, and about other people’s experiences. They clue us in to life’s challenges and rewards. They motivate us to connect with others, and to make changes in our lives. They keep us safe and they encourage us to take risks. We need all of our feelings to make these things happen. We need all of our feelings to stay healthy.

When Riley expressed sadness, her parents realized she needed more support. When Riley was allowed to feel sad without pressure to be any other way, and when she and her parents recognized her feelings, she was able to move forward, in a healthy way.

In the end, as Riley grew, we saw memories that were not so solidly blue, yellow, red, or green. The majority were not just yellow anymore either. And the memories that included blue were not viewed as negative. We saw memories with mixed emotions, ones that were red and blue, green and yellow. Riley’s Control Center helped her grow and learn that experiences aren’t assigned just one emotion and that all of the emotions are helpful for her, even Sadness.

Artistic spiral image available from Shutterstock

The Purpose of Emotions as Told through ‘Inside Out’


Alyssa Wermers

Alyssa Wermers is a mental health therapist practicing in Johnstown, Colorado. She specializes in play therapy and healthy emotional development. Alyssa writes various articles about mental health within pop culture. Visit http://www.alyssawermers.org for more articles and information about services.


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APA Reference
Wermers, A. (2018). The Purpose of Emotions as Told through ‘Inside Out’. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-purpose-of-emotions-as-told-through-inside-out/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.