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The Depth of Inside/Out

The Depth of Inside/Out

The Disney film teaches one of the most powerful principles for experiencing joy.


The Disney animated movie, Inside/Out teaches one of the most powerful principles I know for authentic transformation: We experience joy by embracing sadness (and other troubling feelings).

At first glance it seems counter-intuitive. How can a positive emotional state arise by embracing a negative emotional state? Doesn’t Judaism teach us that the path to joy is by thinking positive thoughts and doing productive behaviors? Shouldn’t we try to push away sadness and other negative feelings and see them as a ploy of our lower self to pull us down and destroy our joy?

We experience joy by embracing sadness.

There is certainly a time and place for positive thinking. But there is also a time and place for allowing oneself to access and embrace ones uncomfortable feelings. In a society that spends so much time, energy, and resources trying to avoid emotional pain and suffering, the message of Inside/Out is one that needs to be heard by everyone.

This principle is well known to Judaism; it’s the underlying principle in the experience of mourning. The Torah requires a person to sit shiva for seven days when a loved one dies. The death of a parent or child is devastating. They way out of the pain and sadness is not to avoid it but by feeling it. The mourner is not instructed to think positive thoughts or see his or her thinking as distorted. Instead the community comes and sits with the mourner providing a safe place for his/her feelings. The mourner is invited to talk about his loss and pain which is why other are not permitted to speak to the mourner unless invited to do so. The visitor’s job is to have total respect for the feelings of the mourner, which is why it is so inappropriate when visitors try to distract the mourner. By feeling his sadness the mourner slowly reintegrates emotionally and recovers his feelings of vitality.

Riley’s Loss

In the movie, Riley, a pre-teen, experiences a painful loss when her parents decide to move from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco. The movie takes us inside Riley’s mind and her emotional experience of loss. She has lost her friends, her hockey team, her favorite lake which she skated on with her parents, and the friendly ecology of Minnesota, not present in the dirty city. She’s miserably sad and her parent’s who are caught up in their own life drama fail her by not being there for her and her feelings.

We watch how Riley’s feelings of loss and sadness are not permitted to be felt or expressed. Dad has an agenda to make sure his little girl stays happy, while mom is busy trying to cheer her up by showing her the upside of San Francisco. In one scene, Riley expresses her anger only to be sent to her room. The opportunity for emotional attunement and understanding has gone up in smoke. By dismissing her feelings of sadness, she becomes an even angrier little girl.

Anger often serves a defensive function especially when our feelings are dismissed and cannot find a safe relational home for them. Riley’s emotional world begins to crumble which the movie very concretely depicts, as her “core memories’ fall apart right before our eyes. Her once solid emotional foundation fragments. She is left alone with her painful feelings. In desperation she decides to run away and return to Minnesota. People imprisoned by their emotional pain become desperate.

Luckily for Riley, she is able to connect with her deep sadness. The most moving moment of the movie is when “Joy” gives permission to “Sadness” to take over. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre at that moment. We understood how necessary it was for Joy to step out of the way and let Riley take ownership of her sadness. Riley returns home and in the presence of her parents, breaks down in a flood of tears. Instead of dismissing her feelings, this time her parents embrace Riley and her feelings.

The Talmud says, “The prisoner cannot free himself from the prison.” Riley’s sadness has found a safe home. The healing process has begun and her vitality returns, expanding in wonderfully new ways.

Emotional pain, like sadness or emptiness, is not something to be gotten rid of, it is something to be embraced, understood, and integrated. Feelings are vehicles to growth, not obstacles. Exploring our feelings helps us to become more expansive, deeper and authentic human beings. This is the transformative secret of Inside/Out.

July 11, 2015

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Visitor Comments: 8

(7) Elliot Pines, July 14, 2015 5:05 PM

The prisoner cannot free himself from the prison

What struck me most was Rav Heller's application of: “The prisoner cannot free himself from the prison.” The question for this movie is from the Matrix, "Just how deep does the rabbit hole go?"

To wit, worlds--scales of a fractal hierarchy. These being the level of the humans, and that of the voices. They think they are altogether, but they don't realize how separate they are in their self-assured personal interests and ego-supportive ideologies. Their relationship really is to consider everyone else just part of the environment which they master and exploit. Then the environment undergoes a nonlinear shifting beyond their individual homeostasis--into chaos. Everyone's private world is collapsing, and the ultimate path of this rugged individualistic disintegration is realized--death. How does the prisoner escaped death row? There is a skeleton key. Chaos is really just a "fractal orbit," that is, a phase space (dynamic structural) communication of information across scale.

From absolute Unity, the Creator calls down to all scales--"Where are you?" If we can make contact, we will not die, but rather will live. But we hold the key for each other--mutual responsibility, guarantee. What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow--hate->respect->admiration of system-critical diversity of components. Mitzvahs clean the breakage only for this final gluing. Then general assembly--love your fellow as yourself.

In Natural communities, atoms to ecosystem, this maps the fractal orbit to greater being homeostasis. This unity brought us the light of Torah at Sinai, and will yet be our light to the nations. For we, Israel and the Jews, are storm-center Kiley-Israel. We must put Right-Left, Religious-Secular differences on back burner to our unity--then differences morph into consensus--if not prophets, students of prophets.

Kiley brings the family to globalization, Abraham's dream for Babylon realized today.

(6) Helen Schwab (Chaiah), July 12, 2015 11:28 PM

Good, healthy insights. Thank you for writing this.

Someone wisely advised me to allow the pain of grief to wash over me like waves, and that, like waves, it passes. (I wish I could remember who it was, so I could thank them! It may have been in a book.)

My sister, bless her, advised me to not be afraid to express my anger at G-d, as He could take it! Those pieces of wisdom, plus the conscious choice of surviving in order to take care of my kids, plus the conviction that G-d designed this incredibly complex Creation and probably knows what He's doing, even if I don't understand it, all helped me survive and recover from devastating loss.

(5) Annie Schlachet Garfield, LCSW, July 12, 2015 6:44 PM

Excellent, incisive, smartly compassionate

This article by Dov Heller is excellent, incisive, smartly compassionate and gratefully doesnt try to 'make nice' of the un-nice. There are no healthy shortcuts to the other side of emotional hell. We must go thru it and deal with our experiences in a safe, supportive environment with a person/people who arent afraid of so-called negative emotions like sadness, grief, mortification, bereftness, and all components of PTS. True joy and heartfelt happiness come strongest and most clearly when we name, experience and honor our pain and ecavate thru the resultant issues. BRAVO to Rabbi Heller for having the bravery and knowledge to speak out so proactively about this subject.

(4) anonymous, July 12, 2015 6:41 PM

Question for Rabbi Heller

This owning the pain does not heal it, in my opinion. Feeling the pain prolongs it and leads to wallowing. How does one avoid wallowing and getting stuck in the negative aspects of their life? The Torah is also clear that if we put a smile on our face, eventually- key world, eventually- we will feel happier.

Dov Heller, July 13, 2015 3:22 PM

my response

Wallowing is indeed not helpful and even damaging. There is a big difference between wallowing in feelings and processing them. The goal of processing is to integrate them so that they are no longer intolerable. Some feelings can be processed by ourselves while more chronic feelings need to processed with the help of a therapist. It is certainly wrong to continue to suffer with feelings that we cannot manage. My advice is to seek professional help if you are unsuccessful in processing them by yourself.

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