Friday, July 17, 2015

Making Friends with my Emotions

‘Inside Out’ is a remarkable film that animates a model of the human mind in a very entertaining fashion.

The main human character is an 11-year-old girl named Riley, but the majority of the action in the film takes place in her mind. The conscious mind is portrayed as a control room staffed by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. The emotions interpret and react to events in Riley’s life, and the emotional response puts a stamp on experiences as they are saved to long-term memory. (The filmmaker acknowledges that he had to simplify the emotional composition of the human mind to keep the film from being overwhelmed with characters. I think he did a good job at picking the most important ones.)

In the beginning of the film, Joy rules the control room. The other emotions have their place, but most of Riley’s memories have Joy’s emotional imprint.

A catastrophe knocks Joy and Sadness out of the control room and they are forced to find their way back. They traverse the vast maze of Long-Term Memory; the cavernous, scary Unconscious; the funny Dream Factory and Imagination Playhouse; and the abyss of the Memory Dump.

If you haven’t seen the film, I’d encourage you to stop now and read this after you’ve seen it.

What the film illustrates beautifully is that all of our emotions have their place. We may dream of a life with no sadness, no anger, no fear. Many of our spiritual pursuits are about getting to a place where there is no suffering; where only joy—bliss—remains. But I have found myself increasingly wondering: is that pursuit compatible with the nature of existence? Is the pursuit of ‘no suffering’ in fact anti-life?

I have been learning a great deal about the emotions since my husband died five months ago. I’m originally from the Midwest where we famously suppress our emotions. I thought being emotional was self-indulgent. I thought that as I evolved in consciousness my emotions would recede in importance.

As a result grief hit me like a body blow. There was no avoiding the emotional onslaught. I worried about the irrationality of my grief, until some friends corrected my thinking: emotions are a-rational, not ir-rational. They are a different intelligence, in fact a more ancient intelligence than that of our rational mind.

This experience has caused me to reexamine my thinking about emotions, and to remember some things I’d learned in the past. ‘Inside Out’ confirmed the conclusion I was coming to: Integrate your emotions into your wholeness. Don’t see them as enemies.

I’d certainly been trained to think of emotions as my enemy. Anger is a bad thing that should be avoided or managed. Fear is worse—cowards are despised in our culture and fear is portrayed as debilitating and paralyzing. Sadness is seen as something that needs to end—‘cheer up!’—or to be treated with anti-depressants. Disgust is not politically correct; the proper response to everything must be tolerance and respect.

A couple of psychologists who’d been consulted during the development of the film published an essay about it, The Science of Inside Out. They wrote,
…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.
But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation. For example, studies find that when we are angry we are acutely attuned to what is unfair, which helps animate actions that remedy injustice.
‘Inside Out’ puts a spotlight on the importance of one emotion: Sadness. The story showed how vital Sadness is to a complete human life—one of Riley’s best memories was revealed to be rooted in Sadness.

The message was clear: allowing Sadness to speak can help us move on from a loss and connect us to other people in a sense of common humanity. In this world where everyone is limited in some way, loss, mistakes, and failures are inevitable. We will all feel sadness tinge our joy, and it’s through the ability to share that sadness with others that we become fully human and form connections.
The other emotions have their powers also.

Fear gives us a boost of adrenaline to do our best in a new or challenging situation. Most of us think the feeling of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ is a negative experience. I’ve found that I can embrace that feeling as a gift of energy. Fear also helps me to stay focused and aware. Viewed in this way fear serves me.

Anger gives us the motivation and energy to change something that we think is wrong or unfair. It provides the passion to struggle against obstacles that otherwise might seem insurmountable. (You can see me talking about the positive power of fear and anger in this TV show from 2010; watch between 49:00 and 51:00. This was a weekly show Arthur and I did where we talked about various ‘questions of meaning.’ Interestingly, this particular show was devoted to the subject of anger, and without planning it we had a fight ahead of time and were angry for much of the show, bringing the subject to life.)

Disgust keeps us safe. It’s an ancient mechanism to alert us to food that’s gone off, unsanitary conditions that could make us sick, or immoral situations that could compromise us in our social milieu.

I’ll add Grief as another emotion since it’s so present in my life right now. In my experience, Grief alters space and time. Grief creates an alternate world in which the griever is separate from the world around her. This separation allows for a period of deep reflection: contemplation of the person who has died, your relationship with them, and the meaning of life and death. This out-of-time descent into the arational world of feelings is necessary to heal the wound caused by death, and feels primordial in its origins.

The movie ends with the control room console being expanded and all five emotions given access to the controls; all memories were now rainbow-hued, shaded with all five emotion-colors, instead of being monotones of golden joy. Riley’s personality has become more complex and interesting.

I had read a glowing review of the film in the New York Times before going to see it, which didn’t give away anything about the film. It just said that every adult would cry in the last twenty minutes. I didn’t cry, and perhaps that was because I’d been forewarned. But perhaps it’s because I didn’t see the overthrow of Joy as the dominant emotions as a tragedy.

Interestingly, neither did my 13-year-old niece. Her comment about the film was that she liked the message that it was better when all the emotions got along; that sadness has its place, because sometimes life is sad.

The reason I’m excited about this film is because I think it has the potential to broaden the average person’s understanding of the mind, and in particular, other people’s motivations. Most of us react to people we encounter by just bouncing off the surface of whatever act those people are projecting, without giving a second’s thought as to whether there is anything else going on inside. This film will give those who have watched it pause. We will remember the five emotions battling it out in every person’s control room in the film and we might even find ourselves asking questions like: That guy is angry but maybe it’s just Anger jumping up and down on his console; it doesn’t have anything to do with him as a human being. Maybe he’s angry because no one has shared his Sadness and he’s just feeling lonely?

I feel the film might help me be a more understanding person, recognizing that people, including myself, have a war for control going on inside. In fact I wish I could have seen this film while Arthur was still alive. Sadness was a dominant element in his life, and I was always trying to cheer him up with optimistic perspectives on life. Joy is still dominant in my personality, and I thought ‘indulging’ his sadness—what I thought was the enemy—would just make it worse. I would never have considered sitting and sharing his feelings, as the movie portrays Sadness doing with Bing Bong, the Imaginary Playmate, after the loss of the magic rocket ship. What if I had sat with Arthur and mirrored his feelings?

I can’t know the answer to that, but I will carry this lesson of making friends with the emotions into my interactions with other people.

Note: In a recent study, scientists asked people where in the body they felt various emotions, then mapped their responses. The locations of emotions were consistent across cultures. Here’s the report.

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