Prashanthi Subramaniam

What Inside Out taught me about Adult-ing through Life

I have a thing for psychometric tests. A particular proclivity, if you please. I used to take a lot of arbitrary witch-doctor-psychologist tests on websites like Tickle when I was in high school. In college, I was a willing participant for all my friends who were psychology students. They always knew that if a subject bailed on them, they could call on me and I would very happily oblige. Every couple of months I continue to take the MBTI or the TJTT or the TTCT among others. It’s all a very LMAO situation, if you can get past how weird it is for a 20 something to spend her free time on psychological testing.

I always thought that these tests could tell me something about myself that I hadn’t discovered yet. A part of my identity that I had hidden away or perhaps, a reason as to why I dealt with all of life’s idiosyncrasies the way I did.

Growing up in India, as a child or a teenager, my understanding of my identity was a purely inter-personal exercise. I belonged to a family, a religion, a caste, a linguistic community, a society. I was taught that there were socially desired ‘good’ and ‘bad’ habits. Schools and family structures threw us into rat races where our self-worth was established by how well we did in examinations, how many sports we played, how many extra talents we cultivated. The media complicated it further by demanding how we looked and how we behaved.

Any remotely familiar conversations about managing emotions or mental well-being were part of a boring biology curriculum, something that you’d conveniently skip to move to the next lesson. At the most, it was discussed when a student (the social deviant/ the one with the attitude problem) would get hauled up for “misbehaving”. This isn’t to say that teachers and parents weren’t concerned. Sometimes, it was simply that they were ill equipped to be having a conversation about emotional intelligence with children enough to elicit an intelligent discussion, let alone an acknowledgement that it was another vital frontier to cross. Quite sadly, our education systems were grooming entire generations of high IQ leaders, but very few with the EQ to be able to deal with success, failure, relationships, challenges and survival.

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As we grew up to the Generation Y (Generation Why– is more like it), we were set up to face challenges in an environment that was clothed in uncertainty. We are now part of a generation that is living through economic crises; most of us are knee deep in loans; we have almost forgotten the meaning of job security and are negotiating relationships in the time of social media and information overload. Where does this leave the obvious problem of stigma surrounding mental health? In societies where there is a lack of conversational culture, the spiral of silence continues to grow deeper and quieter. And how would one cope? Write a diary? Vent to a friend? Seek professional help? The self-help sections in bookstores continue to grow larger and somehow, we hope the conversation trudges along, from one best-seller to another. While nearly all of these books are targeted at an adult, often American demographic, how can this story be brought a little closer to our little ones? As I see myself and my peers continue to wade through situations of existential crisis, interpersonal conflict, failures and heartbreak, daily, I wonder if having a sustained conversation through our formative years could have helped us deal with these ups and downs better.

Now, this is where Disney Pixar’s recently released Inside Out comes in. Family friendly animated movies have always fascinated me for the extent of complexity that they choose to dabble in. Disney’s runaway hit Frozen was that much more engaging because Elsa’s inner turmoil and her battles with self-worth were key pegs in the storyline (Remember Let it go and the perfect girl?). Here, Inside Out stands out as an exceptional piece of animated film because it is able to have a discussion, both through narrative and aesthetic, that isn’t an easy one. How do you deal with all the emotions wreaking havoc in your head, unknown to the world outside? Young Riley, in whose head reside the five emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, is figuring out her life as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. While the film is located in a specific geographical, class and race context, it speaks of experiences that are common to many of us. The uncertainty of leaving a home for another city, the sadness of saying goodbye to old friends, the fear of making new ones, the anger that comes with culture shocks; as Riley navigates her life on the outside, the gang of emotions compete with each other to take control of her system on the inside, often leading to tragicomic consequences.

Inside Out left a deep impression on me for a few things that it made me realise or well, remember:

Joy tries to dominate nearly all of our lived experiences, and sometimes inauthentically.

Joy, played by Amy ‘Leslie Knope’ Poehler, is the natural leader of this motley crew of emotions. Everyone relies on Joy to steer the ship and she finds ways to lead her team, sometimes by shutting down what the others have to say. Joy is constantly trying to prove her existence and her ability to lead. I couldn’t help but wonder that in a time when our online lives dominate much of our existence, does the pressure of positive self-representation make us constantly see only the sunny side of things and want to share only what we think are “happy” moments. Is there room to share sadness, heartbreak, pain, without judgement? Indeed there are spaces, niche as they may be. Blogs, support groups, facebook pages where one can find both solace and support. Scrolling down the comments section of the Humans of New York page is a good place to start.

Sadness has a role to play.

 

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There’s a great dialogue in the movie when Joy and Sadness are lost in the never ending labyrinth of long term memory. Sadness is the only one who has read all the manuals that can take them back to Headquarters. Joy decides to rely on Sadness’ expertise and follow her directions. “You are my map, Sadness. Lead on, my map!”. Simple, yet profound.

Throughout the film Joy is unsure of what Sadness’ role is. Sadness is associated with some of the bluer memories in Riley’s life, but is also associated with empathy. Joy’s understanding of Sadness comes when she realises that it’s only Sadness (of all the emotions) who has the power to make Riley speak up and ask for help.

Our Islands of Personality give meaning to our lives, but these evolve with time.

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The movie deals with the idea of self-concept in an interesting way through the use of Islands of Personality in Riley’s head. Riley’s self-concept is shaped by her family, friendship, honesty, goofiness and fun, and hockey- her favourite sport. As pandemonium strikes in her head, we see each of these islands falling away. Losing each of these islands slowly chips away what makes Riley Riley, to the point of a total breakdown. However, the silver lining at the end of the movie is how new islands are eventually set up as Riley comes to better understand herself.

Sometimes, our childhood dreams do hold the key to us being happy.

In the movie, Riley’s childhood imaginary friend BingBong (the part elephant-cat-dolphin-cotton candy vagabond) plays a key role in helping Joy get to safety. BingBong and a memory wisp of a rocket-ship that was supposed to help Riley realise her dream of going to the moon, stem from a place of unadulterated happiness and excitement. This subtle shout out to childhood dreams that make us soar and stretch our imaginations to its farthest boundaries is just that message that we sometimes need to be reminded of.

There are many more such hidden nuggets throughout the 2 hours of this movie that would probably make this post longer than it already is. But the conversation doesn’t stop here.

A movie like Inside Out has the potential to reach children and families across the world, but the onus lies on us to break down these barriers of stigma that we have built around speaking about emotional well-being. To take those first few steps towards addressing the proverbial elephant in the room, perhaps to even do something about it. Stop and turn yourself inside out.

Article by Prashanthi Subramaniam

1 thought on “What Inside Out taught me about Adult-ing through Life”

  1. Absolutely loved reading your post, Prashanti!
    I haven’t watched the film yet, but now have incentive to do so with urgency.
    One particular wondering of yours stood out for me:
    “The self-help sections in bookstores continue to grow larger and somehow, we hope the conversation trudges along, from one best-seller to another. While nearly all of these books are targeted at an adult, often American demographic, how can this story be brought a little closer to our little ones? As I see myself and my peers continue to wade through situations of existential crisis, interpersonal conflict, failures and heartbreak, daily, I wonder if having a sustained conversation through our formative years could have helped us deal with these ups and downs better.”

    It is especially relevant for me because I hope to be having more questions around exactly this topic, and answering some of these questions this year. Can starting a conversation that helps children/ adolescents navigate their emotions and distressing experiences prevent dysfunction in later life?

    Thanks for writing.

    Like

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