Dr Colman Noctor, Child and Adolescent Pyschotherapist at St Patrick's Mental Health Services, takes us through how the use of metaphor in the film Inside Out can help children and young people tackle complex mental health topics.
The central theme of Inside Out is based around a character called "Riley" who is a young girl whose family have to move because her father cannot find work. The unique insight to the plot is that the viewer is introduced to a number of characters inside Riley’s head. Each of these characters represent an emotion like anger, sadness, joy, disgust and anxiety. As the plot unfolds and Riley is struggling to adjust to her new surroundings.
The emotionally representative characters in Riley’s head undergo a crisis where ‘Joy’ and ‘Sadness’ get lost in her long-term memory and must find their way back to the ‘control base’ where the other emotions are located. The storyline is superbly interwoven between Riley and her parent’s experiences of inside and outside their heads. This theme allows the viewer to distinguish between and connect the relationship of inside (intrapersonal) and outside (interpersonal) communication.
Firstly, the fact that this movie is engaging, high quality and entertaining is both unique and helpful, because many of the movies that contain a mental health message can be quite ‘arthouse’ and ‘dark’, and are not suitable to a child audience. I feel that the age group that this movie is especially relevant for would be the tweenagers (10-13 years old), but I can see how the powerful metaphor inherent in this movie would appeal to people of all ages.
One of the approaches that can be used to explain quite complex emotional concepts to children is metaphor. This is because something that is described in a ‘once removed’ way is far less threatening and, therefore, more prone to understanding. The use of metaphor in Inside Out is fantastic.
Emotionality is something that we all struggle with. More specifically, learning to put language on emotion can be a real challenge. One of the core concepts of any therapy is to facilitate a person to put words or meaning on feelings, which can be a significant challenge. Once we can name a feeling, we can begin to understand it, and when we understand it, we can begin to deal with it.
Culturally, we are moving more and more towards brevity when it comes to language and communication. We are encouraged more and more to limit our words into the neatness of 140 character descriptions, which do not lend themselves to emotionality. Emotionality is often not neat and can be messy, and so it has to be ‘processed’ and elaborated on rather than deduced and minimised. Therefore, it is really refreshing to see a movie that dedicates its complete plot line to processing and understanding emotion.
Not only does this movie demonstrate metaphors of emotion and thought, through the representation of inner characters, it goes on to explore the interaction of emotions with each other, which is often a phenomena that we neglect to consider. The co-existence of more than one emotion at one time can be confusing and can seem like something that we are reluctant or unable to describe, as there is an urge to describe only the dominant emotion. However, anyone who is psychologically aware will realise that, often, emotions exist as multiplicities and the interaction and understanding the ‘cause and effect’ of these emotions on other behaviours can be a central aspect of psychological work.
Intrapersonal and interpersonal communication
The most impressive aspect of Inside Out is the emphasis on intrapersonal communication. We are all familiar with the concept of interpersonal communication, which involves how we interact with each other, but the concept of intrapersonal communication is more concerned with how we relate to, and interact with, ourselves. Most psychological schools of thought will agree that these two concepts are linked. Often, the interpersonal aspect of our communication is founded upon or originates from our intrapersonal processes, and this can be a core concept of understanding the resulting behaviour.
This is illustrated really well in the scene in the movie where Riley gets explosively angry at the family dinner table. This observable interpersonal behaviour (anger) occurs as a result of an intrapersonal process where emotions (anxiety, sadness, disgust and joy) interact with each other to trigger the resulting behavioural outburst. To the onlooker, it just looks like an outburst that has occurred out of the blue, but, with the insight into the intrapersonal process, we get a sense of the build-up and, therefore, the meaning behind this behaviour.
We are all multidimensional beings who experience emotion, thought and behaviour. We feel, we think and we do. We place an emphasis on behaviour because it is often all we have to go on, in that it is observable, obvious and what we can see. However, the process of emotion and thought that occurs under the surface, behind the scenes or ‘inside’ is where true meaning and understanding can be established.
Inside Out gives us an insight into the workings of intrapersonal processes and illustrates this in a relatable and identifiable way. The characters that represent emotion are universally similar inside each character’s head, yet uniquely different at the same time. This is an accurate representation as we all experience similar emotions, but all of which are unique to us. The commonality of the characters in the movie allows us to have a conversation based on the shared identification for each of us with these characters whilst, at the same time, recognising our own specific uniqueness.
Core concepts of our personalities
In addition to dealing with the concept of intrapersonal communication there is also the subplot of ‘core concepts’ which the story explains. The premise of this plotline is that the foundation of our personalities is built upon core experiences or memories.
These core concepts are illustrated through family experiences, fun (goofing around), sport and friendship, and are represented as islands in Riley’s head. This aligns itself with the philosophy that we are all products of our experiences and aligns itself with an Object Relations school of thought.
Object Relations theorists believe that core experiences form foundational lenses with which we see the world. These foundational experiences have a significant effect on how we see the world. They create internal working models that determine our world view, albeit positive or negative. These foundational experiences can also contribute to our inner resilience that helps us to cope and respond in times of adversity.
The movie highlights the importance of these foundational experiences by illustrating them as island-like features that encourage resolve and strength of character. What the movie also demonstrates is that, as we grow up and develop, these core concepts can be shattered and need to be reconstructed to form a more adult lens that is not fundamentally that different, but has adjusted to developmental maturity.
The illusion of childhood innocence is no longer the blueprint for resilience when we become adolescents. As young adults, we need something different that serves a similar function of fostering resilience. This is especially relevant for the tweenager (9-12 years) who is undergoing the process of illusionment as they enter the pseudo-adult world. Up to this age, we can, in some ways, protect children from adverse life events, and emotions can be distracted away from with a new toy or a bag of sweets.
However, as we approach adolescence, our lives become more sophisticated and our emotions less avoidable. Over the plot of the movie, Sadness is largely ignored or managed by keeping her out of things, yet, as the plot unfolds, the other emotions realise that they can no longer do that. In fact, Sadness needs to be engaged with, included and understood in order for her to be integrated into Riley’s experience of life. For too long, we have seen sadness as an unnecessary and avoidable emotion when, in fact, coping with sadness is an imperative aspect to emotional development. The gentle but clear way in which Inside Out manages this phenomenon is admirable and effective.
I also loved the way this movie demonstrates concepts such as long-term memory, dreams and the unconscious. The script writers bravely dealt with these more abstract concepts which can be very difficult to explain to a child in a way that they understand. Yet the metaphor of the unconscious being a place where traumatic and difficult experiences are stored, but maintain ongoing influence and are likely to resurface at any time, is a crucial aspect to the storyline.
What impresses me most about Inside Out is how bravely and successfully it deals with the concept of the mind. The mind is a concept that even psychological professionals sometimes struggle to define or describe. Inside Out moves away from the notion of the self being linked to the brain or neurology, but rather aligns itself with the more complex concept of the mind detailing the complex interactivity of emotion. I believe that Inside Out could be used as an incredibly useful resource to provide a communal meeting place for children, families and professionals to begin a conversation about the core concepts of the self and the mind which have up to now proven difficult.
I hope that families who see this movie leave with a language and a visual reference point to open up a conversation about emotions, thoughts and behaviours with each other. This could allow us to open up a dialogue about intrapersonal communication that has long since been avoided and ignored. This movie could allow us to try to explore the meaning behind behaviour and could potentially be a discourse that could open up new dimensions to our experiences of our intrapersonal communication.
For example, if a teenage boy and his mum see this movie together, they can use the template of Inside Out to articulate intrapersonal processes. If the boy has had an episode of anger in previous days, both he and his mother can use the metaphor of the characters to recall what was going on for him at the time. In turn, his mum could articulate what her intrapersonal process was like during the interaction, thereby increasing both of their degree of understanding of each other and, hopefully, a more meaningful resolution.
I feel this movie breaks ground and creates a discourse that is desperately needed and has not been available to us before. I hope that we can signpost families and professionals to see the value of this movie and get people to engage with the metaphor in this story. This is a unique and far reaching possibility to use the metaphor and discourse in this movie to improve our communication with each other and open up a different type of conversation where both people and adults have a mutual template as a reference point for their emotions.
I also feel that the benefits of engaging with the potential of this movie to improve communication, insight and relationships are huge. I also feel that the benefits of the Inside Out metaphor is not exclusive to children but may also assist adult intrapersonal communication, which will form a template that could move us from rumination into introspection.
Colman Noctor is the author of Cop On: What it is and why your child needs it to thrive and survive in today’s world, published by Gill and MacMillan
See more on helping children deal with emotions
See more on helping children deal with emotions
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