The Story of Overcoming Trauma in Disney/Pixar’s ‘Inside-Out’

Spoiler Alert: This post will discuss characters, scenes, and plot points from Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out”

In Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out”, the character Riley is depicted through her emotional world inside her brain and memories. When we first meet Riley, she is a happy 11-year old girl living in Minnesota with her mom and dad. She is full of life playing hockey with her friends and feeling the support, comfort and security of her family.

Disney-Pixar-Inside-Out-Pixar-Office-Trailer-640Riley’s world is uprooted when her father gets transferred to a job in San Francisco. This move has a profound emotional impact on Riley; she is losing what is “home” to her – what she knows to be safe and secure. This event is considered a trauma because she experiences something overwhelming and can’t process it.

Riley tries to be positive and fantasizes about her new home of what wonderful possibilities are awaiting her. When she and her family arrive at their new home, however, it’s nothing like she dreamed of. The new home is dull, and tightly fit against another building. The house is empty and dirty; nothing inside the house makes it feel like this could be a new “home” for her and her family.

On top of that the moving company doesn’t deliver their things on time, so the family is left with nothing for days. Riley’s father is stressed because the job isn’t going exactly as planned, and her mom is upset about the moving company. Riley slowly realizes that her world has changed dramatically, and that what was suppose to be safe and secure to her (home), now feels foreign, scary and awful.

We get to experience what Riley is feeling through her five main emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Each emotion is depicted as a character, each with a different purpose and role. The five emotions are found in a control center in Riley’s brain to help her navigate what she is feeling in different situations. Joy seems to be the leader, trying to keep Riley happy so that her core memories are pure joy.

As Riley goes through this traumatic transition, her emotions get very confused on how to handle everything. Right when Riley was getting ready to tell her mom how she was struggling, her mom comes in her room and says how grateful she is that Riley is handling the move so well and for keeping that happy smile on her face. This propels Joy into action to make sure Riley is busy staying happy.

The next day, when Riley arrives at her new school for the first time, she is asked to stand up in front of the class to tell the other students a little about herself. Joy is ready to leap into action. As Riley begins to share her wonderful memories of Minnesota, she realizes how much she misses her old life and tears begin to well up as she is talking. What were once happy memories are quickly turning into sad memories.

Sadness is compelled to express the sadness that Riley is feeling about the move. Joy tries to manage Sadness in every way she can think of like putting Sadness in another room, giving her another job, and even drawing a circle around Sadness saying, “Stay here!” But Sadness cannot be contained. The more Joy tries to contain Sadness, the stronger Sadness becomes, eventually leading both Joy and Sadness to be ejected from main control room. They are now lost in Riley’s memory banks and need to figure out what to do.

This leaves Riley left with Fear, Anger, and Disgust at the controls. Without Joy and Sadness, Riley doesn’t seem herself and isn’t acting the way she normally acts. When Riley’s mother asks Riley how her day went at school, Anger and Disgust take over Riley’s emotional world and try to act like Joy. The funny thing is, that they can’t sound like Joy no matter how hard they try. Riley still sounds disgusted, and angry. Riley’s father sees the change in his daughter and does not approve of her emotional state. He responds to her with anger and orders Riley to her room.

Riley begins to slowly shut down, and the resources that would normally support her in a time of crisis — family, friends, goofing around, honesty, and hockey — are no longer available to her. Joy and Sadness see the resources disappearing and realize they must get back to the control station to get Riley back to homeostasis.

While trying to return to the control station, Joy and Sadness get introduced to Riley’s long lost imaginary friend, Bing Bong, who offers to help them return to the control room to help Riley. Along the journey, Bing Bong witnesses his magical wagon get discarded, and he begins to feel upset. Sadness sits with Bing Bong and begins to console him by acknowledging his feelings of being sad. Bing Bong begins to cry. Once Bing Bong feels heard, felt and seen, he feels much better and is able to move forward.

Joy is surprised by this and asks Sadness, “How did you do that?”

Sadness says, “Well, he just seemed sad, and I listened.”

Often times when people are feeling sad they will try to hide it with their “happy face.” People often suppress what they are feeling in order to keep others from witnessing their sadness, or from making someone else feel uncomfortable. Messages that one hears in childhood like “don’t cry” or “buck it up” or “don’t be angry” tell children to not show their true feelings, so they adapt and keep things inside, eventually growing up into adults who don’t show certain feelings.

The process of acknowledging the pain and allowing the pain to be seen, allows pain to transform and become more adaptive. Emotions are meant to come and go like ocean waves. When one allows an emotion to be felt, it will naturally move through the body onto the next emotional state. What often causes more pain is when one tries not to feel an emotion at all.

Riley’s emotions become less and less available to her overtime until she is completely numb and can’t feel anything. She is literally emotionally shut down. Joy eventually realizes that it will take more than Joy to fix the situation; she will need Sadness’s help. Sadness needs to be expressed.

When Joy and Sadness finally find their way back to the control station they are reunited with Riley’s other emotions. Joy tells Sadness to take the controls. This allows Riley to feel again, and is able to share with her parents how sad she has been since the move. Riley’s parents respond by acknowledging her sadness and express their own sadness and frustrations. This validates Riley’s experience as well as their own feelings about the move. The sharing of feelings allows the family to come closer together rather than wedging them apart. The parents make it safe for Riley to express her feelings and that in turn let’s Riley feel relieved. This moment bonds the family and establishes new core memories for Riley, where Joy and Sadness worked together to bring Riley back to homeostasis.

Now this is a simplified explanation of the entire movie, but the key parts are that Riley experienced a trauma (the move) and that her parents were asking her not to feel certain feelings. Mom wanted her to stay happy, and Dad didn’t want Riley to be frustrated and mad. The trauma left Riley feeling out of sorts, not like herself and unable to adjust in an adaptable way. With the support of her family, Riley found her way through her traumatic event. When Riley allowed herself to feel her sadness and be witnessed by her parents, healing began.

When children face traumas, it can feel just like what Riley went through emotionally — shutting down a little bit at a time until eventually numbing out to everything — because nothing feels right. When someone is taught that their emotions aren’t acceptable, they will adapt and learn not to express their true selves.

Sometimes children, as well as adults, may require help from a professional mental health provider, such as an EMDR Therapist. For many, the idea of therapy may be scary because they don’t want to feel what they are feeling. But they are actually making things worse by not allowing their feelings to be present.

In EMDR therapy, for example, the resiliency of the person can arise by allowing feelings to be felt in a safe environment so that one can move through the stuck place and find aliveness once again.

If you or someone you know has experienced something traumatic and are not able to process it somehow and feel like you are just not like yourself then it might be helpful to reach out to an EMDR Therapist to see if EMDR Therapy would be helpful. You can find an EMDR Therapist by searching our EMDR Therapist Directory to find qualified therapists who practice EMDR Therapy.

EMDR Therapist Directory


Video and Image Source: Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out” Trailer via YouTube