Pixar’s been making first class movies for twenty years, and Inside Out may be their best yet. It contains a beautiful and succinct example of the simple healing power of empathy.
The movie mostly takes place inside the head of Riley, an adolescent girl. Her major emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust are personified. Sadness is the inadvertent villain, accidentally tainting Riley’s memories with sorrow as she tries to adjust to her family’s cross country move.
Joy and Sadness get sucked into the maze-like memory banks of Riley’s brain, and meet Bing Bong – Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend. Sadness, Joy and Bing Bong witness the destruction of Riley’s inner childhood world. Bing Bong sees his beloved wagon Rocket get dumped into a pile of junk, and bulldozed off a cliff, into the deep canyon of unrecoverable memories.
Bing Bong sits on the edge of the cliff, stunned. Joy approaches him, and tries to keep their plan of action on track:
Bing Bong doesn’t move.
Bing Bong: I had a whole trip planned for us.
Joy: Hey… who’s ticklish, huh?? Here comes the tickle monster!
Bing Bong doesn’t respond.
Joy: Oh – here’s a fun game: you point to the train station, and we all go there! Won’t that be fun?? Come on, let’s go to the train station…
Sadness: I’m sorry they took your rocket. They took something that you loved. It’s gone. Forever.
Joy: Sadness – don’t make him feel worse!
Bing Bong: It’s all I had left of Riley.
Sadness: I bet you and Riley had great adventures.
Bing Bong: Oh – they were wonderful. Once we flew back in time. We had breakfast twice that day.
Bing Bong: Oh, she did. We were best friends.
He starts to cry.
Sadness: Yeah. It’s sad.
Joy groans in exasperation.
Bing Bong recovers. And gets up.
Bing Bong: I’m okay now. Come on. The train station is this way.
Joy: How did you do that.
Sadness: I don’t know. He was sad, so I listened to what…
Bing Bong: Hey! There’s the train!
Joy is an exaggerated personification of Enneagram Type Seven – the Enthusiast. Her go-to strategy is to focus on the positive. Sevens, Nines and Twos are part of the
Positivity Triad. In situations of difficulty, look on the bright side! Cheer up!
Sadness is an exaggerated personification of Enneagram Type Four – the Individualist. Her first impulse is to acknowledge the real emotion of the moment. Fours, Sixes and Eights are part of the Emotional Realness Triad. In situations of difficulty – speak honestly with me. Don’t hide or sugarcoat anything.
Joy is certainly important. And in many situations, it takes going through one’s pain to reach it. Covering it up, distracting from it – these are short term solutions, which might continue one’s entire life.
Also notice that Sadness didn’t try to solve Bing Bong’s problem. She doesn’t suggest a way to retrieve the wagon, or get a new one. Ones, Threes and Fives are part of the Efficiency Triad. In situations of difficulty – solve the problem.
And yet, it’s being emotionally real that solves the problem.
Empathy is startlingly easy and powerful.
Brene Brown provides an insightful observation, saying that “rarely if ever does an empathic response begin with ‘at least’”:
“I had a miscarriage.”
“At least you know you can get pregnant.”
“My marriage is falling apart.”
“At least you have a marriage.”
“John’s getting kicked out of school.”
“At least Sara is an A student.”
Providing empathy helps someone in pain experience what they need to – a necessary step for healing.
Animals have been observed dealing with stress and trauma in this same way. A zebra who’s just outrun a cheetah will be filled with cortisol and adrenaline. That zebra will then shake its whole body, ridding itself of its pent up energy. The stress is released, and the zebra goes about its day, without clinging to its recent life-threatening experience, or suffering post-traumatic flashbacks later.
No matter our type, no matter what strategy we incline towards, we can choose empathy when someone has suffered a loss or is going through a difficult time. Turning into our sadness doesn’t mean we’ll get stuck in it. Strangely enough it’s plunging into that bottomless pit that allows us to reemerge, strengthened and healed.