Leave it to Pixar to take something as complicated and often inexplicable as emotion and break it down into digestible and entertaining characters. Many people left the theater after watching Inside Out with a handful of tissues, but I left with a curious thought on my mind: of all the lessons Pixar could have taught us from watching an 11-year-old child’s emotional landscape, they choose to teach us to not be afraid of feeling sad. Why?
When my dad died six years ago, contrary to how it’s portrayed in the movies, my immediate reaction was not to cry. It took me a while before I could cry and even then, the bursts were few and far between. In fact, my aunts and uncles literally took me aside and squeezed me too-tight on the shoulders saying, “You don’t have to be strong, you should just cry—let it out.” It didn’t help. It actually made me angry. And whenever my mother went into hysterics, I shut myself off even more, becoming stoic and even cold.
It wasn’t until later that I realized it was because I have this intrinsic need to balance out the person I’m interacting with. I’m predominantly an introvert but if I’m speaking to someone even more reclusive than me, I somehow find myself being as chatty as the next extrovert. And vice versa, if I’m in a group where there are more than enough people vying for attention, I’m so silent most people think I’m upset.
But I guess that's the difference between adults and children--the ability to suppress your emotions. After all, social interactions wouldn't be sustainable if we threw tantrums or burst out crying every 20 seconds. But a baby will cry whenever anything feels uncomfortable or whenever it feels like it, really. An adult knows better than that and can defer their reactions. And children often feel emotions singularly and thoroughly, hence the independent colors of Riley's memories in the movie. And it wasn't until she was forced to grow up a little that her emotions started to meld together, that a memory could become bittersweet. But as adults, perhaps it's because we feel so much all at the same time, we actually end up emoting less. A child will quite literally bounce off the walls if you give her ice cream, but something remarkable like a raise might only bring a soft smile to an adult's face because she's also thinking of the many long nights and sacrifices it took for it to happen. Sometimes I wish I were three-years-old again, when having my parents on either side of me as I clutched their hands and swung freely like a swing in between made me totally and utterly happy, because I felt like nothing bad could ever happen.
I get it. Emotions sometimes come at inconvenient times. As the years wore on and I became better at coping with my father’s death, I also came to compartmentalize my sadness. Sometimes when a wave of memories come over me maybe from being triggered by a current event or person, I literally shake my head and push the entire thought aside, thinking “I don’t have time to feel sad right now.”
After all, sadness is a debilitating feeling. Once you allow yourself to feel the tingle in your nose, the lump in your throat and the tears brimming in your eyes, there really isn't much you can do to stop it. And for at least the next couple of minutes your body takes control and there's no point trying to do anything else. Then, as if that's not enough, crying is emotionally draining so that it leaves you depressed and lethargic afterwards.
But sadness also facilitates healing because it means admitting that there's something wrong. And you know what? It's okay that there's something wrong. I still remember that scene in Bride Wars when Kate Hudson breaks down and laments that she's tired of being perfect: "It's exhausting having to try to be perfect all the time. That's how I held it together ever since I was a kid. I figured nothing - nothing bad would happen again if I was just...one step ahead of everything and everybody, all the time." And her husband simply replies: "Life isn't perfect, hon. It's messy. Besides, I've always wanted a human wife."
When you let your guard drop and just feel, you allow for connection with other people. After all, emotions are a universal language.