Inside Out and the Necessity of Sadness
Sometimes I put off watching important, culturally significant and critically acclaimed movies not because I’m worried they’ll be bad and I’ll be bored but rather because I am deathly afraid that, if anything, they’ll be too good, and open a Pandora’s Box of deeply repressed emotions that will have me blubbering at the theater, and then on the way home, and then at home for a period of days, or even weeks.
That’s why I have not seen the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor yet. Knowing my brain, I am convinced that the movie will not just move me but destroy me with its tenderness, gentleness and timely reminder that great goodness does exist in our sick, sad, corrupted world, but we have to fight for it.
That helps explain why it’s taken me three long years to finally get around to seeing Pixar’s Inside Out even though the movie received ecstatic reviews, won the Academy Award for best animated film and grossed nearly a billion dollars. That's good.
To put things in John Green terms, I was worried that Inside Out would make me feel all the feels, that it would rip me open and reduce me to a weeping, overwrought mess. I was particularly worried that Inside Out would open up places in my psyche I had purposefully buried because it was released about a month and a half after I was laid off from The Dissolve.
In Inside Out, moving from Minnesota to San Francisco and entering the traumatizing, soul-consuming stage known as tweenhood causes the foundations of 11 year old Riley to crumble. Since this is an animated film that takes place largely inside the unfathomably complicated mind of a tween girl, those foundations are elegantly represented by a series of “islands”, each one devoted to something that formed a core component of her previously idyllic existence as a relatively happy, well-adjusted young woman: love of family, a life-affirming predilection for goofing around, the confidence-building world of team hockey and good friends.
Then the first tremors of the earthquake known as puberty hit and everything that previously made Riley happy and gave her a sense of self and identity are violently rent asunder. Goofing around begins to feel embarrassing. Mom and dad become the enemy. In the harsh, unforgiving glare of San Francisco hipness, hockey can’t help but feel like a weird, babyish Midwestern aberration to be outgrown or abandoned and friends begin to look more like frenemies, just as likely to stab you in the back as help you out.
The world begins to feel scary and uncertain and tense even if your parents don’t accidentally decide to compound the trauma and feelings of loss and alienation endemic in being eleven years old, and human, by moving away from home sweet home to some weird, scary new metropolis, as Riley’s otherwise loving and supportive parents do. You will not be surprised, dear reader, to learn that I also moved when I was eleven years old, but if I remember correctly, my folks got divorced around that age as well.
When I got laid off from The Dissolve, the cornerstones of my professional identity similarly started to crumble, and since for much of my life my professional identity was my personal identity, that was tough. A lot of my self-esteem was predicated on being successful professionally. For years, email@example.com wasn’t just my email address: it was my whole identity.
It sure beat being Nathan from the group home or Nathan from the mental hospital. Other cornerstones of my identity began to crumble as well. After deriving much of my identity from being a staff writer at high-profile websites near the top of the pop culture media food chain, I almost immediately gave up on trying to find another staff writing job in the media after I was fired. At The A.V Club but particularly The Dissolve, a huge part of my identity was wrapped being a film critic and though The A.V Club did allow me to review Joe Dirt 2 in the two years I freelanced for them after quitting in 2013, I gave up on that as well. For decades, being a Chicagoan was similarly central to my existence but in the ugly summer of 2015, I couldn’t help but associate the entire city with pain, rejection and failure.
That’s part of the reason I returned to writing My World of Flops for The A.V Club after quitting in disgust two years earlier because I did not recognize the site I’d spent the last sixteen years helping build. Despite the anger I felt towards The A.V Club, this was a part of my past and my identity that I could hold onto, that I could reclaim. I needed the money. I needed the exposure but perhaps more than anything, I psychologically needed at least some professional connection to my past, something that wasn’t too painful for me to even contemplate returning to.
I was overcome with emotions in the immediate aftermath of my firing, when Inside Out was triumphing at the box office and with critics. I cried a lot. I was so angry and tense that I did not eat. My body vibrated with anxiety and depression.
I survived this perilous period by running away from the parts of my life and career that brought me pain. Inside Out made me think about the peculiar architecture of my own brain. It made me realized that my primary survival mechanism involves taking the many, many things in my life that are painful and complicated, and make me sad and anxious and overwhelmed and putting them in a dark room in the basement of my psyche, closing and locking the door, and then hoping that I will eventually forget completely about them and the pain, rejection and confusion they brought.
As survival techniques go, that’s not the healthiest possible coping mechanism but it has worked for me so far. I try not to judge survival techniques, either my own, or others. They may not be pretty. They may not be positive but they help you survive an often cruel and unkind world.
Watching Inside Out made me realize that my primary survival tactics are repression and compartmentalization. I focus relentlessly on the immediate task at hand—generally professional or parental—and hope that if I continue to ignore the things that make me sad and anxious and overwhelmed and alone they’ll go away.
Inside Out’s tear-jerking emotional journey through the vast complexities of human emotion made me realize just how central fear is to my emotional life. More than anything, I’m afraid that if I engage with the pain I’ve been repressing it will unlock a vast universe of gut-wrenching sadness that I have been repressing.
I like to think I’m fearless in my writing, but otherwise my emotions are secretly, or not so secretly, rooted in fear. One of my favorite podcasters, Paul Gilmartin of the Mental Illness Happy Hour, has a feature called a Fear Off, where he and a guest take turns exchanging fears, and also loves.
I’m going to borrow that conceit and write about some of the many, many things I am afraid of. I am afraid of failure. I’m afraid of success. I’m afraid that I am unemployable. I’m afraid that I have failed my father by putting him in a nursing home that he despises and fills him with anger and unhappiness. I’m afraid that this website will fail. I’m afraid of loneliness.
I’m afraid of rejection. I’m afraid of death. I’m afraid of getting older. I’m afraid of not being able to make enough money to support my family. I’m afraid that I will never get the kinds of opportunities and gigs my colleagues and contemporaries do. I’m afraid that this site is a typo-riddled, amateurish embarrassment. I’m afraid that I will revert deeper and deeper into myself and become a hermit who shuns human interaction of any sort.
I’m afraid that my demons and my fears and my insecurities are driving me more than my hopes and dreams and aspirations. I’m afraid of losing what I have, personally and professionally. I’m afraid of having peaked ages ago, and now being on a steep, endless professional slide. I’m afraid of taking to people. I’m afraid of not talking to people. I’m afraid of awkward silences. I’m afraid of having nothing to say. I’m afraid of being an imposter. I’m afraid of being a bore.
That’s why I love writing. It’s the one aspect of my life where I embrace raw emotion, where I embrace sadness, where I see its beauty and power and necessity. It’s not terribly unusual for me to tear up when I’m writing something. I love that feeling. It means that I’ve hit a vein, that I’m writing about something real, that I’m moving beyond my innate fear of emotions in general but sadness in particular.
Inside Out is about the overlooked beauty and necessity of Sadness, as poignantly personified by The Office’s Phyllis Smith. It’s about how Joy (perfectly voiced by Amy Poehler, who is a goddamn delight, is what she is) and Sadness are inextricably intertwined, how we cannot have one without the other. Inside Out is about how we need all of our emotions to survive and be full, healthy, functioning people, not just the pleasant ones. We need to feel pain. We need to feel sadness. We can’t live full lives and be full people unless we accept the whole spectrum of emotions, not just the ones we want to feel.
Because I am not in therapy and repress my unhappy emotions, they spill out in weird, unexpected ways. I’ll weep uncontrollably watching a music video Shaq made about his father abandoning him. Or, at the end of the 2016 Gathering of the Juggalos, when Insane Clown Posse played “Thy Unveiling” I wept for a good half hour, letting all of the sadness and pain and confusion and rejection I’d been suppressing pour out of me in a raw, epic display of long-suppressed emotion.
I thought I was weeping because I was so moved by the underlying goodness of ICP’s worldview and philosophy but there was more to it than that. I was crying for my sick dad and his deep, seemingly permanent unhappiness. I was crying over incredibly important personal and professional relationships that helped sustain me for decades but ended in the ugliest, most seemingly permanent way. I was crying because I felt overwhelmed and saddened by the hard lives of half-brothers and sisters I barely knew. I was crying about the possibility that Donald Trump might get elected President. I was crying about everything and it felt good. Overwhelming, sure, but good.
Inside Out was a similarly overwhelming emotional experience. I cried at the start. I cried during the middle. I cried during the end. It was just as intense and overwhelming and visceral of an experience as I had feared/hoped. It didn’t just move me, it helped me understand myself and my emotions better.
Inside Out made me realize that I need to stop violently repressing my feelings. I need to accept that sadness and rejection and pain are essential components of life and that I’m ultimately doing myself a terrible disservice by structuring my life and my career in a way designed to avoid feeling sadness and rejection and pain in even small increments.
I need to feel all of my emotions, not just the shiny, pretty, socially acceptable ones. I’ve shut myself off from a lot of the world in an attempt not to feel pain and hurt. In doing so I’ve also shut myself off from the good things in life as well.
So I am going to start with baby steps. I’m finally going to go back into therapy. I’m going to try to do things I know might fail, or be rejected, or make me uncomfortable. I’m going to try to be less terrified of sadness, or rejection, or losing and more accepting of failure.
Leaving my comfort zone more often will undoubtedly be scary and crazy-making. That’s precisely why I must do it.
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