Potential Space

by Lorrie Goldin, LCSW, Impulse Staff Writer


Is eating broccoli an adverse childhood experience? That's about the biggest upset that Riley, the protagonist of Pixar's new film, Inside Out, encounters until age 11, when her family moves. Even for this securely attached child with loving parents and a sunny disposition, calamity ensues. 

Riley's destabilization is triggered by the loss of everything familiar to her, parents who are preoccupied and misattuned, and looming adolescence. The biggest threat, however, is that Joy, one of the film's main characters, is planted too firmly at the helm, with Sadness practically banished.
Inside Out has been acclaimed for its attention to neuroscience, but there are also strong influences from contemporary psychoanalysis. The movie echoes Winnicott's notion of intersubjective co-creation: "There is no baby without a mother and no mother without a baby." It opens with newborn Riley's first blurry glimpse of her parents, who exult in their baby. She is truly the Kohutian gleam in her parents' eyes. Joy is not only a core emotion and an aspect of temperament but also a product of this kind of mirroring, which is crucial to personality development.
In our work, we do not often encounter those whose early object relations result in joy's authentic governance. Yet we frequently see people who have long labored under the command to be relentlessfuly cheerful, as has Riley. She sacrifices aspects of self to protect and please the people on whom she depends. No wonder the other emotions -- Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust -- are content to go along with the premise that Joy ought to be in charge. Luckily, Riley is blessed with good-enough parents and optimal frustration. As her parents engage in an ongoing process of empathic failure and repair, Riley grows and her split-off parts are integrated. Most important, Riley is allowed to mourn.
Inside Out has been lauded for its depiction of emotion, yet it is also a depiction of mania. Which makes sense. Manic defenses ward off feelings of despair through constant activity, the fantasy of omnipotent control, and the disavowal of sadness. Mania masquerades as happiness, but underneath lies the inability to feel sadness. This is Joy to a T. It's also a major aspect of American culture. Perhaps this explains why Inside Out has garnered massive acclaim. The importance and integration of all emotions may be a given among therapists, yet the movie has been hailed as revelation. This may say more about us than Inside Out purports to say about the brain, emotions, memory, and personality development. But to the extent that a movie about the roles of affect and empathy, and the perils of happiness on command, reaches a large audience, it's good to have Pixar at the controls.