By Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist
Inside Out is a wonderful movie, and ultimately about our need as human beings to be soothed, comforted, nurtured and consoled. But before we get to that bit…
All human beings have certain primary emotions. Psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers may debate what emotions are involved and what to call them, but those emotions depicted in the movie (Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, and by all means, throw in a little Disgust!) are all very important. And each of them have had an evolutionary function to play. Let’s take a look at the evolutionary theory.
First, the threat system.
Human beings have the widely-known “fight/flight” response to danger. Intimately involved in this are emotions of anger (fight) and fear (flight). And the threat system is a “better to be safe than sorry” system, erring on the side of assuming danger even when there might not be danger present. Disgust probably comes into this system as well, turning us away from things that might cause us physical or social harm.
Second, the drive system.
This is the system that is all about gratification and pleasure. In this system, joy and excitement are the primary motivators. This is a very aspirational system, and often the emotions associated with it don’t last in any kind of permanent way. But it relates to our drive for success and can sometimes seem insatiable leaving a sense of disappointment when “a miss is as good as a mile”. Often, our self-esteem can be based on our drive system, so it can be tenuous and fluctuates with every success and every failure.
But the movie Inside Out is about something more. In the movie, the five feelings go on a journey to discover that there is a third important system that all human beings deeply need:
The soothing system.
Human beings are terribly physically vulnerable. Think of those documentaries showing a zebra being born. Within minutes it takes its first wobbly steps and shortly after its wagging its tail and running with the herd. Human babies on the other hand need looking after for years, often decades! There has always been an evolutionary imperative that we care for one another, whether it be to care for our young, look after other members of our tribe, cooperate in groups, or generally survive together in what was a world full of dangers.
The movie makes the point that maybe there is an important role for sadness to play. The emotions associated with the threat system, as well as those associated with the disappointments and failures of the drive system, can leave us feeling and expressing sadness. This then serves as a cue to others to soothe, comfort, nurture and console us. And so the three systems all work together, just like in the movie, to keep us safe, keep us moving and keep us consoled.
Inside Out is about a 12-year-old girl who is discovering many of her emotions for the first time. And it does a very nice job of that. What the movie doesn’t depict is that the soothing system can also eventually start to develop on the inside as well. Think of the following sequence of events:
- A baby boy lies crying in his crib. His mother comes in, picks him up and cradles him, softly singing a familiar lullaby.
- A little older, the toddler falls over, scraping his knee. Hurrying over, his mother gets him back on his feet, giving him a squeeze and tells him he will be all right.
- The boy, now 10- or 12-years-old, is playing football and gets knocked to the ground in a hard tackle. As he’s getting up he looks over to the sideline and there’s his Dad, smiling softly, supportively, and nodding as he gives the boy a subtle thumbs up.
- As a teenager, the boy starts to look further afield for his comfort and soothing. He looks to his friends, or perhaps heroes or celebrities that he has stuck to his walls, and he finds reassurance there.
- Finally, the adult has incorporated all these experiences of being soothed and comforted, and creates what might be called a “soothing self”, becoming the one that soothes, comforts, nurtures and consoles himself.
It’s not easy. The threat and drive systems are powerful forces. But if we practice, we can develop this kind of “soothing self” in ourselves and in our children, and we know that self-compassion, that ability to be kind and caring, understanding and forgiving, and aware of ourselves and our primary emotions, can protect us from emotional ill-health, such as anxiety disorders, depression and shame.
When we feel fear, anger or sadness, our soothing self can be there, with a friendly voice, and say, “Hey, you’re doing ok. You just have this emotional brain. You’ll get frightened sometimes, or angry. You’ll even be mean to yourself! Just breathe, smile, connect with the present moment, and remember all that you are, as part of this whole world of people, and keep going, bit by bit, in the direction you truly value.”
For more information on Dr Steindl and the team of Psychologists at Psychology Consultants, visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au