Inside Out: Why We Need Sadness


Inside-Out-Why-We-Need-Sadness-RM-722x406In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

I thought of his words yesterday as I watched Disney’s new movie, Inside Out, which I believe is as beneficial as a month of psychotherapy sessions. Watching it with your kids is even better: cheap family therapy. We could all use a reminder of the various characters—Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness–that live within us, and how our temperament is colored by the guy who is hogging the control pad of our brain.

As a person who has struggled with depression for most of her life, I was especially intrigued by the relationship between Joy and Sadness. I laughed when Joy draws a small circle toward the back of Headquarters and tells Sadness her job is to stay within that space. How many times have I given the same order to my depression? “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE??!! FOR THE LAST TIME . . . GET OUT OF MY LIFE!!” For most of the movie, all Joy wants to do is get rid of the blue-ness that messes everything up. However, a few key moments in the pair’s odyssey back to Headquarters teach Joy the critical role of Sadness to the wellbeing of Riley, the girl whom they are inside, and how Joy and Sadness are more connected than she ever suspected.

I think most of us feel like Joy with that piece of chalk in hand, wanting to delegate our sorrow to the farthest, tiniest corner in our brain. As a society, we are uncomfortable sitting with a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer and not saying anything—no platitudes, no advice, no jokes—just letting her tears fall wherever they may, as Sadness did with Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, when he rehashed his traumatic past.

In fact, we force happiness so much in our culture that it breeds unhappiness. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl quoted Edith Weisskopt-Joelson, late professor of psychology, who said: “Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.”

We are afraid of sadness even as it serves a purpose in helping human beings to survive. In his fascinating piece, “Four Ways Sadness May Be Good For You,” professor of psychology Joseph P. Forgas writes, “Findings from my own research suggest that sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce judgmental bias, increase perseverance, and promote generosity. All of these findings build a case that sadness has some adaptive functions, and so should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.”

In one of his studies, participants rated the likely truth of 25 true and 25 false trivia statements. Afterwards they were told if each was actually true. Two weeks later, only sad participants were able to accurately separate between the true statements and the false claims. The happy folks were more inclined to rate all of the previously seen statements as true.

However, we are so negatively biased in our assessment of this “problem emotion”– programmed in us through everything from sitcoms and media headlines to self-help literature and motivational speakers–that we don’t even flinch when people like Randy Pausch, the famous deceased Carnegie Mellon professor, ask questions like: “You have to decide … Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore?”

I loved every part of his “The Last Lecture” except for that.

Because the world needs its share of Eeyores: solemn, highly-sensitive, realistic, pensive creatures. Morever, Eeyore exists in each of us—he balances out the annoyingly hyperactive Tigger. None of us are 100 percent Tigger or Eeyore. We aren’t completely Joy or Sadness. We are both and so much more.

Gibran writes:

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

I will think of those wise words when I’m trying to force Joy to take over command central in my noggin and push Sadness back into her petite circle. The movie does a beautiful job of teaching us that we need all of our feelings—even Disgust, Fear, and Anger–and that the more we expand our vocabulary of emotions and become aware of the movement of each within the gray matter of our brain, the more resilient we will be to cope with life’s unexpected turns and twists.

Continue the conversation on, the new depression community.

Published originally on Sanity Break.

Photo credit: Walt Disney Studios/Everett Collection

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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5 Responses
  1. Sue

    Having just returned from visiting my son at our emergency room (PESS Psychiatric Emergency Screening services) I saw your name that I had written down at my last NAMI meeting and found this article…. A blessing and soooo true. I am passing it on to our group and thank you for your insight, Sue

  2. Gary Lange

    I’m a few months late….

    This morning I stumbled upon this post regarding the film Inside Out and shouted “YES!” I’ve been watching the film every couple of days since purchasing the DVD…almost obsessively (The same as I did with the final scenes of the “Six Feet Under” finale). Trying to decipher the meaning and my own head.
    My personal experience with depression comes more from having close family that have dealt with their lifetime struggles. Not to say that depression hasn’t been a fact of life for me as well, but not to extent that loved ones experience. For the record….Fear is my big driver. I wonder if putting him in a chalk circle would work? 🙂
    All that said…I really wanted to say “Thank you”. Your writing really helped me and some family members frame our thoughts and communication. The film is becoming required viewing among the family and friends.
    The two quotes you included are also very powerful. They are going on our “Reflection Wall”. To explain…in the family and my circle of close friends, we each place important quotes or sayings up someplace we see multiple times a day…which for most of us is the refrigerator. You can purchase printer sheets with magnetic backing that can go through most computer printers. Just type up, print, and trim. It’s a way each of us reminds ourselves what’s important. Some of my personal examples include; “Let go, or be dragged”, “What are you waiting for?” and this priceless one from Gilda Radner..”Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about ‘not’ knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it….without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity!”

    Thank you for listening, for your writing and the work you do. Know that it made a difference for someone. Peace.