What Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ Can Teach Us About Eating Disorder Recovery

Warning: Slight spoilers for the movie. I own nothing related to Pixar, its characters, or the plot. Pity. 

Ever since I heard that Pixar was making a movie about emotions, I’ve wanted to see it. I mean, I love Pixar movies in general, but this was something new. Inside Out tackles some big issues in a big way, and that’s not something that is common in children’s movies.

The Synopsis:

The film’s focus is split between Riley, an 11 year old girl, and Headquarters, the mission control in her mind. In Headquarters, we meet Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, who operate Riley’s controls, helping her find her way through life. When Riley’s family uproots and moves to San Francisco, her normally sunny outlook fades, and Riley starts to slip into depression. It’s up to her emotions to try and help Riley get through.

I went into the movie unconvinced that a children’s story could really say anything meaningful about emotions, let alone mental illness. I predicted a “just think positively and everything will be okay!” message. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Here are a few lessons I took away from the movie, and how they can be applied to eating disorder recovery:

  1. Feigning Happiness For Someone Else’s Benefit Is Never A Good Idea
    Riley’s parents are stressed about the move, and her mom asks her to help keep things light and happy at home. As a result, she pushes aside her own worries and fears to protect the family. When her issues go un-dealt-with, things start to fall apart for Riley.

    What That Means For Us:
    If everything is “fine”, soon nothing will be. When we pretend like everything’s fine, we aren’t doing the work necessary to deal with the things that AREN’T fine. Talking through our issues with friends, family, or our treatment team helps us to overcome them.  If we don’t deal with the issues that make us upset, they’ll consume us.

  2. Sometimes Things Go Wrong, And We Don’t Really Know Why
    The character of Sadness cares deeply about Riley’s happiness, but can’t seem to stop touching joyful memories, tingeing them with, well, sadness. This is a new situation, and the emotions of Headquarters don’t know what to do to stop it. No amount of Joy’s influence can turn the sad memories back.

    What That Means For Us:
    Mental illness is a complicated thing. There are many genetic and biological factors, as well as life events that contribute to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. Joy finds she can’t just FORCE Riley’s memories back to happy, so she and Sadness have to embark on a long journey to figure things out.

    Sometimes figuring out mental illness can be an adventure (of sorts) for us, too. “Just think positively” isn’t always an option when things are out of balance. We can’t WILL ourselves well – we have to figure out chemical imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, and work through the triggers and patterns that keep us sick.

  3. Sadness Can Be A Good Thing
    Joy is DESPERATE to keep Riley happy, and keep Sadness at bay. She takes pride in the fact that most of Riley’s memories are tinged yellow with Joy. It isn’t until she looks back at one of the core memories that she realizes that the support of Riley’s family and friends was only made possible by the presence of sadness first. Because Riley was sad, she was able to feel the love that came from being comforted.

    What This Means For Us:
    Many of us with a history of eating disorders don’t like to let others know we’re upset, either to avoid being a bother, or to keep people from worrying. We don’t want to show sadness because we don’t want people to think we aren’t doing well in our recovery. The irony of the situation, however, is that help and support are key ingredients in a lasting recovery. If people don’t know we’re struggling, they can’t help support us through it.

  4. Numbing Away Emotions Can Be Dangerous
    Everything is going wrong inside Riley. Her emotions are out of whack, and the things that made her who she is start to fade. When Riley’s world starts to crumble, she becomes numb to everything. This leads her to engage in activities she normally wouldn’t, and gets her into some unsafe situations. It’s only when her memories are back in place and her emotions come flooding back that things start to get fixed for Riley.

    What This Means For Us:
    When emotions get overwhelming in our lives, the urge to engage in eating disorder symptoms becomes strong. Numbing out emotions often seems like the only way through. Emotions, though, are one of the best indicators we have that something in our lives needs attention. They’re an invitation to look deeper and solve problems we didn’t know existed in our lives. While emotions can feel chaotic and unsafe, they can actually help protect us if we just let them in.

While Inside Out may not have all the answers (and I’m still not thrilled with their decision to make Joy tall and thin, and Sadness short and stocky), it’s creating an opportunity for people to talk about emotions and even mental illness in a new way.

Have you seen Inside Out yet? (What are you waiting for?!?) What messages did you take away from the movie?

4 thoughts on “What Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ Can Teach Us About Eating Disorder Recovery

  1. Suze Nelson

    Thanks for this piece. It helped me to (post) like the movie as I wasn’t all that fond of it at the time. I agree with the body types criticism (stereotypical, boring and reinforcing) and also really disliked the women and men’s teams that (I think) were meant to represent the mother and dad’s inner thoughts… I hate stereotypes – they only lead to a lower quality and extent of thought. The dad’s team was particularly irritating. Also I wondered why they left out Riley’s discovery of her own inner resources to help herself, support herself – whether it be earthy spirituality which children seem to come by naturally (spending time in nature), listening or playing music, etc. Things she found that soothed her and built her own resources to draw on. Self- empowerment and creativity.

    1. Kelly Boaz

      Hi Suze,
      Thanks for the great insights! I had forgotten the Mom and Dad’s inner emotions bit . . . funny, but definitely perpetuating stereotypes that are better challenged. Let’s hope they explore inner resources in the sequel! (You know there’s gonna be one . . . )

  2. Quwenci Clark

    Thank you, I really enjoyed this article. I loved the movie and this really helped me identify the reasons why.

    1. Kelly Boaz

      Hi Quwenci,
      Thank you so much!
      I also really liked (and forgot to mention in the article) that for the first time there isn’t a villain . . . just a battle on the inside. It’s an interesting idea to present to children, and I’m sure will make many feel less alone.
      Thanks for commenting!


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