Talking Pictures: Change is good

Therapist Myra Bernecker analyzes the preteen mindset of ‘Inside Out’

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Pixar’s mega-hit ‘Inside Out’ is a highly imaginative look at the inner world of an 11-year-old girl.

by David Templeton

Some movies, and certain post-film conversations, aren’t easily forgotten. Twenty-four hours after my talk with Dr. Myra Gueco Bernecker—whose private therapy practice in San Francisco aims to build up healthy emotional lives in children and adults—the movie we discussed is still very much on her mind.

“Dear David! I had a few more thoughts,” Bernecker writes in an email the day after our cinematic question-and-answer session. Among her additional thoughts is the change of one answer from ‘Yes,’ to ‘Maybe.’

That’s awesome. After all, the whole point of the movie—Pixar’s psychologically savvy mega-hit Inside Out—is that change, though often unexpected and fraught with danger, is good.

A highly imaginative look at the inner world of a preteen girl named Riley, the movie follows the 11-year-old as her calm and happy emotional state is thrown into major upheaval when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. In the beautifully animated film—written and directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen—Riley’s emotions are represented as colorful little oddly-shaped people: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Each emotion gets to take a turn at the console, a kind of one-feeling-at-a-time switchboard in Riley’s head—aka “Headquarters”—though Joy (voice of Amy Poehler) is accustomed to making most of the big decisions. That’s a system that’s about to change big-time when Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith) suddenly can’t resist putting her melancholy touch on everything, shifting Riley’s experience of the world from sunny to serious.

Early in my conversation with Bernecker, at a coffee-and-pastry emporium near her office, I ask if she thought that Riley’s preadolescent angst would have happened even if the family had stayed back in Minnesota.

“Oh, I think so, yes,” Bernecker says, sipping a cup of tea. “It’s pretty normal. Between six and 11 is called the ‘latency age,’ where inner conflicts are pushed way down below the surface, and people on the outside don’t see them very much.

“But then, along come the preteens,” she continues, “and suddenly all of those things that have been successfully pushed down below the surface, whoosh! They suddenly come to the surface. So I think Riley’s emotional ups and downs would probably have happened, even if she’d stayed in Minnesota.”

“Some critics,” I mention, “have called foul at the movie’s rather simplistic suggestion that before adolescence, the normal emotional state of all kids is joy and happiness. I guess there is the concern that kids who are feeling anything other than happy all the time might see this, and worry that there is something wrong with them. But some kids have good reason to feel sadness, or anger, or fear, don’t they?”

“Yes, I agree, that was a bit simplistic,” Bernecker says with a nod, “but between six and 11—if there is a happy home, stable parents and nothing too stressful in the kids’ lives—things usually are pretty good. Joy, in that kind of environment, probably would be the primary state of things. We get the idea that the move to San Francisco is the single biggest change she’s ever experienced.

“Another kid, with a different situation at home,” she adds, “might have a different system going on in their head.”

When asked what she thought of the metaphor of little people fighting for control of the buttons in our brains as a description of emotional processes, Bernecker smiles.

“I liked it,” she says. “I think it’s an accurate way of displaying the struggle and inner turmoil that happens, and the unrest people may experience, when facing something significantly stressful. Riley’s emotions are out of control, because nothing is normal, so the feelings that were once so balanced, working so nicely together, suddenly don’t know how to work together anymore. To me, it’s a perfect way of showing what happens during adolescence.”

Eventually, in the film, we see that the feelings in Riley’s head have replaced the console with another, bigger console, where there is room for all of them to work side by side, presumably allowing Riley to feel more than one emotion at a time.

“I think it might give a sense of relief to children,” Bernecker remarks, “to know that you can, and probably should, feel more than one emotion at a time. That’s a healthy thing to encourage.”

In Inside Out, Riley can’t shake the thought that life would be better if Mom and Dad had never hauled her to California, where people eat pizza with broccoli on it. After our conversation, Bernecker, likewise, can’t shake the thought that she might have added some necessary context to one of the points she made.

“When you asked if I thought that Riley would still go through what she did,” she writes in her email, “even if she didn’t make the move, I said, ‘Yes.’ But I’ve thought more about that, and I retract my ‘yes,’ and now answer your question with, ‘It depends.’

“Given Riley’s stable upbringing and secure attachment to her parents,” she continues, “it’s possible that she may not have experienced preadolescence with such intensity, and a brand new, bigger ‘console’ at Headquarters would likely not be necessary, yet. Without the move, her imbalancing and restructuring process could take place later in her teen years or even young adult years. The inner turmoil—mood swings, et cetera—is a sign that the restructuring process is underway.

“I think this movie is applicable to all ages,” Bernecker writes, “in that restructuring can happen at any age. When a big psychosocial stressor occurs—i.e., a move, breakup, divorce, death, lost job, et cetera—depending on one’s inner and outer resources and other factors, it can be devastating. That loss can stir up past losses, if unresolved, and can or will require a new, bigger console at Headquarters.”

Just as there’s always room for more than one emotion at the controls, there’s always room for one more thought from the doctor. Before our conversation concluded, Bernecker left me with this final thought.

“There is an inner life that happens in children,” she says, “in all of us actually, that not everyone sees or pays attention to. In the movie, I thought Riley was showing hints of sadness from the beginning, right below the surface. But she was hiding it. And that’s the point of the movie, and why it’s so good.

“Just because we see one thing on the outside,” she concludes, “doesn’t mean that’s all that’s happening on the inside.”

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