Iso-Principle in “Inside Out”

Over my Christmas holiday, I re-watched the Pixar movie “Inside Out” with my family. I saw the movie back in June when it first came out in theaters and, of course, loved it. I was in awe of its complexities and the profound discussion about emotions, the brain, and personalities. But there is so much depth to the plot that I gained new insights when watching the film for a second time. I can’t stop watching one particular part of the movie. I have watched it over and over, revering its perfectly described scenario of a concept I attempt to utilize daily.

Joy and Sadness

Initially, I was caught by the main plot line that advocates for people to recognize, accept, and utilize “Sadness” in their life in order to support their life experiences and simply be a human. I’m certainly behind the boat in blogging about this idea, but I’ll recap it for you in order to make my main point. One of the central story points revolves around “Joy” and “Sadness”, both personified characters of the emotions of an 11 year old girl, Riley. Joy doesn’t understand why Sadness is a part of this girl’s life or what Sadness’ role is. Joy does everything she can to keep Sadness out of the way so that she doesn’t interfere with Riley’s happy life. However, some life circumstances lead to changes in Riley’s life, which ultimately cause changes in her feelings, and how her feelings are interpreted. In these new adventures, Joy learns the role of Sadness, and how Sadness (as well as the other emotions of Anger, Disgust, and Fear) affect Riley’s life and personality.

I think this movie hits the nail on the head for sparking conversation around the importance of all of your emotions and simply, why it is okay to be sad. While I was watching a second time, all I could think about were my psychiatric patients and all of the feelings they are often feeling at once, or conversely, not at all. At one point in the movie, Riley’s “emotion console” freezes over and no emotion is able to provide Riley direction. Riley is so deep in despair, confusion, and loneliness, she is left emotionless.

Imagine you are a patient undergoing tremendous emotional pain or disruption, whether from a psychiatric disorder, or as a result from physical trauma or sickness. How would you want someone to interact with you? How would you want them to validate and acknowledge your feelings? The clip below from the movie depicts so beautifully how I attempt to utilize iso-principle when working with patients in my music, demeanor, and listening. Watch closely to see how Joy attempts to comfort this character, and then how Sadness comforts him.

*I don’t believe this particular clip has too many spoilers, but I’m putting this disclaimer out in case!

In my opinion, Joy provides a perfect example of how we tend to treat people with mental illness (or anyone who is feeling sad/hurt/lonely, etc.). She tries to make Bing Bong laugh, she tells him to “cheer up” and be positive! Joy changes the subject, she encourages and motivates. She doesn’t listen. She attempts to change his emotion.

And then Sadness comes up and sits down. She meets Bing Bong where he’s at by getting down to his level and provides a comforting hand, which non-verbally tells him, “Hey, I’m here”. And then she does so many things we never do in difficult conversations. She doesn’t interrupt. She repeats back what she’s heard (“I’m sorry they took your rocket. They took something that you loved”). She doesn’t give him advice. She validates his emotion (“Yeah, it’s sad”). And she simply listens. Bing Bong has a good cry to recognize, accept, and validate his own feelings in order to move forward.

We then see Joy realize that Sadness has provided a role. Her emotion actually has purpose. During this interaction, Joy views Sadness as making it worse by acknowledging his sadness and disappointment, but then sees that when Joy couldn’t make Bing Bong feel better, Sadness did. My favorite part, which is actually cut off almost completely so you might miss it, is when Joy says:

Joy: “Hey, how did you do that?”

Sadness: “I don’t know…I just listened to what -”

What I believe she is saying here is, “I didn’t know what to do, so I just listened. I listened to what he had to say”.

So often in music therapy, I come across patients with stories that I simply can’t imagine. I don’t know what to say. But I can listen. I try to recall situations in my own life where all I wanted was a “Sadness” to be there and listen. I try to implement that in my own music therapy practice, to mirror that iso-principle concept of meeting someone where they are at, in order to help them move forward and heal. No progress can be made without first acknowledging the emotion at hand. We’re all human. We all have joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness.


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