5 Things Pixar’s “Inside Out” Taught Me about Addiction


NOTE: This article includes spoilers. Let’s be honest though, you’ve probably already seen the movie anyway.

Last weekend my wife, my daughter, and I went to see Pixar’s new movie “Inside Out.” Needless to say, it lived up to the standard Pixar hype and has instantly become one of my favorite movies.

For the two or three of you who may not be familiar with the premise of the movie, it follows the adventures of a young girl, Riley, as well as her emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—who are personified characters living inside of her brain. Their job is to run her control panel, help retrieve and archive memories, and deliver ideas into her mind.

There’s something different about “Inside Out” that sets it apart from other kids movies though. Yes, it is a cute story about imaginary creatures living in a world of daydreams, but it’s also a powerful illustration that I believe will help an entire generation of kids (and the parents who watch the movie with them) learn how to identify their different emotions and better understand the role each of those emotions play in their lives.

As one whose calling involves helping others uncover what’s going on in their hearts and minds in order to find freedom from addiction, I couldn’t help but notice the following five truths that “Inside Out” illustrates wonderfully:

1. If you ignore your emotions, you will eventually lose touch with all of them.

7a8f302d0e85d196aa135587064dad93Early in the movie, Joy discovers that Sadness keeps “infecting” Riley’s happy memories (the yellow ones) and turning them blue (sad memories). Joy has never understood why Sadness is even around, so she believes the best solution is to keep Sadness occupied elsewhere so she can’t interfere. Joy draws a circle on the ground, proclaims it the “Circle of Sadness,” and instructs Sadness not to leave the circle.

During my addiction, I attempted to handle my emotions in the same way. Any time I began to feel what I would call a “risky” emotion (sadness, fear, compassion, empathy), I would draw a circle in the back of my mind and force it to stay there. I was afraid that if I allowed those emotions to effect me, it could expose the true pain in my heart and my cover would be blown.

The longer I lived this way though, the more my true emotions atrophied. As much as it pains me to admit, I eventually reached a point where I could watch my wife cry herself to sleep each night—knowing that it was my sin causing her pain—yet feel zero emotional response to her pain. In the same way the emotional control panel in Riley’s brain had shut down, my emotions shut down as well.

This is the sad truth of what can happen if you hide, ignore, or force your emotions away in order to protect your outward appearance of having your life “together.”

2. Core memories are powerful…and vitally important to who you are.

Whenever something important or monumental happened in Riley’s life, that memory would go to a special area of “Core Memories.” These were the memories that powered the different aspects of her personality.

Inside Out Pixar Post 2One thing the movie didn’t address directly though, is what happens to you if you develop a core memory that isn’t happy? What if you have a core memory that involves abuse, abandonment, or rejection? Unfortunately, those core memories will have an equally powerful effect on your personality as the happy ones.

One of my core memories growing up was not a happy one, but one filled with shame, embarrassment, and rejection. There was a girl whom I really liked in the 5th grade, but she was clearly out of my league. Somehow though, word got around that I had a crush on her. One day during recess, one of the popular kids tied me to a tether ball pole with my sweatshirt and pantsed me right in front of her. To make matters worse, one of her friends then came up and loudly informed me that this girl would never date a loser such as me.

That experience was immediately filed away as a “core memory” for me, and I allowed it to define me for years. That memory told me that I was a loser, girls would always reject me, and I would never be man enough to protect myself. All of these beliefs helped push me deeper and deeper into my addiction with pornography.

My situation is not unique though, as we all have painful memories that can push us into destructive behaviors if we don’t learn how to handle them in healthy ways.

Luckily, the third point offers us a solution of how to move forward.

3. Shedding new light on an old memory can lead to tremendous healing.

Inside-Out-MemoryOne of Riley’s core memories was of the time her entire hockey team hoisted her on their shoulders to cheer for her. She had always remembered that moment as a joyous time in her life—and it was—but it wasn’t until she looked back at it years later that she remembered it correctly.

Immediately before that moment, she had been sitting alone and crying because she missed what would have been the game-winning goal in the championship hockey game. She believed the team lost because of her mistake. When the team came to let her know they still loved her, it became one of her happiest core memories.

In the same way, looking back at the context of your core memories—especially the painful ones—can help you gain a perspective that will lead to tremendous healing. It’s important though, to make sure you invite the Healer to look back with you if you wish to gain a true perspective.

When I finally looked back at that traumatic day on the playground and invited Jesus into the memory with me, I was amazed at how it my memory of the event. I saw Jesus standing there in front of me, shielding me from the jeering looks and taunts of the other kids. He was looking me in the eyes telling me what my heart needed to hear: “You are loved. I will never reject you. I have made you in my image. I am man enough, so you are man enough.”

In that time of reflection, my core memory changed from blue to yellow. I no longer look back to that event with shame and sadness, but I see it as one of the earliest moments in my life where Jesus began affirming me.

In the same way, I encourage you to invite Jesus into your most painful core memories to give you His perspective. He won’t change what happened to you in the past, but He can bring your heart tremendous healing by revealing to you how He can heal the scars you received from it.

4. The only way to move forward is to let someone in.

riley-inside-out-trailer-2-pixarBy the end of the movie, it finally becomes clear why Sadness is around. Joy looks back through Riley’s memories and recognizes how Sadness is often what allows others to recognize Riley’s need for help. By trying to force Sadness to stay in her circle and not allowing her to influence Riley’s emotions, Riley had become a wall. She shut down, hid her emotions, and wouldn’t let anyone even know she needed help—let alone help her.

Once Joy allowed Sadness to do what she needed to do though, breakthrough came. Riley broke down and shared with her parents how much she was hurting. She was honest with them about her emotions—even the “bad” ones. And once she did that, they were finally able to help her.

When I look back at my addiction, my main regret is that I didn’t trust anyone to come beside me sooner. I tried for years to fix things on my own—all the while fighting in isolation as I hid my true emotions.

Once I joined a recovery group and began trusting others with the real me, that’s when I first began to see changes take place.


5. If someone in your life starts acting differently, there’s always a reason why.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from “Inside Out” though, is that people don’t change overnight without a legitimate underlying reason.

Riley appeared to go from a sweet, fun-loving girl to an angry, sullen, emotionless shell in a matter of weeks. Her parent’s knew something had changed in her, but they didn’t know what.

As tempting as it is to just “ride it out” or wait for it to blow over when we encounter these types of changes in our loved ones, I encourage you to actively pursue their hearts with love.

As a parent, I’ve seen a few of these seasons in my own daughter. It’s been hard learning how to help her feel comfortable, capable, and willing enough to communicate with me what’s going on in her heart, but I can tell you it’s been worth the effort. Even if she doesn’t open up, she at least knows I’ll be there for her whenever she’s ready.

In the end, that’s all we can do for those in our lives who are hurting—to let them know we’re concerned for them and willing to listen whenever they’re ready to open up. After all, that’s much better than “putting our foot down” and lashing out in anger.


I’m convinced that “Inside Out” is more than just a cartoon—it’s one of the more important movies of our day. Even if you don’t have kids, it’s still worth the few bucks it will cost to get in the door.

I suggest you bring some tissues though, as you will likely discover a few new things about your own emotions before the credits start rolling.

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