Turning Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) “Inside-Out”

Turning Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) “Inside-Out”

by Elizabeth Han

If you haven’t already, I urge you to watch Pixar’s newest animated film, Inside Out. Centering on an eleven-year- old girl, Riley’s, move from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents and the subsequent fallout, it’s an ode to childhood and growing up, family, the places we come from, and most of all, the roller coaster of emotions all these things engender.

Most of the action takes place inside Riley’s head, at a starship-like Headquarters, where Inside Out’s star characters, Riley’s emotions — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear — burst off the screen with color, personality, verve, and life. Sitting in the theatre watching these anthropomorphic emotions laugh, cry, blaze, dance their way across your view, you get the sense of the title — you’ve been privileged to peek at emotions from the outside-in.

Joy, a waifish pixie-esque character with scary-huge eyes that I think are meant to be comforting, nearly has a breakdown when Sadness, in my opinion the highlight of the movie, her bespectacled, sweater-clad, somewhat- awkward counterpoint, begins to interfere with Riley’s memories. Far from malicious, Sadness’ uncontrollable actions correspond with the challenges Riley faces in the outside world. Disappointment with her new house, crying in class on her first day of school, having an off day at hockey tryouts, and to top it off a blow-the-roof-off pre-teenage-angst argument with her parents. How is a girl supposed to cope?

Joy, in her cloyingly prescriptive way, thinks she has the answer. Stay happy. Pretend to be happy if need be. Poor Sadness doesn’t know why she keeps trying to touch Riley’s memories, only that it seems necessary. Not really caring to figure it out, Joy tries to distract Sadness with busywork and eventually tells her to stay inside a three-foot radius painted on the floor. Of course, the solution is hardly that easy, and when the two are accidentally sucked out of Headquarters, landing in the labyrinthine storage continent of Long-Term Memory, left to scurry back on their own, they have to find a way to work together. And to make room for each other.

The audacity of Inside Out lies in that message: that all emotions, even negative ones, are necessary and important. Each takes up space in our daily living. Some take the forefront at certain times, while others step back. It is very probably real that your sadness is a product of your ability to love, your compassion, your ability to form deep attachment. By allowing herself room to experience the sadness of moving from her childhood home, Riley is able to understand it and move through it, not around it.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) very much espouses the same principles. A fundamental technique in ACT is to identify a felt emotion during a body scan (when you imagine “scanning” your body from head to toe for sensations); then, to explore the contours of that emotion as an observer, not an opponent trying to eradicate the emotion. When we observe our own emotions, we create the chance to let them breathe instead of fiddling with a struggle switch that often makes things worse. The oft-used metaphor is to that of escaping from quicksand — the more you struggle, the more you sink.

The reason why this is a bold proposition is that it is completely counterintuitive to what most people want to do when faced with negative emotions. Naturally, when you get sad, you want to make it go away. You may tell yourself that sadness is silly, start to feel guilty about being sad — only to sink back into the quicksand after some distraction.

Instead, imagine experiencing an attack of anxiety in this way:

Getting up to give a speech to the full house, I can feel the fear grip into my body. It’s electric blue in that moment, flat, four-sided, spiky all over. Like 2D ravioli. It trembles where it sits on my diaphragm. It’s crawling up my back and rooting into my neck. I breathe. I accept this emotion of fear.

I can hear the thought that it’s telling me about myself. I am ridiculous. I am inadequate. But they are just words and pictures. They are not me. I take this moment to sit quietly with my fear in an open spirit of knowing.

The idea is that by approaching an emotion in a spirit of curiosity, you will be able to accept it for what it is. Nothing more and nothing less than what it feels like in the moment. After breathing deeply into the emotion, you expand it. And then take an action in a valued direction.

If this sounds like an interesting idea, I urge to read more about ACT. It is not a shortcut out of life’s challenges. Nor is it antithetical to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I believe that they can work together to help you achieve a balance of mental health — CBT when you have access to pen and paper and can work on your daily thought record, and ACT when things are more acute, when you think, “Screw the thought record! I’m so angry I want to rip my hair out!”

ACT, at it’s core is about honouring yourself. If you’re sad, angry, anxious as Riley is for the majority of Inside Out, it’s often for a good reason, because it is authentically how you feel right then. It doesn’t mean that emotion represents your essence, or that you are a bad person. It is just an emotion, thoughts and words and pictures and sensations that are coursing through your body.

Sadness, when Riley finally expresses it, telling her family how she feels about the move, honours the truth of growing up, the truth of change. Her parents then admit that they too feel difficult emotions about the move and are here for her to offer support and love. She is not alone. I will go further, however, to say that even if Riley didn’t have her parents, the skill of honouring her emotions is one of the first steps to feeling better.

Now your turn. The best part is that this skill is something readily available to each and every one of us every day. You already have the tools: your body and your breath. I challenge you to take a magnifying class to your own emotions today. What are you feeling? And for the moment, forget about why and just focus on the sensations. Visualize it. Describe it. Turn it inside out.

Leave A Comment