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The cost of turning our kids Inside Out Children have become old hands at therapy talk

Inside out exposes our radical approach to therapy culture. Credit: Inside Out 2

Inside out exposes our radical approach to therapy culture. Credit: Inside Out 2


June 29, 2024   11 mins

When the first Inside Out movie was released, in 2015, reviews described how powerfully moving it was. More than a few mentioned one scene in particular, one moment when you better have a hanky handy. I’m a sappy parent, totally besotted by my kids and the rich life they’ve given me. So I was actually looking forward to this scene, precisely for its tear-jerking virtuosity. The pleasure I foresaw in being stabbed through the heart could barely be called masochistic, it was so wholesomely familiar to me.

The movie follows an 11-year-old girl named Riley who grows angry and unhappy when her parents move her from her happy life in cold Minnesota to San Francisco, with its one boring season and its weird pizza. Guided by cutting-edge, real-life academic research on emotions and memory, Pixar’s writers and animators enter Riley’s head, portraying her five core emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) as different-coloured characters conferring and contending with each other at Mission Control, their headquarters inside Riley’s brain. As Riley grows more miserable in the outer world, two core emotions — Joy and Sadness — get sucked into a funny and harrowing misadventure inside the sprawling world of her memory.

This is where the super-poignant moment happens (spoiler alert). Joy and Sadness meet an adorable sack of fun named Bing Bong — Riley’s imaginary friend when she was three or four — who joins them on their quest to get back to Mission Control. When they all fall into something called the Memory Dump, a deep pit where expired memories collect as charred husks, Bing Bong sacrifices himself to help Joy and Sadness escape. As Joy and Sadness float safely to the bright surface of working memory, Bing Bong descends into the darkness of dead memory, fading and disappearing before our eyes. That is, we’re seeing the moment after which, whenever Riley’s parents wistfully bring up Bing Bong and ask if she remembers him, Riley will think hard and say, “Not… really”.

Strangely, I didn’t find this scene so terribly poignant. But my younger two kids did. The Bing Bong death scene undid them like it was supposed to undo me. Of course, my younger, who was only four, had simply grown fond of this Bing Bong fellow and was sad to see him die. But his older sister was an intelligent seven-year-old. She’d always had a spooky sense for adult meanings, and I had to suspect she was experiencing Bing Bong’s death in the way adults were supposed to, that is, abstractly and nostalgically. It wasn’t just cute funny Bing Bong she was mourning. It was the idea of the extinction of the memory of Bing Bong, and the adorable time in Riley’s life betokened by that stack of concepts, and the way the sweet stages of a child’s life slip from your awareness before you can think to preserve them. In that moment I was wondering — and this might have blocked my own sweet impalement, come to think of it — if it was “developmentally appropriate” for a seven-year-old to be getting sad and nostalgic about how the sweet stages of a child’s life slip from your awareness before you can think to preserve them.

Of course, it wasn’t just a seven-year-old who saw that scene and was induced by its virtuosic manipulations to weep when it ended, or at least to grasp it as really sad. It was millions of seven, eight and nine-year olds taking in this vivid rendering of a child’s inner life as the content of powerful melodrama, something so intense in its significance that, when they watched it, the adults around them got weepy too. For some, if not most, of those young viewers, it wasn’t just Riley’s inner feelings being rendered as tearful climax, but their own selves being touched with this second-order melodrama, these soaring and piercing emotions about emotions. I can’t say without further study that kids being induced, via the saturating medium of Pixar animation, to get nostalgic about their own childhoods and emotional about their own emotions is harmful. I will venture that, in historical terms, it’s pretty weird, a narrative archetype rarely invented by prior cultures. 

In the sequel, because Riley is now 13 and entering puberty, the five core emotions have been joined by four new teenage emotions of Embarrassment, Envy, Ennui, and Anxiety. One more feature of the maturing Riley joins these nine feelings inside her brain, her Sense of Self. This appears as a pale blue entity that luminesces on a pedestal behind the emotions, its weave of shapes suggesting an even mix of the two main parental influences in San Francisco — genetics and yoga. 

This Sense of Self is just a passive, pretty object. The emotions are the real characters, and they’re impressively accurate, even as comic exaggerations. I was dubious going into the original Inside Out, suspecting that a children’s movie about a child’s psyche would fall back on the corny and tired inner-child schema, and its dramatic form would be the usual doltish Hollywood story of emancipation, the freeing of this inner child from emotional repression so that the kid can be herself. But I was quickly surprised at the complexity and sophistication of Inside Out’s psychological mapping. Watching that movie, I thought: “Wow. Those Pixar people are smart.” As I’ve already suggested, though, this level of smartness, when applied to mapping the inner workings of children’s brains, and then presenting the map for children to consume in movie form, is a little unsettling. It hints at other achievements eerily tinged with reflexivity and promethean insight — like unlocking the power of the atom, decrypting our own genetic code, or programming computers to think like we think. There’s probably minuses as well as pluses, in other words. 

Inside Out 2 is no less smart than the original in its mapping of Riley’s mental terrain, and in its dramatic control of the stuff that happens there. It all makes impressive sense, starting with the main character in its augmented cast of emotions, fast-moving, speed-talking Anxiety, who simply appears one day and makes herself the boss of Mission Control. It’s not just the centring of this emotion in the brain of a high-achieving teenage girl that feels apt. It’s the stuff Anxiety gets up to. When, by way of justifying her authority, she announces to all the other emotions that her specialty is the future, coming up with possible scenarios that Riley should consider in advance, she’s describing what’s practically useful and what’s potentially volatile about this capacity we have. Anxiety’s self-accounting rings true, to the adult who knows this emotion, and it promises a Pixar sort of comic wildness, which the movie quite delivers.

“I was quickly surprised at the complexity and sophistication of Inside Out’s psychological mapping.”

In the end, Anxiety’s power is reassuringly reined in by the other emotions, and by the importance assumed by the non-emotional things that make up Riley’s sense of self, her beliefs about how she should act, the kind of person she should want to be. Anxiety starts out spinning her future scenarios, which appear on little oblong TV screens, in sepia tones, and then she spins faster and faster until she’s spun herself into a literal tornado of movement, producing new scenarios so fast that Riley is finally overwhelmed by them and has a panic attack.  

Again, the portrayal of this anxiety mechanism makes both intuitive and conceptual sense — the increasing pace of worry, the way these worries seem to generate other worries. But one important detail is missing from Anxiety’s scenarios, one character, if you will, that should appear and reappear in these TV dramas of Riley’s worries but does not. That character is Anxiety herself. Surely one of the classic fears that overcomes the anxious person at some point in her descent into paralysis and panic, hastening that descent, concerns her own anxiety. She realises that the thing she’s anxious about is more likely to happen because she’s anxious about it, and then she gets anxious about her anxiety, and then anxious about this new anxiety she just gave herself by thinking about the old anxiety, and then she’s really screwed. She’s trapped, at least subjectively. Every effort to think her way out of her trap just pushes her deeper into it. 

Not making this move seems like a missed opportunity. Had Anxiety thought to place herself in one of her own scenarios, it would have given Pixar’s animators a chance to do something very Pixarish — portray a plunging regress of worried scenarios, Anxiety staring bug-eyed from a TV screen, on which is another, smaller TV screen from which another bug-eyed Anxiety stares out, on which is another, even smaller TV screen, and so on, two mirrors-style, infinitely and instantaneously. 

Then again, even if doing this could have yielded a very funny frame — the infinite duplication of Anxiety’s very funny face — it might have struck the movie’s creators as too scary as well. Or, it may have hit too close to home. Riley’s ability to escape her climactic panic attack, with the help of emotions and friends which together lift her from her worried spiral by turning her outward, is reassuring on several levels. To the young viewer it shows that a panic attack is not a death sentence, that there are practical ways to escape a spiral of worry. And to the older, philosophically stodgy viewer, it reveals the Pixar team to be working from a sort of pop-Aristotelianism, which is no less praiseworthy for being easily digestible. They show Riley’s thoughts and feelings, her individual self and her social life, training each other, teaching each other how to be in the world. They show concrete practice and concern for others as moral and psychological touchstones, healthy and virtuous corrections to vanity and selfishness, at both their common registers and their neurotic extremes. This all gave me a warm feeling as the movie ended. Gratefully I thought, “These Pixar people are not cretins.”

On the other hand, had they shown Anxiety making herself regress infinitely on TV screens, it might have pointed a little too directly at what this movie, like its predecessor, is also doing. Inside Out 2 sends a message of escaping from the individual self, of combating its unhealthy fixation on itself, but it also feeds our culture’s intensifying focus on individual psyches, especially the psyches of young people, which, one would suspect, makes those selves ever harder to escape. Let’s not forget, young viewers of Inside Out 2 are watching a movie about the dangers of selfishness and self-obsession that spends most of its time inside the head of a 13-year-old girl, and this head is obviously an avatar for their heads. This, for a child or adolescent of our therapeutic culture, is par for the course. 

A six-year-old enters his school for the first time and is confronted with a colourful poster announcing the school’s anxious interest in his Mental Health. Perhaps a school nurse or psychologist makes a visit to his classroom to reiterate the poster’s message, to let all the children seated at their little desks know that if any of them ever needs to talk to someone, about something they’re sad or worried or troubled about, the school takes their Mental Health very seriously. Six-year-olds of prior eras had literally no occasion to ponder their own psyches, especially from the outside perspective of a doctor or school functionary openly worried these psyches might need medical treatment. They just lived in their psyches, mindlessly as it were. But our six-year-old gets to confront his psyche as a topic, an institutional theme, every day, with that poster in the entry to his school, and the occasional visits and solicitations of outside helpers who tenderly address themselves to his Mental Health. And he’ll get to do this every year of school, as his psyche matures and, from the changing perspectives of those different years, revisits itself as a reification, a topic, an object of observation because a potential source of medical trouble.

A 10-year-old gets an iPhone and immediately signs up with TikTok, whose algorithm nudges her to follow near-peers, girls a couple years older who’ve won lots of views and likes by talking about their Mental Health. Thanks to their own training in their own schools, these kids are old hands at therapy-talk. They might even have an entry or two in the DSM memorised. Our 10-year-old, already school-equipped with a therapeutic vocabulary, enters an online market of status and imitation where fluency in this vocabulary gives an apparent advantage. Casually, she and her friends start diagnosing themselves and each other and other kids they know at school. By anatomising her self in therapeutic terms, she may or may not be improving her Mental Health, but she’s definitely adding new symbolic matter to this self, new traits and definitions and layers of significance she can dwell on, wonder about, perhaps worry about. 

This is in addition to the intensified self-awareness summoned from her as she consumes and contributes to social media, even when the explicit theme isn’t teenage self-diagnosis — all the new occasions to think about herself and compare this with other girls as they submit their own selves to these new forms of publicity. By this process of constant self-publicising and self-diagnosis, her mere participation in a youth culture formed by social media and informed by psychotherapy, she has made her self much more interesting to itself than was the case with prior cohorts of young people, whose selves were quite neglected by comparison. Thanks in turn to this neglect, these selves had much less symbolic matter attached to them and were, thus, much lighter to lug around. 

These are just a few of the many ways in which our culture of augmented selfhood has grown into a many-tentacled system of spiritual meaning that changes those who live within it. I’m trying to limit myself to expressions of wonder at the historical strangeness and novelty of these processes and technologies of selfhood, rather than claiming that they’re objectively harmful. But documents claiming with some persuasiveness that they are harmful are multiplying. Ethan Watters’s 2013 book Crazy Like Us tracks the migration of American-style therapeutic understanding to non-Western countries. It shows how these understandings don’t just corrode the ways other cultures cope with spiritual pain. They sometimes propagate, as if virally, the disorders whose Western names and diagnoses they introduce into these new places. This should make us wonder about our own selves and our own culture, which are much more systematically exposed to the therapeutic paradigm. And more recently, within just a few months, the idea that therapy culture is untherapeutic has moved from figures of controversy like Abigail Shrier to arbiters of mainstream common sense like The Atlantic. 

It appears that our modern way of understanding and inhabiting and attending to our selves has turned itself into a feedback loop, a trap, that the greater cultural and institutional influence of psychotherapy begets greater need for psychotherapy. This places the subpopulation of scrupulous, virtuous, therapeutically useful people who work in the larger world of mental health in a tragic bind. At least some of the trouble they’re enlisted to treat is likely the result of the therapy apparatus they are a part of and whose influence they increase as they do their useful work. 

“Thanks to their own training in their own schools, these kids are old hands at therapy-talk.”

The creators of the Inside Out movies are in a parallel bind. They strive to portray young selves in a way that is as scientifically faithful, and as philosophically serious, as one could hope for in a computerised cartoon that’s also expected to make a billion dollars at the box office. But they do it by feeding children a picture of their spiritual lives that, while smarter and more scrupulous than what happens in schools and on social media, is still part of the same machinery of selfhood. A movie that shows anxiety as a barely controllable tornado inside an adolescent girl’s self, even if the anxiety is eventually brought under control, is still making anxiety, as well as the many other characters that animate a self and contend with anxiety, and that self itself, very urgent things for its young viewers to be aware of. It’s still adding more emphasis on the self to the culture of childhood, and a picture of that self as a place where some disturbance with a scientific name might happen at any minute. It’s still making the selves of children more interesting things for them to dwell on than the selves of prior eras ever were.  

I have hinted that the makers of Inside Out 2 are hip to these dilemmas, their involvement in the mechanisms of hypertrophic selfhood. As I described above, the first Inside Out gave a dramatically central role to nostalgia, cueing its child-viewers to cry about the evanescence of their own childhoods. This, I noted, was pretty strange, and perhaps not age-appropriate. 

The makers of Inside Out 2 seem to be thinking the same thing. A funny emotion-character makes a handful of cameo appearances throughout the sequel. In obvious ways she doesn’t belong with the other emotions. They’re young and she’s, well, old, with a pile of white hair and reading glasses worn low on her nose. This character is, yes, Nostalgia. Nostalgia periodically dodders in through a side door, wistfully, weepily reminiscing about the younger Riley, and the other emotions yell impatiently for her to get lost, because neither Riley nor the children watching are ready for Nostalgia yet. Dutifully, old Nostalgia backs through her door and disappears. This is pretty clever, the sequel’s creators taking a dig at themselves about the original. Yes, they seem to be saying, the first one did jump the gun a little, with the weepy nostalgia stuff about Bing Bong. They seem to be admitting that, in portraying the selves of children to those children, they might also be forming those selves in unknowable ways, and they are aware of this. Part of me wanted to give them credit for these cheeky metatextual moments, the hints of seriousness they contained. But another part of me just wanted to say, “Sorry. Too late.”


Matt Feeney is an writer based in California and the author of Little Platoons: A defense of family in a competitive age


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Thomas K.
Thomas K.
18 days ago

When I was that age, growing up in the early 2000s, ‘mental health’, or as it was more accurately called back than *mental illness*, was never a topic of discussion. No one even knew what it was, really. I unfortunately learned very quickly when I was diagnosed with severe OCD. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me, no one did it seemed. Most of the time they just stuck me in a spare room with a TA and leave me to my ever worsening panic attacks to wash my hands till they bled. The lack of understanding ment a lack of compassion, as they just didn’t get why I wasn’t normal. My high school years were only worse. The doctors kept saying ‘too bad you’re not an adult, there are plenty of programs for adults with OCD’. Now that I AM an adult, wanna know what they say? ‘Too bad you’re not a kid with OCD, there are plenty of programs for kids with OCD’.

At first it was clear. There simply were no programs. But maybe there are, actually, and I’m starting to think it might not be all that good. I’ve seen in real time how more ‘awarenes’ led to ‘mental illness’ being rebanded to ‘mental health’, how more and more people have ‘come out’ as having ‘struggled’ with it, as compared to me being diagnosed and having suffered. Honestly there is deep seared bitterness that wells up inside of me when faced with this, at least when faced with other adults so clearly appropriating my illnesses for their clout. But then I look at the children brought into this culture, and the bitterness turns to pity. One would think that more awareness would lead to those kids like me getting the help they need, that I didn’t, and one would hope. But I have doubts. Healthy children have illnesses manufactured for them, while the legitimately ill are lost amidst the crowd.

Over twenty years I learned to be resilient, to overcome my illness with the help of the few doctors who were able to care, and although there’s a ways to go I’m a semi-functioning adult with the tools to fix my own life, with my family who stood by me the whole way. If I had been born into this generation, however, with the all the fixation on ‘affirmative’ care, and recognizing my ‘neurodivergance’… honestly I don’t think I’d have lasted anywhere near this long.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
18 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

Very useful insight, thanks. Not only rings true, but basically confirms what the author is alluding to.

One of the major benefits in adulthood is having found the inner strength to “work things out”. This article seems to be suggesting that having “things worked out for you” by constant externalising of our internal lives has a less than beneficial effect, and i’d agree with that.

Whilst some may require professional support, the majority are being denied the agency that growing seld-awareness brings by being pre-sold it way ahead of schedule. The sense of accomplishment within one’s own adult identity would therefore be somehow diminished. This seens to me to be deliberate.

One sense in which i disagree with the author – those movie-makers aren’t “smart” at all. In fact, they’re incredibly stupid and diminishing the healthy robustness to which the adult psyche aspires by messing with its formative years.

If there’s a reaction against this, it can’t come soon enough. Teachers, mental-health assistants, movie-makers:

“Leave those kids alone!”

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
17 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

Yes, all this hoo-ha about mental health is making children more fragile.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

Human society has never been particularly kind to or accepting of those who are different. It likely never will be. The most we can say is it’s probably better than it used to be. At least we’re not burning epileptics at the stake as witches.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
17 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Maybe not, but as someone who *is* different I think I have enough experience to say that we’re worse now than 10 or 20 years ago. Neglect is better than ‘help’ that only makes it worse. If I had been taught that my obsessive thoughts were just ‘who I was’ and my parents told they needed to ‘affirm’ my delusions instead of helping me work against them, there is no doubt in my mind I would have long ago punched my ticket to Oblivion. My suffering was *because* of my illness, not because of society’s oppressive view that I was ill.

And I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that that mindset doesn’t still exist, it just manifests differently and with pseudo-scientific justification instead of a pseudo-religious one. We may no longer burn epileptics as witches, but we do castrate autistics while praising them as saints.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

I wasn’t trying to question your experience. I agree that mental illness is not something we should affirm or celebrate. These are serious conditions and ailments and they should be treated to the extent possible and recognized for being debilitating conditions. I was simply trying to say that the old mentality of “conform to the standards of society or else” was worse as people were being killed for being different but your counterpoint about mutilating kids with gender dysphoria is valid. Maybe we’re not that much better after all.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
17 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Fair enough. My rebuttal was more to point out I was comparing now to early 2000s, not 21st century vs. 14th century. Though admittedly your point is still also valid. Even as recently as the 1950s my treatment might have amounted to shoving a metal spike up my noise to scramble my brains. All in all, perspective is important.

Chuck Pezeshki
Chuck Pezeshki
16 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

As odd as it may seem, your thread is a great documentation of a society’s relational dynamics, and its emphasis. Divide by external definition, or independent development? As we regress, it’s far more the former, with large-scale implications. Another useful, explicative dichotomy is hardware/software in the brain. Do note that scientists are really not discussing this much, or rather, the press will not amplify this needed discussion.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
17 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

Wow. Thanks for this comment.

Dr E C
Dr E C
17 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

Thank you. Really important to hear from people who have actually suffered (and are not just playing at suffering). I hope you’re doing much, much better.

Laurence Renshaw
Laurence Renshaw
16 days ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

So what did you think of the film, if you’ve watched it yet?
My own feeling is that it helps young people to think about, and maybe start to understand, how their mind (conscious or subconscious) works, without obsessing over it, and that has to be a good thing.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
16 days ago

To be honest I haven’t seen it. I don’t really have any young children about to watch it with, and it’s not really something I’d watch on my own. I’ve heard that it’s relatively good, almost like a throwback to the kid’s movie of before without all the current tripe, but that’s all I can go off of. I guess in that regard it’s good. Too much media today is full of messaging that will only hinder healthy development or instill the wrong lessons.

Beyond that vague ‘back in my day’ shpiel my opinion on the movie itself is mostly worthless. Though I do have one gripe that amounts to little more than quibbling over semantics (hey, I have OCD. It’s kinda my thing), and that is that anxiety isn’t so much a distinct emotion on its own, but a specific aspect of fear. And I should know, having an anxiety disorder and all that.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
18 days ago

The agency which derives as an adult from having worked through the stages of childhood and youth to maturity is being undermined, and deliberately so.

A good exposition by the author, but those movie-makers aren’t “smart”, they’re incredibly stupid. If there’s now a reaction against the Inside Out brigade, it can’t come soon enough. Leave them kids alone!

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
18 days ago

I’ve always thought that psychotherapy like most medical interventions should be a last resort.

Some people hand themselves over to the therapist as if they’re some sort of guru figure and give them control over their lives. Only the therapist can tell you when you’re right to leave the tender ( and expensive) care of the therapist.

Open-ended therapy where you try to ‘sort out your life’ is a self-reinforcing feedback loop which quickly disappears up its own arse and frequently leads to narcissistic, self-obsessing navel gazing, none of which is part of a healthy and balanced nature. And all therapists think we have ‘unresolved issues ‘ or ‘work to do’. But they would, wouldn’t they ?

You might as well believe in the Holy Spirit as the subconscious as nobody’s ever seen it nor are they likely to. For many (not all) therapy adherents, this is another luxury pursuit for the middle classes with too much time and money on their hands.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
17 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I dunno. It’s quite often a good idea to take action before it gets to ‘last resort’ territory.

And the ‘open ended’ therapy sessions you describe are far from my experience. The last time I saw a psychotherapist my insurance company approved about 24 or so sessions (iirc) and I only used about 13 or so before the therapist said ‘I think we’re done’.

In my experience they’re far too busy and in demand to want to keep clients around unnecessarily.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
17 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

The Holy Spirit drives out bad habits or, for the atheist, bad behavioural patterns. (See the Acts of the Apostles.). And it is a gift.

The Holy Spirit isn’t the subconscious.

A therapist should be reflecting back and encouraging you to think of new responses, allowing the emotions from those painful moments to disapate. It’s something that friends used to do, when we had friends.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
16 days ago

You hear the wind, but do not see it. You see its effects as it ripples the grass and makes a sound passing through the reed bed.

Bored Writer
Bored Writer
18 days ago

When I did post-Doc research in Psychology my HoD used to adapt a quote from the film ‘Field of Dreams’ with regard to therapy: “If you name it, they will come.”

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
17 days ago
Reply to  Bored Writer

EG: Climate Change :). If only it weren’t true.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
17 days ago

“At least some of the trouble they’re enlisted to treat is likely the result of the therapy apparatus they are a part of and whose influence they increase as they do their useful work.”
So true, but it should be noted that the therapy world is remarkably divided into practitioners who urge their patients to find their way OUT of this spiral of emotions and others who drag their patients ever deeper into it.

Miss Fit
Miss Fit
17 days ago

I was so hoping for Bing Bong to make a come back in Inside Out 2, when I saw Nostalgia I thought maybe she would be the one to bring him back and was hopefully waiting for this moment to happen, as well as my 2 teenage daughters, but it didn’t… hopefully we’ll see him in Inside Out 3 🙂
p.s. yes I cried when he died in the first movie…

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago

I’m glad I never saw this movie or the other one as a kid as both would have ripped me apart emotionally and made my already developing disorders worse. It would have been pouring gasoline on a fire that was already getting out of control. Like the author’s daughter, I was highly mature in my understanding of some adult concepts. I have had the term ‘old soul’ applied to me since I was fairly young. I actually imagined parts of myself as characters as this movie does as an adolescent, and they were far more complex than basic emotions. I had a vague sense of nostalgia even when I was nine. Ironically, living with it growing up and figuring out how it affected me has made me less susceptible to nostalgia as an adult. I’ve learned the hard way not to feed this particular inner demon. Had I had influences like these movies rather than loony toons, Disney fairy tale happy endings, and traditional family values, I’m fairly certain I would be much worse off today. For some kids, this sort of thing is probably toxic.
Given the relative dysfunction of my childhood and adolescence that accompanied my high level of self awareness, I don’t think this is something we should be encouraging or inculcating in young children, or at least we shouldn’t be quite so cavalier about it or use it to make billions of dollars in movie theaters. I lean towards the author’s contention that by calling attention to mental health and advanced philosophy and psychology at this age, we’re inviting the kids to see these problems in themselves, maybe to a greater extent than they actually exist. We could be introducing all sorts of neuroses early in life, invoking the original meaning of the old phrase, speak of the devil and he doth appear. We should be careful as mental illness can be crippling to individuals and ultimately can be a drag on our entire civilization.
Then again, at least we’re not burning epileptics at the stake as witches. I think our society’s level of overall compassion towards children and its accompanying concern for their health and well-being is a virtue. It’s one of the few decent things that has survived modern society. A society should place a high value on children and try to protect them, nurture them, and prepare them for adulthood. Are we doing the best possible job of actually doing the protecting, nurturing, and preparing? Probably not. Neither did our parents or our grandparents or any of the other generations going back to the beginning. All we can do is give our best effort and use what we know, or at least what we think we know, to help kids as well as possible, even knowing that it’s nigh certain we will muck it up somehow just as every other generation of people did.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
14 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Aye. While I refuse to see it so grimly all the time, there’s a little too much truth in Philip Larkin’s famous poem that begins; “They f–k you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you”.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
17 days ago

One required symptom for the diagnosis of madness used to be ‘they’ thought themselves sane. Nowadays the mad can know perfectly well they are mad? Has the definition of or just the diagnosis of madness changed?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
17 days ago

Naw, this article just lost me. Another reason to dump Disney

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
17 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

“This Sense of Self is just a passive, pretty object. The emotions are the real characters, and they’re impressively accurate, even as comic exaggerations.”

Isn’t that the problem today?

I knew who I was when I was two, not thirteen

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
16 days ago

So how would you describe that well-established two-year-old self?

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
17 days ago

Those are certainly all words.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
17 days ago

Contrary to my expectations, I loved Inside Out the moment I saw, because despite it’s Pixarisms, it deals with themes I’ve pretty much been completely obsessed with for decades, in a relatively sophisticated way. The other thing that struck me was that the creators of Inside Out seem to have drawn quite a lot of inspiration from a Beezer cartoon strip from the 60s/70s I used to read called the The Numskulls. I will make an effort to seek out the sequel at some point.

George K
George K
17 days ago

Just watched it, and while the first movie was not bad, even with all the overstretched and vague metaphors, the second one left me a little bit uneasy. This article gave me some direction. It feels as if the real life, real action is happening inside , the outside is but a backdrop for the endless rumination over the psyche and its internal dynamics. It was cute and entertaining and felt right for the little kid in the first movie to be driven by her emotions but this time it’s almost a young adult in the endless recursive reflection cycle.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
17 days ago

Lovely article, great stuff

Dr E C
Dr E C
17 days ago

Why on Earth would the author get his 10 year old an iPhone… The inevitable, dire consequences are by now too well documented for his vague concerns that there might be something off about 10 y o girls obsessed with social media to be read as anything other than lazy

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
17 days ago
Reply to  Dr E C

Keeping up with Joneses, of course. “Everybody’s doing it!”

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
17 days ago

It’s those bl**dy Jones’s again!

Matthew Feeney
Matthew Feeney
13 days ago
Reply to  Dr E C

The author did not get his 10 year old a phone and the article does not say he did.

Matthew Feeney
Matthew Feeney
13 days ago
Reply to  Matthew Feeney

The author is also the author of this article
https://unherd.com/2024/03/big-tech-has-stolen-our-children/

Dr E C
Dr E C
12 days ago
Reply to  Matthew Feeney

You’re right – my bad. I misread the following: ‘Our 10-year-old, already school-equipped with a therapeutic vocabulary, enters an online market of status and imitation where fluency in this vocabulary gives an apparent advantage…’

I’m also surrounded by journalist-parents who wring their hands publicly about various epidemics affecting our children, while utterly neglecting their own.

David Lewis
David Lewis
17 days ago

The story of Bing Bong brought back memories of Puff the Magic Dragon. That song still slays me!
Regarding ‘mental health’, after a 35 year career as a GP, can I suggest that part of the problem is its gradual medicalisation over the last few decades. Most of the thoughts and feelings that make us human lie on a spectrum. I am thinking of worrying, unhappiness, discontentment, self-obsession and the rest. Note I have avoided use of the medicalised versions of these thoughts and feelings – anxiety, depression, melancholic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder. Indeed the whole concept of ‘personality disorder’ serves us badly. We look for patterns of selfishness and bad behaviour and then attempt to understand them with these various ‘diagnoses’ as if they are as concrete and medically precise as pneumonia or asthma. Sometimes I have wondered whether the very terms ‘diagnosis’ and ‘mental health’ should be avoided in the context of mental and emotional wellbeing, and reserved purely for the true psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder and the like. It is also true that the slider that marks ‘abnormality’ in these spectra should be societally defined, not medically. Of course, there may be drugs and therapies for those who are considered, or consider themselves, to be suffering from these human thoughts and feelings to an abnormal or disabling degree, in which case health care professionals may need to become involved.
In summary, should our approach to helping people cope with the Human Condition be gentler, more ‘artistic’ and less ‘scientific’?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
14 days ago
Reply to  David Lewis

More holistic less individual disease sounding.

Laurence Renshaw
Laurence Renshaw
16 days ago

I took my 2 daughters, who recently became teenagers, and we all thought it was great.
As the article says, today’s kids are exposed to wokeness and all kinds of psychological stuff that we weren’t, but I think this film doesn’t dwell on that and instead projects a light-hearted, “don’t panic” vibe about what my kids are already experiencing inside their heads and what they can expect more of in the next few years.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Psyche.
Best not to explicitly say that to them, though

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
14 days ago

The first time you have to eat a talking cow may cause some distress.

Duane M
Duane M
16 days ago

The best piece I have read at UnHerd in a long time.

Whatever good motives the therapeutic psychoanalysis movement may have had when it decided to begin therapy sessions for kindergartners and on up, one striking outcome is the commodification of personal psychology, because it treats the individual psyche as an object. This objectification, together with its focus on the individual, further contributes to the separation of individuals from each other. In other words, it is completely in line with a worldview in which every human is an autonomous agent who just happens to interact with other autonomous agents. It presents itself as another Celebration of Individual Freedom but the practical reality is that it lays another brick in the Wall of Imprisonment in Individual Isolation.

Many of the deep problems in modern society derive from the mistaken view that humans are essentially separate individuals, rather than partners in a complex society. Or, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women and there are families.”

As a result of that error, society has become more and more oriented toward the individual, and concurrently less complex, in the sense of having less formal structure (more individual choice). Which then compels each individual, living in such an informal society, to navigate a maze of social paths with little in the way of a map. And that creates a host of psychological problems, not least of which is chronic anxiety about one’s social relations.

Unfortunately it is easier to rend social structures than to weave them. How to proceed toward a better future is not clear to see.

laura m
laura m
16 days ago

So many words and yet I missed any reference and analysis of K-12 SEL programs.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
16 days ago
Reply to  laura m

Its a personal-voice essay, not an exhaustive treatment of every aspect of the topic. There’s plenty of room left in your comment box: Why don’t you provide some analysis or substantive comment on your preferred area of focus?

laura m
laura m
15 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

too busy with projects. why don’t you take the observations at face value and drop the condescending, passive aggressiveness you bring to the comment section.

Shrier’s book does just fine, Feeney clearly has been influenced by the book as so many have yet gives no credit. SEL = social engineering lessons.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
15 days ago
Reply to  laura m

Actually it stands for Social-Emotional Learning. It’s far from an above-reproach approach, but get the acronym straight or explain why you’ve tweaked it, in order to raise the paltry “face value” of your comment. Oh yeah–you’re too busy and important to bother.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
16 days ago

Kids should be playing out in the fields like did when I was a nipper. Not being subjected to poor-quality psycho-analysis.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
16 days ago

Worry might be thought of as theorising without data. When Riley looks outward to her friends, she is finding data. Everyone isn’t running away, screaming. Therefore, no need to panic.
To the Greeks, nostalgia was an appreciation of what your own polis had given you. It wasn’t anything to do with physical age as such. Nostalgia showed that you were grateful. It wasn’t a desire that the past returned. Nor was it a cri de couer.
The late Neil Postman contended that our concept of childhood is fairly recent. Before 400 years ago a person young in years joined (what is to us) the adult world as soon as they were physically and mentally able to do so.
The young in years didn’t spend long periods in adolescence. A child, in our conception, is a person young in years who has been separated from the adult world. The industrial revolution threatened to return the young in years to their original state; working as older people did in factories.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
16 days ago

This article encapsulates what I often refer to as Pendulum Theory. Not long ago, mental illness was spoken of in hushed tones if mentioned at all. People would pay cash for counseling because the last thing they wanted was a paper trail that could possibly make them seem unstable in some way. Being treated for physical issues evokes sympathy and concern; being seen for a mental concern elicits doubt and suspicion.
Today, things have reversed – normal aspects of life are being pathologized and bona fide issues are being cheapened by people seeking attention. Conditions such as PTSD are minimized to include a bad experience on a playground as if that is on par with battlefield trauma. What is wrong with the miserable adults who tirelessly work to strip any remaining joy and wonder from childhood?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
14 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Well said. Severe autistic torment–of the nonverbal headbanging sort–is now often placed on an unbroken line with social awkwardness; they are both “on the spectrum”.
By this logic anyone who’s ever told a lie–so nearly all human beings over 2–should be lumped in with malicious, inveterate liars*.
*Not to suggest that severe mental illness or impairment involves choice in the same way that pathological lying probably would.

Patti Dunne
Patti Dunne
16 days ago

I’ll start by saying I haven’t seen either movie and my children are adult now, so I may be a little out of touch, From reading this article, it does not sound like this would be a fun movie to see with kids. The first indicator that it may be too existentialist was the story with Bing Bong, who sacrfices his life for a little girl who then forgets him a few years later, as if his life was insignificant. If a child identified with Bing Bong I think that idea would be depressing. And then, we introduce anxiety etc. I would also think those thoughts were not fun and could….yes, cause anxiety in a child. Just wanted to say, this does not sound like a good movie for children.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
16 days ago
Reply to  Patti Dunne

The film is far more hopeful and re-assuring than this article might suggest. I’m not sure if you noticed that Bing Bong was the main character’s imaginary friend.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
16 days ago

The pathologization of normal-range human experience has been way too popular since Freud at least. In a larger sense, it’s been happening much longer, as in the waves of life-hating, otherworldly longing that struck Christianity in the Middle Ages. (maybe that “trend” was more catastrophizing than pathologizing). I liked Inside Out and think I might like the sequel. But I object to the prevailing negativity of Pixar’s cartoon model-psyche. Only Joy to combat Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear? It should be 4-on-4: Joy/Sorrow; Anger; Acceptance; Disgust/Delight; Fear/Hope. Though we understandably tend to magnify our sorrows and fears (etc.)–not all on our own, in a world that is often sad and scary–the ledger is not so grimly one-sided. I say this as someone with a diagnosed “neurodivergence” that I’ve learned and been lucky enough to (imperfectly) control over decades.
In my view Mr. Feeney has become one of the best contributors to this website. He has something to say and he dares to say it, in a way that is usually some combination of thoughtful, engaging, and funny. His style is idiosyncratic and uneven. Feeney gonna do Feeney…and I’ve learned to like that.

Claire Matthews
Claire Matthews
15 days ago

I would say neither side is bad and it’s about balance. By allowing these conversations is how we preserve the balance. It’s when the conversation get suppressed we hinder our evolution of being a more collaborative species, but here we are having the conversation so that keeps me hopeful. Humans seem to go from extreme to extreme, hopefully that pendulum will stop swinging so far back in forth as time goes. The internet has definitely thrown a curveballs at us. I prefer there being discussion of emotions than no discussion at all, but it definitely goes overboard. It can be pretentious self serving phony performance that helps the “helper” feel good about oneself. Sometimes adults want the “good job” and high five more than the children especially with social media where we can proclaim our “goodness” to the world.

Claire Matthews
Claire Matthews
15 days ago

Humility needs to come back a bit more.