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Understanding Emotions : Inside Out

Thank you Dr. Steven Brownlow for this guest post. You can find out more about him below this article. 

Understanding EmotionsIf you’re like me, you’ve seen lots of advertising over the past few months for the new Pixar movie, Inside Out. Pixar even hired big-name emotion researcher Dacher Keltner as a consultant to help them get the psychology right.

As the movie’s release drew nearer, other therapists started talking it up, stressing how good it would be for their clients to learn more about their emotions.

I’m in a somewhat unique position. I consider myself an “Emotion Guy,” though maybe to others I’m more like an “Emotion Nerd.” I’ve studied emotions, how they influence counseling and clinical problems, and how to use them to ease those problems since the mid-1980s.

That’s what my doctoral dissertation was about. (And yes, an article Dr. Keltner co-authored was cited in it, among a few hundred others.)

Given that background, I’d like to offer my perspective on what the writers included in the movie. The scientific evidence shows they got lots of their assumptions right, but a few were misleading or questionable. Knowing which is which will help your practice become more effective.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, that’s fine—I won’t reveal any major plot points here. And yes, I recommend the movie. It’s perceptive and humorous about those difficult periods in our emotional lives we’ve all experienced.

Nine findings the movie nailed

Our brains become more complex (and controlling ourselves becomes more difficult) just before puberty. Hopefully, that’s not big news.

Memories that have lost their emotional salience become harder and harder to recall. Eventually, we may not remember them at all.

Rapid or large-scale environmental changes disrupt our entire emotional life. As therapists, we understand trauma and adjustment disorders. They’re our bread and butter.

Every emotion runs its own unique program. Anger isn’t anything like sadness. It’s pretty easy to tell them apart, either as an observer or by experiencing them. This leads to…

Emotions can’t run each other’s programs. Each has a specific routine it follows and a different end goal that’s most adaptive in a particular situation. People get themselves into trouble when they use one emotion where another would have been more appropriate, because the results they get won’t be the ones their current circumstances call for.

Emotions react pretty automatically to environmental signals. You don’t have to teach someone when to get disgusted. Over time, they learn that on their own, with certain tastes, smells, sights, and later, ideas automatically evoking those queasy feelings. The same is true for other emotions.

Most people (except, notably, those with depressive disorders) build around joy. Most people’s moods and emotions are slightly positive, most of the time. This helps people regulate their moods and emotions. However, everyone’s negative moods and emotions react more strongly and quickly. This reflects evolution’s valuing survival above short-term contentment.

Only positive emotions, like joy, can operate in a flexible way. Positive emotions focus on possibilities, and have the flexibility to use whatever means will best reach those goals. Unlike sadness, fear, disgust, or anger, joy can use either holistic thinking or another emotions’ tactics and programs to reach longer term goals.

Empathy comes from shared sadness. We may prefer sharing our joy with others (and their sharing theirs with us), but sharing sadness is how we relate to others at a deeper level and heal each other. People who don’t share their sadness miss out on this bonding and healing.

Six points that may be somewhat misleading

Long-term memory is fixed. Though the movie showed that memories could change their emotional tone, it showed that the factual parts of memory were stable. We’re becoming increasingly aware of how much the “facts” we remember change each time we dream.

All memory has emotional tags. Memories actually have three parts: what we did, what else was happening at the time, and how we felt about it. Though these different parts are usually connected, because different areas of the brain are responsible for encoding and storing each of them, they may be stored separately and one part may be weak or missing. For instance, in traumatic memories, we don’t remember much of what was going on around us, but we vividly remember exactly how we felt at the time. You may also encounter this in your depressed clients.

Long-term memory is stored haphazardly. Though the physical structure of long-term memory is unknown, specific emotions can quickly bring up relevant memories. For instance, if you’re faced with a frightening situation, you’ll quickly recall successful escapes from similar situations that you’ve made or others have told you about. You don’t have to keep rehearing those memories to have them readily available, as needed. The same is true with other strong emotional experiences.

Disgust plays a fairly small role in one’s emotional life. Actually, this is true in children. Disgust is built almost entirely through experience. Young children show few signs of disgust, and then only to vile odors and rotten food. Social and moral disgust grows almost entirely after puberty. Yet, I’ve put this point here because there’s little research on disgust. Everyone agrees it’s important, but nobody knows much about how it works.

Disgust, part 2. One thing we have learned about disgust, though, is that it plays a much larger role in anxiety than fear does. Both phobias and trauma are related to high levels of disgust, whether it’s disgust towards objects, ideas, or events. People with arachnophobia feel somewhat nauseous when they encounter a spider. Similarly, war trauma isn’t about the fear of dying, but about the goriness of the blood and guts, and how the splatter looked, sounded, felt, and smelled.

Disgust, part 3. Much as we avoid foods and practices that disgust us, we avoid memories that disgust us. Without avoidance, there’s no PTSD.

Two points that aren’t completely settled yet

Neglected old memories are discarded. While it’s certainly true that memories become harder to recall over time, there have been indications—from electrical probes and hypnosis, among other things—that they may never be lost completely. Instead, they merge into more inclusive memories every time we dream.

We each have 5 basic emotions. This is central to the movie’s story. The movie assumes we each have 5 basic emotions—joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust—that control our lives. There are many reasons to doubt this, some of which I’d like to mention here.

While the idea of basic emotions is an old one, no two basic emotion theorists seem to agree on the number there are or which ones to include. Almost all of them list the five in the film, but most also include surprise.

That list isn’t universal. One list, by collapsing disgust with anger and surprise with fear, claims there are only four. Other lists have included anticipation, excitement, interest, awareness, trust, or love as basic emotions. Still others have included guilt, shame, or contempt.

In basic emotions theory, all other emotions grow from mixing two or more of the basic ones. We’re not talking about mixed feelings here, like feeling sad and joyful at the same time. This is asserting, for instance, that disappointment is a mixture of sadness and surprise.

In my opinion, the research into basic emotions is conceptually flawed. If an emotion has a single unique facial expression that can be recognized across cultures, it’s assumed to be basic. Other emotions that use aspects of its facial expression are assumed to be built from that basic emotion.

However, some emotions are conveyed through distinct facial patterns that don’t involve the facial muscles (like the redness seen during embarrassment). They aren’t considered basic. Other emotions don’t have distinct facial expressions but have distinct, recognizable vocal expressions (like compassion). They also aren’t considered basic.

One of the original researchers in this area proposed a basic emotion that doesn’t have a common name—the curled upper lip and crinkled nose people display when they smell something awful. More recent researchers consider this another way of expressing disgust, though it looks nothing like the more common expression. That appears to violate the single unique expression rule, but few basic emotions researchers seem to mind.

Most damningly, other than similarities between facial expressions, there really isn’t any solid evidence that emotions actually combine in the ways the theory says they do.

If you’re starting to see how messed up the research into basic emotions has been, then I’ve made my point well enough to move along.

The one assumption that, in my opinion, was a misstep

(Actually, almost everyone makes this mistake, including most emotion researchers.)

All emotions with the same label are the same emotion. This is the idea that anger is anger is anger. Fear is fear is fear. Sadness is sadness is sadness. As clinicians, we should know better.

People experience and display 5 different types of emotions. As clinicians, we see them all. They impact us differently, have different meanings, and call for different responses. Let me use anger to illustrate what I mean.

Feelings. An inner sense of what to do next. Feelings are innate, highly adaptive, and connect each of us to our spiritual core. This is what the movie (and Charles Darwin) assumed all emotions are, and it seems to be how emotions were designed to function best. However, it’s what most clients show us the least, especially early in their treatment. Good therapy restores the ability to use feelings productively. An angry feeling might occur when someone offends us or encroaches on us. However, most anger falls into one of the other categories. In practice, very little anger is based on feelings.

Bypassed emotions. What results when painful feelings are avoided because they’re too overwhelming. Bypassed emotions fester outside our day-to-day awareness but continue to affect our behavior. They cause our clients’ problems. Trauma is an example. We don’t see bypassed emotions as often as we see their effects, though good treatment brings them out and resolves them. In this culture, grief and shame are often bypassed, giving them their “toxic” nature. Males rarely bypass anger, though traditionally females were encouraged to do so. This is becoming rarer.

Defensive emotions. How we act to avoid painful emotions, whether they’ve been bypassed or not. People often make themselves angry when they’re feeling embarrassed or after they’ve experienced a loss. Narcissists get angry at others when their shame is activated. Treating this anger as honest or adaptive strengthens it, making the person less adaptive. Good treatment focuses on what’s behind the defenses.

Habitual behavior. How we learn to act in specific situations, either to get our way or because those around us do. One example is throwing an angry tantrum to get your way, while another is the angry driver who modeled his parents’ driving behavior. These emotions often seem empty and out of proportion. Treating this behavior as adaptive makes it even harder to root out—the best recourse early in treatment is to ignore it as much as you can.

Reactive feelings. How we feel about how we feel. A client might get angry at herself for caring about someone who let her down. Clients tend to pass reactive feelings off as if they were simple feelings, but they differ in their meaning and how they’re best handled. Because reactive feelings play vital roles in the formation of self-esteem and self-concept, they require special attention and care.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the world of emotions. As I’ve tried to show, it has rich implications for what we do as therapists and how effectively we do it. As I’ve also tried to show, our misunderstandings in this area can really set our clients back.

Inside Out is an entertaining movie that contains many accurate insights into emotional functioning. It can be a great starting point for discussing emotions with your family or clients. However, some of its assumptions aren’t quite accurate and acting on at least one could make your clients’ problems worse. Since we all want what’s best for others, it’s important that every one of us understands how to work with others’ emotions most effectively.

What’s one thing you’ll do differently with your clients now? Let’s discuss it.


Dr. Steven BrownlowSteven Brownlow is a licensed psychologist and counselor supervisor who lives outside Austin, TX. He founded ADEPT Psychology, through which he trains, supervises, and consults with therapists and therapeutic programs. Please visit or email him [email protected] for more information.






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Understanding Emotions : Inside Out

Kelly Higdon, LMFT

Kelly Higdon, LMFT is a private practice expert that believes therapists are some of the most important healers in the world. She teaches therapists how to grow successful businesses from scratch and to move beyond the couch with multiple streams of income. Get to know Kelly better through her free private practice marketing trainings, the Business School Bootcamp for therapists, or through private practice consultation.


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APA Reference
Higdon, K. (2019). Understanding Emotions : Inside Out. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2019, from