The first time I heard about Disney Pixar’s new animated film, “Inside Out,” I was, shall we say, skeptical. A kid’s movie about talking emotions? I wondered if, and how, that premise could possibly be fleshed out into a feature film.
Fast forward a month or so, and I sit in a dark theater, surrounded by children, all of us on the edges of our seats, but for very different reasons. While they are captivated by characters in peril and reverse-serendipitous cases of bad timing, I am enthralled by the parallel between the narrative playing out in front of me, and a counseling technique I teach to my nutrition clients every day.
It feels, in a way, almost too obvious to conclude that a movie taking place in a little girl’s brain can teach us a lot about mindfulness, but then, that is essentially what mindfulness is all about: clearing away all of life’s distractions and focusing on the simple, beautifully obvious truths before us.
Mindfulness can be applied to any aspect of your life, but I find it particularly useful when working on habits related to food and nutrition. Food, I tell my clients, is rarely about the food. We eat for so many reasons: celebration and sadness; boredom and nervousness; anger and betrayal. We eat as though to smother these uncomfortable emotions in a blanket of Ben and Jerry’s; as though comfort, reprieve, and joy are buried at the bottom of that tub of chicken wings. And we do it all without much thought at all.
What if, however, instead of trying to ignore these complicated feelings, we were to zoom out and observe them instead? When we personify emotions the way that “Inside Out” does so effortlessly, we walk down a path of self-awareness and understanding.
Let’s take a look at how this works. Close your eyes and picture a stressful day at work. You’re late because of gridlock traffic, there is a surprise meeting, a co worker falls through on a project, you work through lunch to catch up, and leave the office at 5p.m. feeling like you have been confined by those four walls for a near century. You finally get home with barely enough energy to change into comfortable clothes. Maybe you trip on a child’s toy. Maybe you forgot to defrost something for dinner that morning. Maybe a half dozen other things pile onto your shoulders. There is a box of cookies in the cabinet. You tell yourself you deserve them. Five minutes later, the box is empty, and you feel guilty and stuffed – an even worse combination than the exhaustion and stress from before (which, by the way, are still lurking in the background somewhere).
Phew! I feel drained just imagining that scenario. Now, let’s change some things around. You still have the same crummy day at work. You still come home to more aggravation, and those cookies still call your name. You still think to yourself, I deserve them. But wait! A red flag goes up. What is really going on here? Before you reach for the cookies, you go into a quiet room and sit down. You close your eyes and imagine the emotions inside your head, just like in the movie. Who is in the driver’s seat today? Is it Anger? Sadness? Fear? If the red flag didn’t fly until after the box of cookies was empty, is Disgust chiming in (perhaps with Mindy Kaling’s sassy voice, just like in the movie)? Try to imagine them as separate entities from the rest of you, and explore those thoughts and emotions with curiosity rather than judgment.
When we think of our emotions as colorful doppelgangers (narration by iconic celebrities optional) we are reminded that we are more than any one emotion or reaction. We are not “bad” when we eat cake or “good” when we eat salad. We are not failures when we eat more of something than we originally intended. We are simply human beings who sometimes need comfort, sometimes need sustenance, and too often have been taught to conflate the two. As we practice this mindful way of considering the triggers that drive us to eat, whether it be stress, boredom, habit, or hunger, we gain a stronger sense of self and a more comprehensive toolbox to face all of the situations life throws at us.
And you thought you just bought a ticket to see a children’s movie.