Emotions are tricky. They are tricky to articulate, sometimes difficult to navigate, and also difficult to curb when they fuel problematic actions, like punching things when angry or locking up when afraid. It is often a stumbling block when working as a therapist to be able to get clients to talk about their emotions. It’s easy to talk about the thought and cognition behind what fuels the emotion (“I’m angry because they cut me off” “I’m scared because I might lose my job.”) but difficult when we try to tie the emotion to the thought. WHY are you angry about it? Where does this emotion come from? Why do we even have emotions? What purpose do they serve?

Then, in 2015, when I was a young therapist, a movie came out. Inside out. A Pixar film that tells the story of a young girl, Riley, having recently moved due to her father’s job and adjusting to her life changing. The tilt? It’s not told from the girl’s perspective. It’s told from her emotions’ perspective! As a young therapist that worked with kids, of course I saw it, but held my breath going in. There are so many movies that get the psychology wrong, would this movie be an exception? Emotions and cognition are so complex, how do you make a film that gets that accurate and still have time to tell a compelling movie?

To my surprise, Pixar succeed! There are some creative liberties, of course, but their personifications of many functions were spot on! And more importantly, they gave a new way for the public to conceptualize emotions, and a fantastic way to think about how mix emotions work! It was amazing for young clients to be able to see this movie and use it as a bench mark for communicating how they feel!

Adults can learn from this as well. The beginning of the movie sets up five specific emotions: Anger, Sadness, Joy, Fear, and Disgust. They introduce them and give them what they care about, and how they function. This is a wonderful way to conceptualize emotions. As children, it’s a clear explanation of emotions and when we most often feel them. As adults, it’s a new way to think about what the emotions are most often in response to. When we think of emotions in this way (they care about something, and then take over to change the thing they care about) then we can often get a better grasp on what were feeling, and then better process them when they feel too nebulous.

After all, that’s the one of the biggest barriers to communicating them. Thought often follow a logic, which is easy to articulate. But emotions feel nebulous. They just… feel. They sometimes feel like they don’t have a thought or a reason, and so we feel like we are grasping at straws when attempting to explain them.

So here I want to offer a new way to think about them. Emotions are MOTIVATORS. The reason we as humans developed and kept them throughout our history is because the reactions we had to specific things helped us survive. Do we see something scary in the dark? Then fear motivates us to not be harmed by making us feel something unpleasant when thinking about the dark. The emotion motivates us to keep safe. Anger motivates us to fix things we think are wrong or an injustice. Is someone being unfair to someone in your tribe? This isn’t good for the tribe, and not good for survival. Anger kicks in and motivates us to fix that injustice. It motivates us to yell at something, or work harder towards coming up with solutions things that make us angry? So what are those emotions and what do they motivate?

In my excitement for Inside Out 2 coming out this month, I wanted to have our blog post this month be about emotions, what they motivate, and how do we direct it. Some of these emotions are in the movie, and I can’t wait to see what Pixar does with them this time out as we catch up with Riley!


Anger’s motivation is a pretty straight line. We se something we feel is unfair. Inside out put it very well. It motivates us to see and make things fair. When we have anger we see something we don’t think is fair. It then motivates us to go do something to fix it. Part of the problem with anger though is that it often wants things done NOW. And it isn’t easy to sit on. It is a strong motivation, and often wants to see an immediate change. Like any emotion, it also doesn’t tell you HOW to change the injustice. It just motivates you to see and change it. So often it will leap to the first impulse. This is why often we break or hit things in anger. It is a first impulse to change things quickly and immediately. However, if we articulate what the injustice we see is, we can sometimes direct it better. We can even recognize that our anger is directed at an injustice that we see as bigger than it really is, which will help anger stop throwing so much motivation at you. You can also exert physical effort of most kinds; lifting things, breaking things safely (rage rooms are great at this) and holding your breath are all good resets that makes anger feel like it’s done something.


Fear is also fairly direct. Fear is a response to something that is happening now that motivates you to be safe. It sometimes attempts to predict what might happen, but often deals with what is in front of you and thinks of consequences it has seen before. It’s job is to make you feel uncomfortable enough to stop the action you are doing that might endanger you. If you are going skydiving for the first time, fear tells you that you know that people have died from this, and that might be you. It may not be safe, and you should move yourself to be safer. This is where fight, flight, or freeze comes in. It motivates you do one of those actions, and which ever makes you feel safer (or is the one that has worked out for you the best) it motivates you to take. A way to work with fear is to identify what it tells you is not safe, examine why you feel it’s unsafe, and imagine and assure yourself that safety is possible, even if you don’t see it yet.


Anxiety is very close to fear. But while fear is mostly to do with things that are happening right now, anxiety is more like a doom and gloom fortune teller; it is looking for what could go wrong, and then motivating you to prevent those things (even if they aren’t real.) Anxiety deals more in “what ifs” and  “but it could” rather than fear, which is more “it is” and “right now.” Anxiety is great for preventing things before they happen! It motivates us to work through and come up with plans! When anxiety goes wrong, our thoughts are coming up with things that could go wrong, and anxiety is motivating you to fix ALL of these things, because they are ALL REAL and DEFFINATLY going to happen. The good news is that not EVERYTHING can happen. And we can only do so much. A good way to deal with anxiety is to allow it to take some actions, and then check in with what is reasonable action. We can also assure ourselves that we are capable of dealing with what the anxiety tells us is going to happen, and focus on our ability to face it when it comes.


Happiness is deceptively tricky. We often label it as a “good emotion” and think there is no issue or struggle with happiness. Inside Out did an amazing job of tackling “toxic positivity.” It’s when we over prioritize being happy all the time, because it feels good, and the other emotions motivate us by being uncomfortable. Happiness motivates us to do more of the thing that made us happy. We are kind of pre-programed with things that make us happy, and then form happy memoires around things. We may be happy when we play a game, or hang out with people, or eat a favorite food. And these things are often good for us! So happiness comes in and motivates us to do it again! But not all things that make us happy are good, and even when they are, we can’t be happy all the time. Happiness tells us to be where we are, and stay and maintain that. Realistically, we can’t for forever. If we did, then we wouldn’t be hungry, which motivates us to eat, or angry which motivates us to help people and fix things, or fearful, which motivates us to move and be safe. If we were happy all the time, we wouldn’t do anything. We would sit and, ultimately, starve. Don’t get me wrong, happiness is great! It’s supposed to be your brian’s treat to you for doing good! However, it is not a treat meant to be there all the time. There is another emotion we can find in between. Contentment. Contentment is when we find things are okay. Not the best, not the worst. They are okay. Funnily enough, when we chase happiness, and expect to have it all the time, we are miserable. However, when we let go of being happy and find contentment, happiness finds us more often.


Embarrassment is a social motivator! It motivates us to be the best version of ourselves, socially. It is often influenced by how we WANT to be seen. We feel embarrassed when we find these two versions (who we want to be seen as, and who we have to admit we are) are incongruent. For example, if we want to be seen as a good basketball player, but miss every shot in the game, we may feel embarrassed that we now have to face that others may not see us the way we want to be seen (good at basketball) or see ourselves. It motivates us to take action to rectify our image, and take actions to be seen as the thing we want to be seen as (ask for a rematch, or be more aggressive on the court.) However, sometimes the lesson is that we AREN’T what we think we are, and now have to admit that to ourselves and others. A good way to let this motivation be a positive force is to ask not how can I be what I want, but what is reasonable to do to get me CLOSER to what I want to be. Accept that you may not be the BEST player on the team, but you may be a good player, IF you PRACTICE. Use the motivation to practice, and the acceptance to tell the emotion when to ease up.


Shame is very close to embarrassment, but is more about how you think about yourself, and less focused on others. You may feel that you have to accept you are not as good at something as you think, or you may be worse than you thought. This is a tough pill to swallow, but the motivation is the same as embarrassment. It wants you to change who you are. It is positive when we can motivate ourselves to be better. It stops us when the thought joins the motivation that says, “but you will never be better.” Good news! We can always attempt to be better, and there will always be chances to do so. Don’t hold yourself accountable for the failure, but accountable to making the attempt.


Sadness is also tricky. It is, in part, another social motivator. Like told in Inside Out, it motivates us to take actions that show we are not okay to others. This allows others to see we are not doing okay, and give us resources. It also motivates us to slow down and feel bad about moving forward. This is to allow us to stop, and take time to emotionally process hurt, and motivates us to take the resources we need when we need them. It’s why there are comfort foods, and people are sometimes prone to throwing “pity parties.” Sometimes, we need them. The same way when we get physically hurt, we need time to heal as well. This is why therapist will say “it’s good to cry and let it out.” That’s you signaling that you are not doing okay, and also processing and healing. Crying is a loud, tearful, and hard to breathe form of processing and eating ice cream. It’s a catharsis. It’s why you feel better when you cry!

These are just some of emotions, and I may post later on this blog about others. It’s hard to sometimes think about something so nebulous and articulate them. So instead, if we think about “what does the emotion tell me to do”, and “what is it telling me to do something about” we can sometimes get a better grasp on the emotions that feel like they are controlling us. Because to an extent, they are controlling us. They are sending signals and making your body geared up to do things and take actions. The good news is they don’t tell us what those actions are. We get to decide what those are and what we do next. We are ultimately in control, but sometimes, the emotions yell about what direction that is.

I hope you found this helpful, and I hope to see some of you on opening night of Inside Out 2! I know I will be there!