The Necessity of Sadness : What “Inside Out” can teach us about dealing with Coronavirus

Joy. She can be difficult to find even when the state of the world is operating at normal levels. She is someone we need always and are especially fighting for during this global pandemic. But she’s not the only thing we should chase relentlessly, sit with and lean into…

I’m late to the party. I know. The Pixar film “Inside Out” debuted five years ago and screamed a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. It rendered the quickest tears in my cinematic viewing history at a record 1 minute and 45 seconds in… Baby Riley opens her eyes and she sees her parents for the first time. They say : ” Hello, Riley. Aren’t you a little bundle of joy?” The scene cuts to Riley’s subconscious and we meet “Joy” (voiced by Amy Poehler) in a whimsical, colorful subconscious cavern. This moment becomes a “Core Memory”, represented as a golden iridescent marble the glides through the machine that is Riley’s mind… How are you not crying yet?

The brilliance of this film is in its representation of the tension and play between five key emotions : Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. Fear, Disgust hold meaning in keeping Riley safe from dangerous and foreign things, Anger prioritizes fairness and justice, while, Sadness, as Joy describes it, “I’m not sure what she does, and I’ve checked, there is no place for her to go, but we’re good…” Just like for many of us, we tend to shy away from sadness, confused by its presence, though unable to shake it from our being.

In the film, Joy, is persistent, and insistent on being the driving force for Riley’s personality. The other four emotions have their turn throughout Riley’s childhood but are especially activated when Riley’s life is flipped upside down by a family cross country move to the broccoli Pizza infested San Francisco.

Two major conflicts are occurring here in the exposition. The first, Riley has had to leave her friends and home behind. The second, her mother has asked her to stay happy for her father who is stressed about his new job. This catapults Joy into a frantic effort to silence and control Sadness at all costs. Keep a brave face for her family despite her own disappointment and heartbreak over leaving her friends and home behind.

Through twists and turns, old friends, memories cherished and memories lost, Joy finally comes to see the value that Sadness brings to the complexity of human emotions. She witnesses a “Core Memory” of Riley’s that she deems as happy because her hockey teammates are rallying and cheering around her, however, Sadness reminds her that that particular joyous moment was the direct result of Riley’s sadness at missing the game winning goal. Her feelings and physical display of emotion lets her parents and teammates know that she needed comforting. They saw she was struggling to produce it for herself and they poured love and joy into her.

In that moment Joy realizes that Sadness is a necessity for a compassionate collective…

Just like Riley, we are now faced with internal and external challenges beyond our control. The external challenge we face is the uncertainty and danger of this pandemic. Our internal challenge is in trying to maintain a steady stream of emotional balance, ultimately, keeping a brave face for our loved ones as Riley was asked to do.

As anyone can attest to at the moment, this time has undoubtedly incited a whirlwind of emotions for everyone just as Riley’s did when she was faced with the adversity of moving. For many right now, Anger, Fear, and Disgust have taken the drivers seat, and understandably so. This is a scary time and survival is a real question mark for many. There is an enormous list of unknowns and an even bigger list of horrific injustices done to individuals and communities.

We cannot as a collective get stuck in our Anger, Fear, and Disgust while chasing Joy. We must allow ourselves to sit with Sadness, because with her comes compassion and love for others. If we never acknowledge our own, and witness that same feeling in others, then we are sacrificing our ability to connect and heal one another. While acknowledging Sadness is something those living in modern times tends to avoid at all cost, regardless of the current situation, it is crucial that we stop running and lean into this critical emotion rather than bypassing it for Anger, Fear, or Disgust. Because Sadness asks for and welcomes Joy and Love from others.

It is okay to be Sad right now so that when the time comes to act whether through voting for measures or elected officials, you act out of compassion for those around you rather than fearing those around you. Accept that Sadness is here to serve you to heal our community, not just a wasted emotion as Joy thought. Let Sadness do work on your heart and find comfort in that acknowledging that when we accept and move through it, we will be that much closer to Joy.




Writer, truth seeker, problem solver, teacher, listener, athlete. Dreaming of far-off places and societies. Check out more at

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Maureen Fitzgerald

Maureen Fitzgerald

Writer, truth seeker, problem solver, teacher, listener, athlete. Dreaming of far-off places and societies. Check out more at

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