I love Pixar’s new film Inside Out, which depicts the inner emotions of a girl named Riley who is moving to San Francisco.
The film is brilliant and hilarious for many reasons, but I particularly loved the constant struggle the emotions face to interpret the events that occur in Riley’s life.
The move to San Francisco is an event that isn’t inherently good or bad. The various emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust) constantly respond to stimuli in Riley’s environment to create an emotional story about what the event means.
In addition to demonstrating the power of consciously choosing the stories we tell ourselves about what things mean and what we’re capable of achieving (one of my favorite topics), the film also made me think about how much we tend to live life in reaction mode.
“Reaction mode,” the state where we completely focused on our environment and the things happening to us, is a very natural state of being. After all, we’re animals that spent most of our evolutionary history trying to avoid dying long enough to reproduce. If we weren’t constantly scanning our environment for food, threats, or mates, our species would have died out.
Unfortunately, we are still hard-wired to live in reaction mode. The amygdala, or “lizard brain,” is at the root of our brain stem and can easily override our more recently evolved part of the brain where critical thinking and abstract thought exist, the frontal lobe.
In practical terms, this means that we are naturally oriented to focus on stimuli in our environment, and sensations that we call “fear” or “anger” can shut down our more nuanced interpretive capabilities in stressful situations.
So we look for threats around us, including imagining many that aren’t actually there. After all, from an evolutionary perspective, it was better for us to react immediately if we thought we saw a tiger in the darkness than to investigate if we were just imagining it or not. Because if we were wrong, we were dead.
This fear-based response serves us poorly in the modern world. We are much more likely to pass up opportunities or deny ourselves growth because we are afraid of what people might think we fail (or succeed!).
Even more challenging is our tendency to live “from the outside in,” meaning that we’re constantly reacting to stimuli in our environment, including the perceived judgments of other people.
This “outside in” mentality means that we don’t acknowledge that we are the authors of every day of our lives. We can either be deliberate about the day that we write, or we can live by default.
It feels like living by default is easier. Do what we’re told. Buy what other people do. Eat and drink what we see on TV. Work until we get home to watch TV. Repeat until death.
But what if we make a conscious decision to live “inside out?” What if we begin each day by envisioning for 2 minutes what we want this day to look like? What if we take another minute to envision this month? And then this year?
Reminding ourselves each day that we write our own story is a powerful act of claiming our lives. We know we have this life for an indeterminate amount of time, and we are capable of immense contribution and growth if we focus our actions every day.
I am working on living my life “inside out” from now on. When I feel doubts, overwhelm, and criticism start to overpower me, I put in my headphones and listen to chillout music. Doing some constructive activity like listening to music or walking outside to calm the reactive voices in our head can help us re-orient and focus on deliberate action.
We are not the voices in our head. We are powerful actors on the stage of our lives, and we control our own lives. The plot, scenery, and co-actors may be partially or entirely out of our control, but as long as we consciously write our own lives, we will be the star of the show.