Inside Out:  this summer’s must-see movie for expat families

If you are anywhere near a movie theater showing recent releases this summer, you absolutely must take yourself and your family to see Inside Out.

This is not a movie about kissing the handsome prince or surviving an amazing outdoor adventure or defeating the bad guys.

This is a movie about how to have a healthy, mature emotional life–and it all comes to you in gorgeous, entertaining Pixar wonderfulness.

The set-up for the movie is this:  11-year-old Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco for dad’s job.  The real action, however, takes place on the inside of Riley, as her personified emotions interact.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is Riley’s primary emotion.  Riley’s had a great childhood, and she’s a happy kid.  Joy’s in charge with all kinds of energy and enthusiasm, and, as far as everybody knows, that’s perfectly wonderful.

Of course, every kid gets angry or scared or disgusted at times, and Joy understands what those emotions are for:  protection and safety and social belonging.

Sadness, though?  Sadness is just kind of blobby and lethargic and unattractive.

Joy keeps all the other emotions on task and on target, but she doesn’t know what to do with Sadness.  And Sadness doesn’t know what to do with herself, either.  Nobody knows what sadness is for.

At one point, Joy draws a chalk circle and tells Sadness to just stand inside the circle.  But, as Riley struggles through a tough transition, Sadness keeps escaping.

While Joy is a wonderful character and you just love her to pieces, there’s this one moment when Joy says, “I just want Riley to be HAPPY.”  You realize: wow, if Joy doesn’t get a hold of herself, this could get ugly and self-centered very quickly.

Joy is missing something, and we all eventually realize that Sadness has some very special abilities that Joy lacks:

Sadness has explored the deep parts of the brain that Joy’s been too busy to deal with.

Sadness is able to empathize with the sadness in others.

Sadness draws people together for comfort and care.

You guys, I’m a counselor.  I see a fair number of adult TCK’s.  And one of the most common problems that adult TCK’s bring to therapy is unresolved grief–and in general, a lack of understanding and acceptance of emotions like sadness and anger.

I think a lot of times, TCK’s are encouraged to BE HAPPY about their awesome life.  Of course we want our kids to be happy!  And many times their lives are awesome!

It’s just that, in order to deal with the realities of transition, separation, and loss, our kids need better emotional tools than forced happiness.

They need to be able to deal with their sadness and fear and disgust and anger in productive ways as well.

The great gift of Inside Out is this.  You can take your kids to a movie they will enjoy, and at the same time create a shared emotional language for your family.

(Of course, while your kids learn to deal with their emotions, you’ll have to deal with yours as well.  Because we are the grown-ups, and we don’t ask our kids to do what we won’t do.)

If you’re anywhere near a movie theater this summer, go.  If you’re nowhere near a theater, get Inside Out on your wish list for Christmas.  Your family dynamics will thank you later.


Talk about the emotions you saw inside of Riley.

What does each emotion (Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness) do for Riley?

What happens on the outside of Riley’s life, and how does that make her feel on the inside?

Think about a time when you were upset like Riley was.  What happened on the outside?  What emotions did you feel on the inside?

How did Riley’s friends react when she moved away?  Tell me how your friends have reacted when you’ve moved away.  Has it been hard to maintain friendships?  What helps?  What makes it hard?

Why do Riley’s Mom and Dad say things like “Where’s my happy girl?”  How did that make you feel?

After Riley gets upset at the dinner table, her dad comes to her room.  Did it feel like Riley’s dad was being fair to her?  Have you ever felt misunderstood, like Riley did right then?

What did you learn about Sadness in this movie?  How has Sadness been a part of your life?

When you feel sad on the inside, how do you act on the outside?

Which of the emotions do you think is your main emotion right now?

What helped Riley feel close to her parents again?  What helps you feel close to your family?

The Normal Fallacy

The Normal Fallacy

I stopped believing in ‘normal’ a long time ago and I can pinpoint the moment when the loss of that belief crystalized for me. I was in Minnesota, sitting in a hot tub at my parents’ home. Friends and family were eating brats and hot dogs, playing raucous games of spoons, enjoying the view of the lake and grass and oak trees. Someone asked me, “What is different about your life in Djibouti from life here?”

I froze.

Uh…hot tub? Brats? Hot dog? Spoon games? Lakes? Grass? Oak trees? Family? Where should I start?

What is different? Nothing. My kids go to school, I grocery shop, I pray, I cook, I visit friends, my husband and I go for walks.

What is different? Everything. My kids go to French school and now boarding school. I shop at three stores, the market, the bread delivery man, the dukaan across the street, and the vegetable stall down the block. I pray for people I never would have known before, challenges I never could have fathomed before. I cook everything from bread to barbecue sauce from scratch. I visit friends and speak multiple different languages, sometimes while wearing a headscarf or abaya. My husband and I go for walks but we don’t touch and we dodge goats, camels, and kids who want to follow us.

This all feels normal now.

It wouldn’t feel normal to a freshly-arrived person.

Minnesota sort of feels normal but also doesn’t in any way feel normal. It feels like a nostalgic normal.

Looking at my Djibouti life from a Minnesotan perspective, this is what I conclude:

  1. It is not normal to go into a grocery store, rip open a box of ice cream bars, and only purchase one.
  2. It is not normal to turn left from the right hand lane.
  3. It is not normal to pick worms out of flour.
  4. It is not normal to kill tweny-seven cockroaches in one morning in one room.
  5. It is not normal for white laundry to come out clean but gray, because of the water.
  6. It is not normal to say, “I feel cold,” and “What a beautiful day,” when the sky is thick with clouds and the temperature drops to 95.
  7. It is not normal to eat lunch as a family every single day and to almost never eat dinner as a family.
  8. It is not normal to hear “Je vais au suuqa pour eegayaa les shiids” or to say it, and to totally understand it. (This is what we call Fromali – a French-Somali hybrid that people often slip into here).
  9. It is not normal for candles to melt when they are not near a flame.
  10. It is not normal to buy baguettes from a green wooden cart.

Oh wait a second. These things are entirely normal. They are my normal. They just aren’t your normal. They didn’t used to be my normal but they were always somebody’s normal.

So I decided, normal is a fallacy.

Normal is a lie we’ve chosen to believe because then we can judge and categorize and feel good (or bad) about ourselves. We can feel comfortable or uncomfortable, like we fit in or are completely out of place. Standards of living, clothing styles, church service preferences, driving habits, interpersonal interactions…the list could go on and on of all the things we categorize as normal when they are done the way we are used to them being done.

But the thing is, this list of 10 things I wrote? Those are all ‘normal.’ They always have been, probably always will be, for thousands and thousands of people. One of the first things that needs to go when expatriates face the culture stripping shock of moving abroad is an insistence that things be ‘normal.’

How do we do that? First, toss the word. Then, open yourself to new ways of doing life. Don’t expect things, life, people to be the way you are used to. Create a space for your own normal and your family’s own normal but recognize that this normal is limited to you and your family. Be flexible to see, welcome, and celebrate another person’s normal.

Do you think normal is a fallacy? What are some new ‘normals’ in your expat life that you hadn’t anticipated?