When emotions are suppressed too hard and too long—like Riley in Inside Out—they can fall into an abyss of used memories and feelings. They are never totally discarded because they exist in our memory banks—what some call the “unconscious.” They always remain a part of us but they are hidden away in the drawers and closets of the mind. Sometimes they make an appearance in dreams and slips of the tongue as the good Dr. Freud explained. (By the way, the unconscious has been depicted in art and poetry long before it was identified by Freud. That is a part of its appeal—the mystery, the unpredictability, the quirky twists and turns.)
But when too much is lost or sequestered away we begin to lose important and authentic parts of the self. We present to the world a “false self”, made of up what we control and what we believe to be acceptable to those who are important in our lives. Riley did just that! She knew her parents were dealing with a lot—the move, the delays in getting their belongings, her father’s job uncertainty—and she didn’t want to burden them with her own sad feelings. But they burst through anyway in the classroom when she was supposed to introduce herself. The sad feelings were too strong and instead she started to cry.
Riley’s situation was mild and easily fixed. It was a movie, after all! Her parents were caring people and they were able to handle her negative feelings. But others are not so lucky. My own journey in re-joining my “false” and “real” selves has been long and arduous. First I had to recognize what was happening and that insight began in the back of a church I was attending when I was in graduate school. I was reading a book called The Divided Self by R. D. Laing. (Penguin Books, 1969, London, England) As I recognized myself in those pages I began to weep without restraint. I identified my lack of spontaneity, my remoteness from all but a select few, my frozen affect and my lack of awareness of my own body. The journey to re-integrate the lost and frozen pieces of my identity has been long and arduous but also richly rewarding. It has meant the re-appearance of humor, dormant athleticism, a full singing voice and, most importantly, an ability to love.
We will talk next week about that quintessential fictional Divided Self—The Wizard of Oz.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.