The first island, Family, represents secure connections. Because of her attentive, loving parents, this island has always felt solid for Riley. But now, as Riley's parents are preoccupied, she feels neglected and this formally reliable island is shaky. The second island, Honesty, which represents personal values, is also in jeopardy. Riley wants to go back to Minnesota, so she steals her mom's credit card for bus money. The trust that made this island sturdy is now undermined. Meanwhile, the Friendship island crumbles because Riley feels friendless in her new city and wonders if her old friends still like her. The next island, Hockey, which is about personal likes and talents, has taken a hit when she doesn't feel excited about playing and quits her tryouts. And lastly, Goofball island, representing our silly playful nature is about to crumble as well. Her family has always clowned with one another, making goofy monkey gestures; now Riley doesn't even try to be funny.
As Riley gets more out of sorts, we have a parallel story of Joy and Sadness accidentally getting sucked out of the control tower and landing in long term memory. There's a long sequence about their journey back to the control tower. While I think the crew at Pixar did an amazing job of illustrating how memory works, I think most young kids will have trouble following it. It's abstract, but the story line between Sadness and Joy keeps us engaged. Sadness is so sad that she flops on the floor and Joy has to pull her around. It's mimics the low energy Riley is experiencing, making her sullen and hiding in her room.
Sadness' depleted energy and sense of helplessness starts to change when she and Joy encounter Bing Bong, Riley's nearly forgotten imaginary friend. Sadness sits down next to Bing Bong and does what she does best. She listens to him remember some of the fun times he's had with Riley. His sadness is especially strong because he knows Riley has forgotten all about him. Sadness' allows Bing Bong to grieve the loss of his special relationship with Riley and helps him recover. With the support of Sadness, Bing Bong now has the energy to help them find their way back to the control tower. Joy is puzzled and doesn't quite realize what Sadness has done. Yet, she knows it is something unique to Sadness and something that she can't do.
When Joy and Sadness get back to the control tower, things are whirling out of control: the other emotions aren't able to keep things in balance and there's a crisis to control and Riley is running away from home. It is at this critical moment that Joy remembers how Sadness helped Bing Bong, so she puts Sadness in control.
Sadness helps Riley return home and talk to her parents about her sadness. Embraced and comforted by her parents, Riley cries and shares all the things that have been hard for her. Being heard and having her sadness acknowledged reassures her of her parents concern and caring. Sadness is the emotion which, although not fun, helps us understand the value of things we've lost. Riley had good friends that she had fun with and it's hard to not have them close by. She was a valuable member of her hockey team and she misses the fun of being part of that team and knowing she was a valued member. Her family did lots of outdoors activities together and that's no longer happening. She has lost all these things that once were a regular part of her life. Without them her life has felt sad and empty.
Riley needed space to feel sad and talk about what's been hard about giving those things up. Throughout life we all have to manage change and let go of things that have been meaningful. But that process is made much easier if we can embrace our sadness rather than hide it. And then compassionately allow ourselves whatever time we need to heal. When we give ourselves that space, we regain our resilience and open ourselves up to new experiences. Riley did this after she shared her heartbreak with her parents. The energy of her sadness got released and new energy emerged that allowed her to successfully join a new hockey team. Riley's new team will be different from her old one. But she'll have her memories, and the possibility of new connections and the knowledge of her capacity to manage change no matter how hard.
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