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What the Midlife ‘Inside Out’ Would Be Like

What emotions play starring roles for adults in transition?

By Ann Oldenburg

Fear. Anger. Joy. Sadness. And a little bit of Disgust.

Those are the emotional stars of the delightful Pixar movie, Inside Out. The film, in theaters now, is the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, whose family moves from her beloved Minnesota to new and scary San Francisco.

But the main characters of Inside Out are Riley’s emotions. We see them behind a big console at the headquarters of her brain, guiding her daily life as she has to cope with a new home, a new school and new friends. It doesn’t always go so well.

Joy gets lost. Sadness keeps touching all of Riley’s memories, making her unable to smile or be happy. Fear and Anger tell her to run away. And Disgust makes her loathe just about everything.

Riley’s going through a big change in her young life.

And it got us thinking about big changes in older lives — facing career moves, retirement and empty nests.

What if there were an Inside Out for the midlife brain? Would the characters be the same? Which emotions would play starring roles in that film?

Opt for Excitement

Joe Burgo, psychologist and author of the upcoming book, The Narcissist You Know, describes a typical mindset.

“In thinking about that transitional period in adult life, it is a time when people look backward and look forward,” he says.

Pride and Regret might be competing feelings in looking back. “Are you proud of your accomplishments? You may have launched children safely into adulthood. You may have a satisfying career as a legacy,” he says. In that case, Pride would be at the controls.

But, he adds, “There’s a lot of opportunity for Regret. Do you wish you had done something else with your life? Do you think you married the wrong person? Are you disappointed in the life you led?” Move over, Pride. Here comes Regret.

Looking forward, a different pair of stars might steal the spotlight, says Burgo. Fear and Dread might take over.

“All of us fear change to some degree. Will things be better? Will things be worse? Are we facing declining health? The end of a marriage?” notes Burgo.

But looking forward doesn’t need to be all bad.  Says Burgo: “There’s also Excitement.” Midlifers have every reason to let that emotion take over, as they adopt the outlook 'I’m done with the parenting. I’ve put my years in the Social Security pool, and now it’s my turn to spread my wings and fulfill my life in a way I hadn’t until now.'”

‘If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going’

Along those same lines, Frank Farley, educational psychology professor at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, says one of the key players in his version of Inside Out would be Optimism.

“The idea is: You got this far, keep going. If it’s rough — financially, emotionally, socially — remember Winston Churchill, who said, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’”

Farley adds it would be important for the middle-aged Riley character to adopt this viewpoint: “See the new glass as always half-full and fill it up.”

He would also cast Joy in a prominent role, keeping her as the leading lady she is in Inside Out.

“It’s a three letter word that’s just loaded. Joy is the proximal, the nearby, the close-at-hand. That is so important,” says Farley. “If you’re changing your life situation or as you’re getting older, cherish the close-at-hand, the positive things that are around you, the joy of new beginnings. You may not have felt that for a long time. It can be exhilarating.”

Loneliness may try to invade, especially for those facing an empty nest. “It’s a new loneliness for some people,” says Farley. “It can be devastating.”


This is a villain, who could not — and should not — be taken lightly, says Farley. He notes that Loneliness has been shown to be a powerful predictor of length of life, manifesting itself in heart disease and other physical ailments.

Beware of the Villain Loneliness

Offshoots of Loneliness that might try to steal the spotlight are Inside Out stalwarts Sadness and Fear. “One of the biggest sources of human fear is uncertainty,” says Farley. “Retirement, an empty nest, these things can promote uncertainty and that can promote fear. Fear can restrict our lives. It reins you in and reduces your risk taking, your exploration and your openness to experiences.”

It’s important, especially in retirement, Farley says, not to give up. Gratitude and Acceptance need to play roles. “Show gratitude,” he says. “There’s a lot of research on that point.” (Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center notes that scientists have found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits, including a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure.)

Mary Languirand, psychologist and co-author of How to Age in Place, also cites Gratitude as a key player.

“It’s a really important transition period for an awful lot of people right now. We’re all trying to find paths. Your perspective starts to make a very big difference,” she says.

Older people have a greater appreciation for things. Says Languirand: “As their wisdom deepens, they get a better sense of savoring the moment and being grateful for the good stuff and celebrating. They are more mindful, often, of the preciousness of some of that stuff.”

What Remains Constant

Ultimately, Languirand’s cast for a midlife sequel to Inside Out would be just the same as it is for young Riley in the film. Riley would still be Riley — at age 50, 60, 70 and beyond, she says.

“Fear, Anger, Joy, Sadness, Disgust — those remain pretty constant throughout life,” she says. “You are still you. You still feel the emotions you felt as a younger person into a very advanced age.”

Ask yourself how old you feel, says Languirand. “A lot of older people, and I’ve heard this so often, they’ll say, ‘You know, I keep waiting until I’m going to feel like a grownup.’ The way you experience your feelings doesn’t change all that much.”

What does change?

Says Languirand: “We interpret them [our emotions] a little differently, because hopefully we get a little more in the way of wisdom and perspective and choose to respond differently. That said, how you feel and how you think are very intertwined and influence each other profoundly.”

What’s most important, she adds: “It’s how you choose to respond, rather than what you feel.”

Ann Oldenburg Ann Oldenburg, who started her career at The Washington Post and was a longtime culture writer at USA Today, is assistant director of the journalism program at Georgetown University. An advocate of lifelong learning, she is a member of the first cohort of Georgetown's new Aging & Health master’s program. Read More
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