Social Anxiety in Movies: Inside Out

Social Anxietyin Movies (1)

Inside Out is an animated Pixar movie that takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). In the Headquarters of Riley’s mind, we meet the different emotions that make up her personality: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Throughout the film, these five emotions work together to influence Riley’s behavior and her memories.

Inside Out [2015]


Inside Out isn’t a movie about a character with social anxiety. It’s a movie where social anxiety itself is literally a character. They call him “Fear”, but that’s really all social anxiety is.

Psychoanalysis: (Warning: Full spoilers ahead!)

Inside the Headquarters of Riley’s mind, there is a control panel, where Joy (Amy Poehler) is in charge of driving Riley’s emotions. Fear (Bill Hader) is kind of nerdy looking with a bow tie and sweater vest. I’d be offended by the stereotype, except I’m kind of nerdy myself.



Ahh! Look out!!! No!

JOY (V.O.)

That’s Fear. He’s really good at keeping Riley safe.


There are at least 37 things for Riley to be scared of right now!

Fear and social anxiety actually have an evolutionary purpose that is beneficial to our survival. In cavemen times, social anxiety was a vital trait to keep humans safe. You only knew and trusted people from your close-knit tribe who you lived with. You feared any person outside of your tribe because chances were, they’d try to kill you for food and supplies. Now that we no longer live in cavemen times, social anxiety is a less desirable trait, but it is still useful in some cases. We don’t want to be completely trusting of everyone—there are still plenty of criminals in the world looking to take advantage of us. The problem with social anxiety is we let Fear drive our emotions too much. As Inside Out shows, it’s all about balancing our emotions.

The emotion Joy likes least is Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy tries to keep her away from Riley’s memories because she always turns them blue and sad.



I’m sorry. Something’s wrong with me. It’s like I’m having a breakdown.


You are not having a breakdown. It’s stress.


I keep making mistakes like that. I’m awful…


Nooo, you’re not.


…and annoying.


Well… uh… You know what? You can’t focus on what’s going wrong. There’s always a way to turn things around, to find the fun!


Yeah. Find the fun. I don’t know how to do that.

Sadness also plays a role in social anxiety, as it contributes to low self-esteem. We think we make mistakes in social situations and are afraid to talk to people because we think we will annoy them.

At the start of the movie, Riley and her parents move across the country from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley has to go to a new school where she doesn’t know anyone.


Fear! I need a list of all the possible negative outcomes on the first day at a new school.


Way ahead of you there. Does anyone know how to spell “meteor?”

When we feel social anxiety, it’s because we’re thinking of all the negative things others may be thinking about us. But just like a meteor is unlikely to hit Riley’s school, others are probably not thinking all those negative things about us that we think they are.

In class, Riley notices the cool girls sitting nearby.


Let’s go talk to ‘em!


Are you kidding?? We’re not TALKING to them, we want them to like us.

Disgust plays some role in social anxiety as well. We’re afraid to say or do something that may disgust others, so we avoid them all together.

The teacher introduces Riley to the class.


Okay, everybody. We have a new student in class today.


Are you kidding me?! Out of the gate? This is not happening!


Riley would you like to tell us something about yourself?


Nooooooo! Pretend we can’t speak English!

That’s exactly how I felt when being called to speak in front of the class. I’d shrink in my seat, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on me.


Don’t worry. I got this.


Uhh… okay. My name is Riley Andersen. I’m from Minnesota. And now I live here.

Joy takes over and Riley speaks to the class. To overcome social anxiety, we need to ignore the voice of Fear in our heads and channel our inner Joy to speak.

As Riley tells the class about Minnesota, Sadness touches the memories, and Riley starts to cry as she talks about how she misses her friends.


Cool kids whispering at 3 o’clock!


Did you see that look?!? They’re judging us!

Disgust and Fear combine to cause social anxiety. Disgust makes us hyper-aware of others reactions, and Fear gives us negative interpretations of those reactions. We assume others are judging us negatively, but that may not be true. For instance, Riley’s classmates may have been whispering about how they felt sorry for her.


Joy tries to get rid of Sadness, but they both get sucked through a memory tube and wind up in the depths of long-term memories. Anger, Fear, and Disgust are left alone in Headquarters to control Riley without the help of Joy.


So! How was the first day of school?


She’s probing us.


I’m done. (to Fear) YOU pretend to be Joy.


What? Uh… okay… hmm.

RILEY (nervous)

It was fine, I guess, I don’t know.

Social anxiety prevents us from being open with others about how we really feel. So when Fear takes over for Riley, he speaks in evasive comments to try to end the conversation with her mother. I would do the same thing when people asked me questions. I’d often say “I guess” or “I don’t know” because I was afraid to open up to them.

Riley struggles at tryouts for her new hockey team. She doesn’t know anyone and is nervous, so she doesn’t play as well as she normally does. I used to get so nervous about playing sports in front of people that I didn’t know very well, whereas I played much better and more carefree with close friends that I didn’t feel social anxiety with.


No, no, no, breathe! Find your happy place–

Many of the physical symptoms of social anxiety happen because we are so overwhelmed with fear that we stop breathing. A quick way to overcome anxiety in the moment is to focus on your breathing and take deep breaths from your stomach.

Anger, Disgust, and Fear struggle to keep Riley happy while Joy is stuck away from Headquarters with Sadness.


Well why don’t we quit standing around and DO something?


Like what, genius?


Like quitting! That’s what I’m doing. Sure, it’s the coward’s way out. But this coward is gonna survive!

Social anxiety leads to quitting or avoiding the situations that make us uncomfortable. We may survive, but we will miss out on a lot of experiences in life.

Riley decides to take a bus back to Minnesota and walks through the streets by herself.


This is terrible. Wait. Is that someone walking towards us? Let’s cross the street.

I always feel fear when someone approaches me in public, and I try to avoid them. It’s normal to fear sketchy-looking strangers, but social anxiety takes that healthy fear too far, and we become afraid of friendly people who just want to talk.

Joy sees a memory of when Riley was sad about losing a hockey game, and she realizes that because of Sadness, Riley’s friends and family came together to cheer her up. When they get back to Headquarters, Joy realizes she needs to let Sadness drive Riley for a bit, in order to let her express her true feelings to her parents.


I know you don’t want me to but…I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but… I want my old friends, and my hockey team… I wanna go home. Please don’t be mad.

Riley’s parents are not mad. They tell her it’s okay to feel sad, and they admit that they miss Minnesota, too. Their shared sadness brings them together, and they are able to help each other cope through the difficult time.

Too much “Fear” (social anxiety) can often lead to “Sadness” (depression). Sadness may seem like a completely useless emotion, but without Sadness, there is no Joy. Sadness and depression are really nothing more than missing the things from our past that brought us Joy and happiness. In that case, Sadness is a perfectly fine and acceptable emotion. The problem is when we dwell on our Sadness at the expense of finding new things to bring us Joy in the present.  It’s okay for Riley to feel Sadness and miss her best friends from Minnesota, as long as she finds new friends to bring her Joy in San Francisco.

At the end of the film, Riley is finally starting to adjust to life in San Francisco. She made the hockey team, and her parents are there to watch her play in a game. Outside the rink, Riley bumps into a boy her age, and we go inside his head. It’s complete chaos with all of his emotions panicking and alarms sounding. Outside of his head, the boy just stares blankly at Riley, unable to speak.


Girl! Girl! Girl!

This is the best representation in the entire movie (and maybe any movie) of what social anxiety feels like. I think most people can relate to being nervous in front of someone we’re attracted to, especially at that age, but for people with social anxiety it’s like that inside our heads whenever anyone talks to us. Our alarms sound: “Person! Person! Person!” It’s no wonder that we are unable to speak to people when it’s that chaotic inside our heads.

Mindfulness is the key to quieting that chaos in our heads. In order to keep our personality and emotions (including social anxiety) in balance, we first need to learn to be conscious and aware of those emotions as they arise. Cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation has helped me to become more mindful.

“Fear” will always be there in our heads, talking to us. It will never completely go away, nor would we want it to. We need Fear to keep us safe…sometimes. To overcome social anxiety, we need to learn to ignore Fear when appropriate.

Behind the Scenes:


Pete Docter, the co-director and co-writer of Inside Out admitted that he suffered from social anxiety in his past.

“I always felt this awkwardness and shyness, and so I kind of retreated into my own little world. That’s part of why I gravitated toward animation. It was easier to draw something that expressed how I felt than to say it out loud.” – NY Times

“I grew up as an awkward, kind of quiet kid, and was most happy sitting in my room making cartoons.” – Variety 

Docter’s social anxiety worsened in the fifth grade when his family moved to Denmark for a year.

“That was the most difficult time of my life. Suddenly, bam, your idyllic boyhood bubble is popped, and you’re aware that everything you do and everything you wear and everything you say is being judged by everyone else.” – NY Times

“I didn’t find a tribe for a very long time. I was off by myself a lot.” – The Atlantic

Docter eventually found his tribe of like-minded friends at Pixar. A good way to overcome social anxiety is to find people with similar interests like Docter did through his love of animation. Even still, Docter sometimes feels social anxiety today.

“The social stuff really stressed me out. And it still does.” – Vulture

Docter noticed that his daughter started showing signs of social anxiety when she turned eleven.

“She started getting more quiet and reserved, and that, frankly, triggered a lot of my own insecurities and fears.” – NY Times

That’s when he came up with the idea for Inside Out.

“It also made me wonder what was going on. What happens in our heads during these moments?” – NY Times

Because of Docter’s personal history with social anxiety, it’s no surprise that his original version of the script followed Joy and Fear instead of Joy and Sadness.

One of the technical directors on the film told Docter his son was taking swimming lessons but was afraid to jump off the diving board. After seeing Inside Out, he overcame his fear and jumped.

“The movie had given him the idea that if he didn’t like what an emotion had to say, he didn’t have to listen to it. Just because I’m angry [or anxious] doesn’t mean I have to act on it, or that I’m controlled by my emotions. My feelings are separate from what I am.” – The Atlantic

Docter is right. We may feel social anxiety, but that doesn’t mean we are social anxiety. We will always hear Bill Hader’s voice of Fear in our heads, but we don’t have to do what he says.


Inside Out may sound like a deep emotional film—which it is—but it’s also a fun fantastical adventure, full of laughs and mind-blowing visuals. I didn’t even get to mention Bing Bong, or the dozens of other wacky characters inside Riley’s mind. I don’t know how the writers and directors were able to maintain the balance of comedy and drama. Actually, I think I do know—with their Joys, Sadnesses, Fears, Angers, and Disgusts all working together. Inside Out is a must-see movie for all personality types of all ages.

Inside Out as a film: 10/10

Inside Out as a portrayal of social anxiety: 10/10


1 thought on “Social Anxiety in Movies: Inside Out

  1. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Movies | Tim Barry Jr.

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