Joy said, “Come on, group hug! You too, Anger.”
“Don’t touch me,” Anger replied.
Joy and Anger are two of the characters in Pixar’s 2015 hit kids movie, “Inside Out.” Among the other characters are Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. They’re emotions living inside Riley, the 12-year-old main character who was uprooted from her happy and simple life in Minnesota and taken to San Francisco, California, where she experiences various changes in her life.
Her emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger) help her through this tough time, ensuring her well-being. It’s a great introduction to emotions for children and it’s a very entertaining movie for adults as well…
But more than that, Inside Out is the first time mainstream society is introduced to one of the most important concepts in practical psychology: the existence and function of sub-personalities.
Sure, it’s a basic introduction and doesn’t appear to be Pixar’s true intent (the characters are emotions rather than full-blown sub-personalities), but the function of the human mind in this way is quite clear as we watch Riley struggle with with different challenges from dealing with her parents, to her first day at a new school, to living in a new house that feels small and strange.
Every human being, like Riley if she were real, has a collection of sub-personalities that manifest in unique ways. These sub-personalities react to our circumstances and experiences as we move through life.
Our main personality, our Authentic Self, can be described as a CEO of sorts. A cool, calm, and collected decision maker. But when our physical, mental, and emotional resources are drained or a sub-personality gets triggered, our CEO can be pushed into the passenger’s seat while the triggered sub-personality takes the wheel.
When this shift occurs, we see a shift in our behavior and choices as well. This is often why we behave counter to our good intentions or act in ways we later regret. While all of our sub-personalities have our best interest at heart, they don’t always make decisions that lead to a positive outcome.
This characterization of the human mind may sound strange at first, but it’s critical to understanding why you behave the way you do and why you make the choices you make.
The Perfectionist is a popular sub-personality that may help you understand this concept more clearly. First, let’s look at how most people talk about themselves…
“I’m a perfectionist.”
Is that true, though? Are you a perfectionist in whole? Or just in part?
When you study human behavior, you come to realize that people who describe themselves as “perfectionists” or “people-pleasers” or some other characterization don’t always display that behavior. In some situations they behave as a perfectionist and in others they don’t.
If you were a perfectionist in whole, you would always display perfectionist behavior. If you were compulsive in whole, you would always display compulsive behavior. But even if someone is mostly compulsive, they’re not always compulsive.
Saying, “This is who I am [in whole],” is very destructive to understanding why you behave the way you do. It’s destructive to self-esteem. And it’s destructive to growth and healing.
The reality is that part of you is a perfectionist. Part of you is a people-pleaser. Part of you is compulsive. And these parts manifest at different times, for different reasons. This is very similar to how emotions manifest in you at different times for different reasons, just as we see with Riley in Inside Out.
You wouldn’t describe yourself as “angry” or “sad” in whole. You realize that emotions are temporary and change day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and even minute-to-minute. Well, sub-personalities work the same way.
The existence of these “personas” within you is primarily due to your experiences. That’s why every single person has a unique combination and degrees of sub-personalities. I talked in detail about perfectionism and why someone might develop a perfectionist sub-personality in “The Truth About Perfectionism That Nobody Has the Balls to Tell You. (Part 1 & Part 2).”
Just to quickly provide some dot-connection so you don’t have to immediately go off and read that two-part article, it’s common for people who grew up in an environment of high expectations and carrots-and-sticks coercion to develop a perfectionist sub-personality.
What kids need more than anything is unconditional love and acceptance, but high expectations and carrots-and-sticks manipulation create an environment of conditional love. This causes children to have to fight for love and attention, often through the act of performing or behaving in some way that meets expectations.
Kids in this environment often come to believe that achieving perfection would result in always having the love and attention they need, and thus they begin to develop a focus in that area. This is commonly how a people-pleasing sub-personality develops as well—if I can please people, I can get my needs met. Or at the very least, I won’t get punished or abandoned.
That environment doesn’t always create that outcome though. It could be that a child becomes discouraged with the prospects of being perfect. They succumb to the realization that they live in an environment of conditional love. They mask the pain of this with facetiousness or cynicism. The possibilities are varied.
The point of all this is that understanding the concept of sub-personalities is at the heart of understanding your relationship with food, body, self, and others.
If you struggle to align your behavior with your good intentions when it comes to health and fitness goals, it’s almost certain that sub-personalities are partially responsible for manipulating your choices (there’s a lot more that goes into it, obviously). This is why you can “know what to do” but still can’t do it.
This is also why you feel you need more willpower, discipline, motivation, and rules and restriction. Those tactics are a way of forcing success, when in reality what you truly need is to do the work on your inner-psychology that will free you from ever needing those tactics ever again.
“Kevin, are you saying that we can be successful with reaching health and fitness goals without willpower, discipline, rules, or restriction?” Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Getting and keeping a body and life you love is only 20% mechanics (what to eat, how to move, etc.). It’s 80% psychology. And thanks to Inside Out, society is being brought a little closer to understanding why that is.
If you want to know more about sub-personalities and all of the other factors that determine success or failure in getting and keeping a body and life you love, this is the kind of work we do with men and women around the world in our Decode Your Cravings program. Click here to check it out.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.