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Four Powerful Lessons From Disney's Encanto

Admitting we are *not fine* is a step towards feeling better.

Key points

  • Ignoring our own pain is not an adaptive strategy for well-being
  • Traumatic experiences can have a profound psychological and even genetic impacts on subsequent generations.
  • Being strong can be overrated and increase our vulnerability to stress.
  • Transporting into stories and identifying with characters can boost our own psychological insights and skills.

Yes, this is another post about Encanto, and yes there are spoilers :-) Go see it! As much as children delight in dancing and singing to the vibrant new musical (my five-year-old wants to be both Bruno and Luisa), it is the story itself that resonates with so many adults.

“We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” from the film, is now topping the Billboard Charts at Number 1. It is a silly, danceable, haunting, musically complex, and beautiful ensemble piece, but it also underscores one of the key plot points of the movie—the impulse to shun someone who forces us to face a less than ideal fate (not unlike our shoot-or-ignore-the-messenger climate change “debates” that Adam McKay attempted to depict in his recent film, Don’t Look Up).

Bruno’s character—one of many magical Madrigal family members—is a seer who can tell someone when their goldfish is going to die, or when they are going to go bald, for which they inappropriately blame him. When he sees a vision that threatens the family’s magical abode and puts his niece, Mirabel, at the center of the uncertain prophecy, he retreats into self-imposed exile to protect her and himself, as well as their family. The Madrigal matriarch, their Abuela, cannot tolerate cracks in their foundation.

Mirabel, the warm, witty protagonist is already vulnerable to family scorn; she is the only family member not to receive a special gift at her miracle ceremony (for reasons unknown). Sister Luisa is hulk-caliber strong, Isabella is beautiful and can create mountains of roses with a wave of her arm, Mama heals people with food, and her cousins can control the weather, shapeshift, or hear things from miles away. Mirabel’s true gift, however, it turns out, is emotional authenticity.

Contrary to popular wisdom, feeling fine or happy all the time isn’t a recipe for well-being, as emotion researchers have found. For example, individuals with greater flexibility for experiencing both positive and negative emotions in their appropriate setting show greater resilience than those with less flexibility. Although Mirabel opens the movie with an upbeat introduction of the family powers, deflecting local children’s questions about her own, and although she initially tries to keep a stiff upper lip at her younger cousin’s miracle ceremony, instructing herself: "Don't be upset or mad at all. "Don't feel regret or sad at all." "And I'm fine, I am totally fine; I will stand on the side as you shine…" she swiftly admits in the next line: "I'm not fine, I'm not fine." She goes on to express her frustration that she does not have a magical gift and is tired of "waiting on a miracle."

Perhaps it is exactly because she lives on the outskirts of the miraculous dynasty that Mirabel has the ability sees things as they are, not how they ideally ought to be. Thus, she alone can see the literal/metaphorical cracks in the family house/mythology long before anyone else does (except the self-exiled Bruno). Her Abuela finds her concerns threatening and sharply reprimands her that she is imagining them, or even worse, causing the trouble herself.

Mirabel, undaunted, bravely tracks down Bruno’s initial vision and helps her family members come to terms with their individual and collective vulnerabilities. They desire to be fully human instead of super-human. Luisa sometimes feels weak or like crying; Isabella wants to imagine a world that includes cacti as well as roses ("It’s not symmetrical or perfect, but it’s beautiful and it’s mine"). This budding (!) awareness ultimately filters up to Abuela, whose own traumatic past has led her to define herself and her family purely in terms of their magical powers, and have lead them in turn, to fear disappointing her.

The most poignant moment in the film comes in a raw retelling of Abuela’s early experience of displacement in Colombia, as her husband and the father of her infant triplets is killed in front of her. She apologizes to Mirabel, "And I’m sorry I held on too tight, just so afraid I’d lose you too." It is a moment that so many of us might crave but never fully experience: a parent or grandparent realizing the psychological damage that their own defenses may have inadvertently caused and apologizing for them. The Madrigals ultimately rebuild their beloved “casita” with the help of their community, and this time, it is Mirabel who reignites the magic with her whole family around her. The film is brimming with powerful psychological insights.

Ignoring or attempting to forget painful experiences is not usually an adaptive strategy.

The very act of attempting to suppress unwanted thoughts can lead to what psychologists call “ironic rebound” (the late Dan Wegner would ask you not to think about a white bear. Try it. How’s it going?) because we must continually identify thoughts and feelings we are trying to avoid to sidestep them, we may become all the more aware of them when we are stressed, tired or otherwise overloaded. Distressing memories may come back to haunt us even more strongly than they might have had we looked them in the eye. When trauma is acknowledged, it can be integrated into our own life narrative in a way that enables us to both feel and reflect, and to move forward productively. Some work shows that writing or talking about a traumatic experience allows us to create a meaningful story that helps transform emotional pain into an opportunity for growth.

Importantly, sharing one’s distress with others is a crucial way to garner social and emotional support. If no one knows you are suffering, they cannot help you heal. Having access to social support offsets myriad emotional difficulties from post-partum depression to suicidal ideation. We evolved in community; it takes a village to help the Madrigals rebuild their home (“Lay down your load” they sing in unison as they offer their services.) On a related note, it is commonly assumed that crying per se can be cathartic for the crier, but some research suggests that crying is most beneficial when it is done in the presence of sympathetic others. The functional value of tears is to be comforted—it is a signal, from infancy, that something is amiss and needs soothing or addressing.

Intergenerational transmission of traumatic loss is a real phenomenon.

Many clinical psychologists have studied “legacies of silence” that follow traumatic experiences, such as the many devastating losses Jewish families experienced at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. My own Polish grandmother escaped from Europe to New York, after the Nazis took Poland and killed her father in the street. In her attempt to escape the pain of her own unimaginable losses, she then failed to truly acknowledge the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack and in doing so, prevented my mother from grieving his loss. Children are exquisitely attuned to the emotional “rules” of the household and are quick to learn what they are not supposed to know or talk about (Bruno included). They are also motivated to bear up under difficult conditions to protect their parents’ emotional vulnerabilities, just as the family members in Encanto felt pressure to be perfect for their Abuela, who herself was trying to bear up under her own traumatic loss.

Worth noting here as well is the research on epigenetics (the idea that life circumstances can impact genetic expression), which has shown that parents who experience traumatic experiences, such as war, can impact their children not just by way of nurture but also by passing down an impaired genetic response to stress. The downstream effects of trauma run deep, literally.

Being strong is overrated.

Luisa’s plight has resonated with many viewers—the pressure to always be the strong one who can shoulder others’ burden (literally donkeys and churches but the metaphor is clear), as she sings, “Give it to your sister, your sister’s stronger. See if she can hang on a little longer. Who am I if I can’t carry it all?” The danger of idealizing endless strength in the face of adversity is that we may underestimate the underlying stress it can cause and avoid support-seeking. This issue cuts across many populations—for example, research has shown that attempting to embody a “strong black woman” stereotype, which characterizes Black women as stoic and self-sacrificing, is associated with “self-silencing” which in turn predicts depression.

Further, the “model minority” stereotype of Asian Americans, which presumes they are uniformly competent and content, is clearly at odds with the emotional realities of any human being and can obscure mental health struggles as well as the motivation to seek therapeutic intervention. Finally, men as a group are socialized to avoid both feelings and expressions of vulnerability at a cost to their own mental health. They are also less likely to seek social support, and more prone than women to so-called externalizing behavior such as substance use and aggression.

[Ironically, if not surprisingly, not only was it apparently an uphill battle to make Luisa’s character so muscular, but the merchandising around Encanto has focused primarily on the more traditional females—the slim Disney-esque beauty, Isabella, and the spunky and youthful Mirabel. Luisa is apparently less heavily featured, although children are clamoring for her image more than the others. Despite the film’s lesson to just be yourself, the powers that be seem to have clung to traditional "rules" of who might be appealing to viewers. It is definitely time to give up that particular beauty mythology, and recognize that strong, loveable, and in-need-of-a-vacation Luisa was going to garner as much if not more admiration than the others.

Stories are powerful.

Just as the stories that families tell themselves about who they are can be powerfully persuasive, so too can stories about such stories. As therapists have noted, the movie can function as a lens through which to understand our own struggles more clearly, particularly if there are strong similarities and points of identification (that is, Latina women who are first-generation). And, often the best stories allow us to move from the specific to the general (as my media psychology colleague Melanie Green would point out); I saw my own grandmother’s plight in Abuela’s because they shared a story of exile, devastating loss, and rebuilding. We can expand our empathic horizons for both others and ourselves by transporting into narratives and identifying with characters who have something to teach us.

During a time when so many of us are attempting to cope with ongoing losses of loved ones, of social life and activities, and of a basic confidence in a healthy, secure future, we would do well to admit we’re not fine. And in doing so, we may pave the way for self-compassion, social support, and resilience. As Bruno, via talent extraordinaire Lin-Manuel Miranda, wisely instructs us: "Let it in, let it out, let it rain, let it snow, let it go..."

References

Many thanks to Vassar students Abigail Straus and Alice Aldoukhov, and to my colleagues at Vassar and SUNY New Paltz, Sue Trumbetta and Doug Maynard, for their helpful suggestions!

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