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What 'Encanto' Taught Me About Vulnerability and Relationships

Vulnerability is part of being a living, breathing human.

Key points

  • We get to know our strength by acknowledging limitations.
  • Vulnerability is the fertile ground for authentic relationships.
  • Normalizing vulnerability is key to improving self-esteem and self-worth.

The pandemic has left many of us retreating to the comfort of TV programs to temporarily escape yet another COVID surge. Over the years, Disney has shifted from portraying fairytales that are far from reality to capturing emotionally poignant stories that are relatable, maybe too relatable. Among many animated films, Encanto has left me with waves of tears and snoot when the main character Mirabel and Abuela Alma, the matriarch of the family, embraced each other. As a psychologist, I was curious about my reaction to the film, why was that moment the pinnacle of my emotions, so moving yet painful to take in? Knowing that intense emotions can impede one’s ability to reflect and think clearly, I decided to take a deeper look into Encanto and what it represented.

To unpack Encanto is like trying to find a correct response to the Rorschach. Each character is an archetype, unique and different from each other, just as their gifts; Isabela is elegant and can make flowers bloom, Luisa is strong and can move a mountain, Dolores hears everything from miles away, Bruno sees into the future. Over time, each character becomes “fused” with their strength, their identity becomes inseparable from the gift they possess, with no room for weakness or error. Isabela could not allow spontaneity, Luisa carefully concealed her weakness, Dolores felt ever more disconnected to others with her impeccable hearing, and Bruno cast himself away to steer his community away from danger. Above all, the matriarch of the family, Abuela Alma ruled her family with “tough love,” a familiar representation of intergenerational trauma that has been weaved into our family dynamics and cultural narratives.

It may sound familiar now, the same story unfolds in real life day in and day out: we receive positive feedback for our strength and capabilities, and over time we expect more and more from ourselves and dread the day that someone will find out what an "imposter" we are. This fear leaks into the workplace ("What if I say something stupid?"), pollutes our relationships ("I don’t want to burden friends with my issues, I’m the person who is always there for others"), and chips away at our self-esteem ("If I’m not good at what I do, then I’m worthless"). I have encountered many patients who suffered from work stress and relationship issues, yet the issue is the fear of vulnerability at the core, an unthinkable reality of being truly seen by another person. We live in a society where only a fraction of ourselves is considered “presentable”: happy family photo, big promotion on LinkedIn, Instagramable fitness post. It is a culture that shuts off vulnerability; or rather, we say vulnerability is a positive thing just as broccoli is good for your health, but do you eat it?

 Ron Lach/Pexels
Source: Ron Lach/Pexels

It begins to make sense why when Mirabel and her Abuela embraced each other in the face of powerlessness, a lump in my throat erupted into tears. At that moment, things felt out of control, the Madrigal was on the verge of losing their magic. It was also the moment when Abuela Alma finally allowed herself to get in touch with her vulnerability, the sadness and despair of losing her loved one, and the fear of having to relive the excruciating pain. When we reject our vulnerability, we reject part of ourselves, we disconnect from the world around us.

I have seen anxiety and depression fester in patients’ lives when there is difficulty in acknowledging limitations or holding vulnerability with kindness. I have met patients who could not fathom criticizing others yet would whisper things that are so incredibly cruel and mean to themselves. We beat ourselves up for not being able to get the next promotion or find the perfect partner, the list goes on and on. What price are you paying for always being strong? We feel vulnerable asking someone out for a date, we feel vulnerable turning to others for help, we feel vulnerable speaking in front of a roomful of people. Faced with vulnerability, you have two choices, turning away into avoidance mode, or embracing discomfort as a sign of life expanding.

With COVID rampaging the streets and uncertainty ahead of us, I encourage you to take a look at how much you have adapted and adjusted over the past two years. How could one keep up with the pressure of being the “perfect” parent, employee, or partner at this unprecedented time? My advice is to lose the word “perfect” from your vocabulary. If there is any takeaway from my writing, it is not to dismiss the strength within us, but to acknowledge challenges and difficulties one has to overcome the next time you offer words of encouragement to a child, a friend, or a partner.

For more on vulnerability, refer to the following Ted talk by Dr. Brené Brown.

Copyright Alina Liu, PsyD