Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Disney's "Frozen": Why Elsa Matters

I have a few posts planned in reflection on the new Disney movie, "Frozen." For this post though, I want to talk a bit about why I identify with the character of Elsa in "Frozen" and why characters like her matter.  (Note: while I do not tell you exactly what happens in the movie, there are spoilers and the ending will not be a surprise.) Simply, I like her because she shows how scary it is to be taught to fear yourself and be told you might hurt the people you love just by being who you are. This happens when you live through abuse and trauma in many different forms.

My son says Elsa is like me because: "She is scared of herself, that she might hurt someone she loves with her power. She has to learn to love and trust herself, and then she is ok."

Photo from Disney's blog.
For me, Elsa is an important character not just because she needs to learn to accept herself the way she is, but because the writers show through her just how devastating and terrifying it is to fear your own soul. There is no terror and sadness like that of thinking you are bad when you do not want to be. It leads to a type of self-sacrifice and shame that actually makes you unable to heal. On accident, Elsa's parents taught her to be afraid of herself and taught her that the only way to protect others was to sacrifice herself. They shut her off from the world and gave her the mantra "conceal, don't feel, don't let it show." She becomes filled with fear, never learns to have compassion for herself, never learns to control her power, and thus she never knows love and belonging. This is a trauma for Elsa that makes her use the only survival she has ever been taught, that of shutting herself away and attempting to shut off her own emotions. No one trusts that she can be safe and thus she never learns how to control her own emotions or use her gifts well.

This can be seen in the song, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?":

Many people can relate to this archetype, especially people who have been physically or emotionally abused and were told they deserved the abuse because they were "bad." I am glad we finally have a character in mainstream media that shows how trauma can effect you and that bad behavior does not mean you are a bad person. (Which is why I also love Elphaba from Wicked.) My son says the most important line in the movie Frozen is in the song "Fixer Upper," which the trolls sing. They say: "People make bad choices if they're mad or scared or stressed." For some people if they are scared enough, even their ability to make a choice and control the fear is compromised. I feel like this scene from the movie best shows Elsa's fear and how much she wants to never hurt anyone. However, she was never allowed to learn to work with her gifts and abilities, so they remain largely uncontrolled. Elsa assumes she is out of control because she is bad, but really, no one ever gave her the tools to be in control. ("For the First Time in Forever, Reprise.")

Frozen seems to also illustrate Dr. Brene Brown's research on vulnerability, fear, and shame. Shame, the belief that "I am bad," is what destroys people because it takes away the things we most need in life: love, belonging, and connection. I see Anna and Elsa both, in the end, as saving themselves by learning the components of true love. I am going to challenge the typical definition of true love (selfless love for another person, often a romantic love) and say that I think true love is radical compassion. Compassion for others and for yourself. Anna's love came from learning to have compassion for someone that was struggling, even though they hurt you. Elsa's love came from learning compassion for herself, which I do not think was only due to Anna's act of true love in the end of the movie. Elsa started on the path of self compassion when she chose to "let it go" and be herself. She then needed the act of love (compassion) on Anna's part to round out that self compassion. She had to learn that she could be herself within a community of people, as long as that community was compassionate and did not vilify her. No one can live well and be healthy in a community that has no compassion for you. Anna's act of love taught the whole community to be loving and shame-free.

If you do not have compassion, you are unable to accept and truly love yourself or anyone else. Without compassion we engage in shaming and blaming ourselves and others, rather than seeing life as fluid and full of mistakes and success. Shame, blame, and fear keep us from healing. How could Elsa ever even think she could control her emotions if she believed she was inherently bad?

I find that in treatment for mental illness, compassion is frequently left out of the equation, and shame is the norm. No one ever learns to heal themselves and understand their mind when other people shame them and tell them they are a bad person.

Trauma is a main contributor to mental illness for most of us (and trauma looks different for every person.) We did whatever we had to do to survive, and sometimes those survival skills don't work well in the rest of our life, but they are the only skills we know and they are the only response our brains are programmed to go to. Compassionate treatment tells us that we are not bad and that our brains just have not learned yet how to survive in other ways now that the trauma is gone or now that we have some agency in how we interact with that trauma due to being an adult. Sadly, most treatment focuses on shaming us for our behavior rather than getting to the reasons behind the behavior and teaching us how to reprogram our brain from old survival responses to new, more healthy survival responses. Bad therapy and treatment is basically what Elsa's parents accidentally did to her. Good therapy and treatment looks more like the relationship between Elsa and Anna. Anna did not continue to shame and blame Elsa, but rather saw that Elsa was struggling and helped lead her to self compassion and better ways to survive.


Rev. Katie

Monday, January 6, 2014

Will 2014 Be the Year of Mental Illness Awareness?

Friends shared two article with me recently that call for mental illness awareness in 2014. This is exciting!

In First Up, Mental Illness. The Next Topic is Up To You, Nicholas Kristof says mental illness is the issue that needs more awareness and advocacy in 2014. Kristof states:

"So, if we want to tackle a broad range of social pathologies and inequalities, we as a society have to break taboos about mental health. There has been progress, and news organizations can help accelerate it. But too often our coverage just aggravates the stigma and thereby encourages more silence."

Kristof advocates for more truthful and comprehensive reporting about mental health, increasing proper care for mental illness, and talking about the realities of how prevalent mental illness is and that it is treatable and not to be feared.

Then in the article A Phrase to Renounce in 2014: "The Mentally Ill," Carey Goldberg eloquently lays out an argument for why we should no longer call people "the mentally ill" and how we need to use person first language. Saying "the mentally ill" implies that people with mental illness are separate than everyone else, other, which increases fear and misunderstanding. Goldberg notes something he learned from people with mental illness (peer specialists):

"Some newly minted peer specialists sat me down and re-educated me about the wrongness of using 'the mentally ill' and the rightness of using 'people first' language. A person is not defined by a diagnosis, they said. If you have a mental illness it doesn't define you any more than your heart disease defines you if you're a cardiac patient. A person is a person who happens to have depression or schizophrenia; the correct term is 'people with mental illness.'"

Both of these articles are well worth the read. I really do hope that mental illness advocacy is a focus of 2014. We have a long way to go until those of us with mental illness are not feared, victimized, hated, left untreated, and daily made fun of in our society.


Rev. Katie