The Problem With Disney’s Frozen: Being a Savvy Counselor in an Emotionally Complex World

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Greetings all!

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve got a lot of new and exciting things to write about, so bear with me while I get them all posted.

For today, I’ll be talking about that wonder of mystical wonders, the recent and (purportedly) feminist icon of a film, Frozen. Now, I fully realize I’m probably stepping on quite a number of frosty toes here, so before you barrage me with indignance, allow me to explain. There are quite a number of well-written articles on why Frozen isn’t as feminist as it appears at first glance, but discussing the relative feminism of Frozen is not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about counseling.

So what does Frozen have to do with Counseling? Well, quite a lot actually. Frozen is a story about two girls who experience some pretty intense and damaging things in their lives (the death of their parents, Elsa’s realization that she’s a danger to herself and others, and Anna’s loss of her sister, just for starters). While I don’t anticipate encountering any ice queens in my office, issues like these can cause some pretty big difficulties in a young girl’s life. So it’s actually quite likely that people like Elsa and Anna will end up in our offices sooner or later. It can become easy to get caught up in the “magic” when Disney movies start to play, so I’ll break down the movie into (not-fully-comprehensive-but-good-enough) bullet points for you, along with the emotional allegory that the movie implies, from my point of view as a counselor:

  • Elsa discovers that she has magical ice powers (Elsa discovers that she sometimes has strong feelings)
  • Elsa accidentally hurts her sister with her ice powers (Elsa expresses her feelings in a way that is hurtful to Anna)
  • Elsa and Anna are taken to some trolls, who tell Elsa that she is very dangerous, that she almost killed her sister, that she’ll need to conceal her powers from now on, and that Anna’s memory will have to be erased (Elsa is told that it is not okay for her to have these feelings and express them, and the fact that she has these feelings is glossed over and not talked about or acknowledged)
  • Elsa is hidden away inside the castle, and her sister is forbidden from seeing her (Elsa is required to keep her feelings hidden so that everyone else will be okay, and her sister isn’t allowed to see that Elsa has these feelings)
  • Elsa’s and Anna’s parents die unexpectedly, and Elsa has to become queen and somehow not freeze the land she’s ruling (suddenly, Elsa is an adult and, even though her parents aren’t around to reinforce the message that she can’t have strong feelings, she still believes she can’t have them and that pushing them down will protect people)
  • Elsa freezes the land she’s ruling (Elsa slips up and lets her strong emotions out, and people respond by rejecting her, just as she’d feared they would)
  • Elsa runs away, builds a snow castle, and sings “Let It Go” (Elsa decides she’s tired of living according to others’ rules, and embraces her feelings…sort of…we’ll get back to this.)
  • Anna shows up and tells Elsa that everything is frozen, and Elsa gets very upset because she’s hurt everyone after all (Anna tells Elsa that her emotional outburst hurt people, and Elsa feels despair because she feels guilt for having hurt people)
  • Elsa sends a snow beast after Anna (Elsa’s guilt and anger lead her to lash out at her sister)
  • Elsa is captured and brought back to the castle as a prisoner (people label Elsa as emotionally unstable, and therefore someone who needs to be put in her place, because of her emotional outbursts)
  • Elsa escapes and tries to fix things, but ends up stabbing an ice spear through her sister’s heart (Elsa tries to make it better, but learns that she doesn’t know how to reverse the damage that her emotional outbursts have caused)
  • Elsa figures out that love is what will thaw the ice and save her sister (the way to heal the damage caused by strong emotional outbursts is through love)

With me so far?  Yes, I’ve left pieces of this out, and yes I’ve focused mostly on Elsa, but it will make sense shortly.

This sounds like a nice narrative…until you realize that it’s not real.  You may be saying, “well of course it’s not, it’s a Disney movie.”  But once again, bear with me.

Let me boil down this story a bit:

A girl is shamed for her feelings, and sanctioned for even the smallest display of anger, or similarly strong and “negative” emotions.  She is taught to hide her feelings, fear her feelings, and fear herself. She is forbidden from ever displaying these feelings by all of the authority figures in her life.  She never learns to feel things in a healthy way, and instead bottles them up inside, hiding from people and trying to be perfect.  And then, suddenly, her parents die and she is expected to take over all of the responsibilities of being an adult.  All of her life she has been told how to behave, how to feel, and now there is nobody around to tell her anything anymore.  But she still has this pressure to be perfect, to never feel “negative” emotions, and especially not to express them. 

Sounds horrible right?  Sounds like a great reason to seek therapy.  But the story continues:

The girl gets angry at someone, and everyone sees it.  They shame her too, just like her parents did.  She can’t handle her “failure,” and runs away, trying to get away from the pressure.  When she’s gained some distance, it gets worse.

Have you ever stopped to listen to the lyrics of “Let it Go”…?  The song contains choice phrases, such as:

  • “No right, no wrong, no rules for me”
  • “You’ll never see me cry”
  • “The past is in the past”
  • (and my personal favorite): “The cold never bothered me anyway”

Alright, now let’s all put our therapist hats on.  You have a client that comes into your office and says that she was shamed and silenced her whole life, that her parents just died, that she is completely estranged from her only living relative, that she has no friends, everyone she knows hates her, that she’s hurt everyone she’s ever been close to, and that now she’s completely self-isolating with no intention of ever building up a social life again.  And she’s saying things like “you’ll never see me cry,” “the past is in the past,” “there’s no right or wrong,” and “[strong feelings] never bothered me anyway.”

I don’t know about you all, but I would be looking into a long future of slowly working with this client through the process of uncovering the grief, the anger, the pain, the guilt, the shame, and the realization that she had never really been given a chance to be a healthy, happy person.

But this isn’t what happens at all.  Elsa doesn’t sit in her ice castle and grieve.  She doesn’t feel her feelings.  She suppresses them.  “The cold never bothered me anyway.”  It’s all right there.  Her whole life has been a spiral of shame surrounding her ice powers (feelings) and now she’s saying that her powers (her feelings) never bothered her anyway.  That’s pretty classic denial if you ask me.

I’d love to say that the movie gets better after this…but it really doesn’t.  Elsa realizes that her feeling still exist (snow beast) and is then forced to confront the people whose town she froze (whose feelings she hurt).  And when it seems like all hope is lost, she figures out what will undo all those years of neglect, shame, and bottled-up emotions.

Love.

….Really?  Love?  Aren’t we missing something?  Or maybe, several somethings? 

Here’s the real problem with frozen.  Up until this point, I think it could have been salvageable.  But instead of Elsa realizing that she needs to feel her feelings, feel her anger, feel her loneliness, feel her guilt and grief and sadness and pain, Elsa feels love.  And love makes all the other feelings go away.

Which, once again, is some pretty classic denial.

Because you can’t just love away anger.  You can’t love away what some would call abusive parenting, and what would almost certainly cause major childhood-attachment issues.  You can’t love away everyone you’ve ever known shaming you for your feelings.  It doesn’t work.

You know those kung-fu movies where the kid who has never practiced a martial art becomes a master in the span of a few intensely-filmed training shots that last about two minutes of real time?  I think this is what we sometimes expect in therapy.  It’s a nice thought—it would be great if we could bring clients into our offices, teach them to love (themselves, others, the world, whatever) and send them out beaming.  But therapy doesn’t work that way, and neither does real life.  We can’t move through the healing process if we skip all the middle steps.  We can’t learn to love ourselves and others if we try to jump there directly from crippling shame and guilt.  We have to realize what our feelings are, what caused them.  We usually have to get angry about them (and this process definitely isn’t a hurried one).  We have to feel sadness over the loss of the nurturing and support we were never given.  We have to learn to find resolution through our tears and our pounding fists and our despair.  We have to touch those wounded places in ourselves and, slowly, stitch the jagged edges closed again.  And we will always have scars.  Only then can we start moving on to love—love of ourselves, of our families, of those who hurt us.

Love doesn’t heal all.  Love is what waits for us when we’ve healed.  Because it’s the process of going through all the painful, messy, horrible steps that allows us to love ourselves, to have compassion for ourselves.

So why is this relevant to counselors (particularly to Naropa counselors, I might add)?  Because we so very want it to be a true story.  We want to jump from shame to love.  We don’t want the messy steps.  As counselors, we’re trained to know that we have to go through the messy steps.  But our clients aren’t taught this.  It’s our job to gently let them down into that realization, and support them when they get there.

I’ve heard a lot of therapist friends of mine espousing about the wonders of Frozen.  And sure, it has its good points.  But I think a lot of them missed this.  Even therapists want to believe in the healing powers of love.  And it’s true that our compassion and empathy for our clients can be tremendously healing.  But that doesn’t prevent the messy parts of healing.  It just makes them more bearable.

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If I Only Had a Brain: Media Portrayal of Mental Health Professionals

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We’ve all seen them in movies and TV shows–the heady, overly critical, frumpy old therapists who look at their clients through thick spectacles and expound upon the psychological horrors that only they think plausible. They’re usually portrayed as incompetent, overly analytical, and generally out of touch with reality.

Characters such as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest show a cold, remorseless approach to mental health, while others such as Sean Maguire in Goodwill Hunting display the belief that it’s expected for even good therapists to unload damaging counter transference onto their clients.  The list goes on: Dr. Thurman in Donnie Darko, Jack Nicholson in Anger Management, not to mention Anthony Hopkins’ incredibly creepy depiction of Hannibal Lecter.  The media is rampant with therapists who sleep with their clients, scream at their clients, betray their clients’ trust, even physically attack their clients.  And most of all, therapists in the media seem to have an uncanny knack for wrongly diagnosing clients, and consequently cause them countless miseries.

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Perhaps this provides people with comfortable distance from which to identify with the social fear this country seems to have of mental healthcare, but I find it rather troubling.  On the infrequent occasions that I do encounter a positive (or even accurate) depiction of a therapist in a film (such as in Lars and the Real Girl), I am reminded of how rare this sort of occurrence actually is.

So why does American media seem to hate mental health so much?

Well, to be honest, there are some good reasons for Psychology’s bad reputation.  I still find myself griping about Freud’s emphasis on sex, and shake my head at the gross ethical violations of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.  The field’s history is rife with unethical studies, instances of misinterpreting data to promote prejudiced views, and overall, there’s been a lot of misinformation.

Now, this is true for every field, but nobody seems to blame scientists for once believing that the earth was the center of the universe.  There are probably a couple of reasons for this.  First of all, people care less about the effects of research on the lives of mice than their own.  But furthermore, science is all about figuring out new and better ways to understand the world and accomplish things, which the United States is all about. Psychology, until recently, basically focused on figuring out what makes the mind break.  Strengths-based approaches are fairly new, and still haven’t really caught on in the popular view.

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I guess that means we have our work cut out for us.  On the other hand, we’re also at the very forefront of a new wave of psychology.  We’re the ones who get to show people that counselling isn’t mad science, and that the therapist’s office isn’t (necessarily) a petri  dish.

What do you think?  What will it take to shift the public attitude towards mental health into the realm of the healthy, instead of the horrifying?