I just saw the new Disney movie, Frozen. Have you seen it? It has received high praise this year, and rightly so. It’s a beautiful story and very well-done. There were a number of elements in the story that I found very meaningful, though much of that is probably because I am a therapist and hopelessly trapped in that mindset when I watch movies. 🙂 I know the internet has been buzzing with lots of opinions about the movie, supposed hidden agendas, and endless comment streams about its value. Let me say right away that I loved the movie. This is not a case of Kirk Voss vs. Frozen or Disney. Rather, as a therapist, I am constantly creating and hunting for metaphors to help people understand themselves. It is in that light that I put these thoughts together. Frozen serves as an excellent vehicle to describe human nature.
Before I start in about the movie, let me explain something about how we heal emotionally. When I work with people who have endured intense grief and loss, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce, I often discuss my belief that they need to heal BY grieving, not by avoiding pain and grief. And yet, so many feel that in order to function or survive, they simply cannot face the pain welling up inside. So they “put their heart in the freezer.” By so doing, they stop feeling the hurt, focusing instead on functionality and daily tasks or immersing themselves in temporary distractions like work, sleep, sarcasm, anger, embitterment, new relationships, media, or addictions. Is it healthy? No. Does it help them survive for now? Yes.
For some people, this existence is all they feel they can hope for. But the underlying grief and pain must be processed sooner or later. What often happens is that people with hearts “in the freezer” continue “getting by” and functioning (sometimes seemingly very well) until the day comes when they want to “use their heart” again. Perhaps a new companion starts getting closer, a child wants a stronger connection, or they want to feel more creative passion than mere survival allows. So they try to access their “heart,” only to find that it must be thawed-out before it is available.
This “thawing” process takes days for some, months for others, but almost always brings with it the pain they had tucked away and chosen not to face. And then, like a bad cavity that has finally come near the root of a tooth, warmth and active use bring stinging sensitivity.
Faced with that returning pain, some STILL won’t face it, determining to simply continue on with minimal feeling and protective walls, much like a freezer. I’ve met these people –many of them forget how much feeling they once had, and if ever reminded, quickly build another wall or push people away to avoid it.
Others face the hurt by processing and healing. And when they have finally “grieved” by facing their feelings, their pain fades to acceptance, giving them, once more, full access to their hearts.
With that foundation, let’s get into Frozen.
Queen Elsa repressed a part of herself for much of her life. With good intent, her parents guided her to repress her abilities so she wouldn’t be dangerous or uncontrolled. For years, she held it in, all the while hearing her parents say, and telling herself, the message: “Conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show.”
For Elsa, it was the power of ice, but for many people, it’s the power of emotion.
How often do we hear parents flippantly say to a child who has fallen on a soccer field or stumbled on a stage, “Get up, shake it off, stop crying, be strong”? Is that any different than what Elsa was told? Culturally, I feel boys especially are told this message, and are then given positive reinforcement when they “toughen up” and feel less. The same message may come later, to boys and girls, if parents or peers fear the emotion they exhibit, and in an effort to make it easier, tell the kid to “Stop being so dramatic, stop feeling depressed, just stop worrying, don’t be so vulnerable.” In other words, “just get over it.” So boys and girls alike will often repress hurt, anxiety, depression, or loneliness—because they don’t want to disappoint or distance others from their lives—all the while thinking that those feelings will eventually fade away. Sound familiar? Kids carry that pattern into adulthood, assume it’s normal, and later repeat the same advice to their own children.
For years, Elsa repressed her ability by repressing her feelings, until coronation day, when she reached her breaking point, shattering her protective dam. Though this shift away from repression needed to happen, Elsa had been counseled for so long to AVOID her emotion and ability that she was never given the chance to prepare to live WITH it.
The pendulum had broken free from its polarized perch and quickly swung high in the other direction. Elsa ran away from the arms of people who loved her, because, among other things, they reminded her of past feelings. She began to understand the freedom she was finally tasting as she ran into the mountains, singing the famous song, “Let it Go.”
Who can blame Elsa for feeling excited? She had a right to remove the unhealthy bonds that had held her down, reinforced by her parents and herself. I love the song as it speaks of letting go of things that unfairly hold us back.
But I can’t help but feel that, as beautiful as the song is, its message is really a stepping-stone toward health, and can actually be a “fool’s errand” if people stop there in their quest for growth. The lyrics read, “let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore…. I don’t care what they’re going to say, let the storm rage on…. It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all…. It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through; no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free! Let it go, let it go.” At this point in the movie, many rebellious teens and imbalanced/embittered adults begin to feel empowered and justified by the beautiful music.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a beautiful song, and when I put my therapy eyes away, I really do love the music. But when we take Elsa’s song and apply it to ourselves, or our partners, or our children, it starts to sound familiar in other ways:
When a teenager rebels, for example, parents usually see it as selfish, disrespectful, naive, or defiant. Yet the rebelling teen almost always has an unspoken or unheard emotion that is genuinely driving them (depression, craving acceptance, anxiety, loneliness, hurt), and sees their rebellion as “breaking free” from rules and fears that once held them bound. They choose to “test the limits and break through [because there’s] no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free!” This swings their pendulum high in the opposite direction, and with a fervor equal to or greater than their initial core hurt, they break rules and act recklessly.
When a partner bottles-up, represses, or is never given the chance to fully heal from abuse, anger, anxiety, or hurt, they may begin to feel incomplete, unhappy, misunderstood, or detached. They may become depressed, irritable, or increasingly distant. Then, in a moment of despair or weakness, they may cling to the idea of finding relief from their feelings by “letting go” of moral restriction, social norms, or personal expectation. And it IS exciting and different to step away from those restrictions, but is it a permanent solution? So swings the pendulum, and marriages are abandoned, faith is discarded, and adults do things they never would have done previously (affairs, addictions, selfishness), all in the name of escape from unhealed core feelings.
Running away isn’t healing.
Elsa learned that, too.
What we need is to heal our core feelings, and no amount of running away, breaking rules, or dropping morals will bring that to pass. We NEED to feel, to be validated, to have connection, to find relief from our pain and anxiety—but we need to learn ways to heal WITH our emotions.
Elsa believed her separation from others would not only satisfy her needs, but harm no one. That was far from true. Her distance, like our own, can have significant impact on those we love.
Even when Elsa is in her “liberated state” in her ice castle, she STILL tells herself not to feel emotion, and when her sister, Anna, arrives, all of the emotions that she assumed were “long since behind her” were stirred back up—and she felt just as uncomfortable and imprisoned as before. Because she had still not learned to heal and cope WITH them, those feelings surged out of control once again. The wise trolls had prophesied that her powers (and in our case, our emotions) would grow, that there would be beauty in them so long as she learned to control them, but that fear would be her enemy. The most obvious implication is that others’ fear would be her enemy—that she would one day be threatened by them. But in reality, her enemies included her OWN fear of her powers (and in our case, our emotions).
We shouldn’t fear, run from, or repress our emotions.
Like Elsa, when we fear and avoid our own selves, we stop growing and healing.
As the movie nears its climax, we learn that “an act of true love is what will heal a frozen heart.” While essentially synonymous, I think of that concept of “true love” as being our “genuine, core emotional selves.” Like the “heart in a freezer” metaphor I mentioned before, our “thawing out” and subsequent healing process can only take place once we turn to face our core emotions.
Elsa finally stopped running away, embraced her powers and feelings, and returned to the people who loved her. To me, THAT is the meaning of truly “letting it go.” In the true sense of healing, we must let go of our own walls, resistance to vulnerability, and unhealthy emotional repression. Then we can experience emotion, heal, and learn from our feelings. Our pendulum finds its balanced place in the middle.
That’s the genuine freedom that the song begins to lead us toward.