Encanto is not the typical fantasy movie of a life full of roses and flawless superheroes. Disney has done an incredible job of grounding this story in the truth of what being human is all about. It is a work of art that brings to life psychological theories and common human phenomena through story-telling, genius song lyrics, and art.
It talks about common challenges that are not always spoken about: the impact of intergenerational trauma, cultural and societal pressures, perfectionism, and shame. It illustrates what it’s like to live with complex thoughts and feelings. It teaches about compassion and self-compassion, vulnerability, taking accountability, interconnectedness, forgiveness, acceptance of emotions, of others and ourselves. It is a powerful movie because it displays these themes accurately, and as viewers, we can see ourselves and each other in different characters and moments.
In this article, I am going to focus on two themes that Encanto sheds light on: living with the pressure to always be strong and to always be perfect. These are common themes that I come across repeatedly in both my personal life and therapeutic work with corporate employees and leaders from different industries.
Spoilers ahead! If you intend to watch the movie, stop reading here. For those who want to know more, on with the article…
Luisa has a magical gift of super-strength which she uses to move heavy objects, help others, and keep the town in order.
We all have unique qualities. We might be intelligent, diligent, calm, helpful, kind, etc. Encanto depicts a trap where sometimes these qualities move from describing parts of our character to defining our identity. We over-identify with these qualities, or people over-associate us with these qualities. We become ‘the calm one’, ‘the listener’, ‘the clever one’, ‘the responsible one’, ‘the sensitive one’, ‘the funny one’, etc.
Luisa becomes defined by her gift. Others see her as the strong and responsible one and expect her to fulfil this role. She expects the same of herself. However, when these traits define our identity in a rigid way, they can hinder us from being anything but our trait.
It is interesting that Encanto focuses on the quality of strength as a gift. It echoes the societal narrative to ‘be strong’ that has rippled across generations, genders, cultures and organisations. Many of us still carry the weight of this message as we are taught to: hide our emotions; be positive; don’t cry; don’t be dramatic or weak; pull our socks up; move on. This creates a myth that negative emotions and vulnerability are bad and shameful.
Luisa knows that she is incredibly strong, and how fantastic that she (and others) can celebrate this. Simultaneously, Luisa recognises that she sometimes feels vulnerable, tired and weak. However, it does not feel permissible or safe to reveal this because she fears disappointing others. Her worth has become defined by being strong and helping others, and she has lost touch with who she is beyond this. Therefore, it is scary to let go of ‘being strong’ as she has come to believe: ‘I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service’.
So, what does she do? Like many of us, Luisa hides how she feels, meets other people’s needs to the negligence of her own and keeps pushing because she believes she has no choice. Getting caught in this pattern can be isolating, as people remain oblivious to how we feel. There is also a limit to how much we can push ourselves until, as Luisa says, we crack or break. Our ‘cracking’ can manifest in many ways nowadays, such as getting repeatedly sick, struggling to concentrate, losing motivation, socially withdrawing, letting it out on others, feeling burnt out, anxious, or depressed.
I love how Luisa knows what she needs. Connecting with our intuition and inner wisdom of what we need is an important part of healing and what I support people with in therapy. Rather than always doing the heavy lifting for others, Luisa sings about wanting to have more freedom to experience pleasure, relax, and have fun.
Living by this requires that we muster the courage to drop our strong façade to be our authentic self so that we can rest and not be strong when we do not feel strong. This also requires flexibility in mindset, where we start to understand that not being strong does not imply that we are less than or weaker than others. Our worth goes beyond this.
Learning to listen to our emotions and aching body can help us start to express and meet our needs sooner, to say no, and ask for help. This can feel uncomfortable at first, when we are so used to being strong, independent and responsible for others. However, we can learn to allow ourselves to be helped and to not always carry emotional and practical burdens alone. There is a beautiful illustration of this as Luisa is eventually shown resting on a hammock and being supported by others to rebuild the town. They are sharing the burden together.
Isabela is considered the golden child who has a magical gift of creating beautiful flowers and plants everywhere she goes. She is seen as ‘senorita perfecta’, and similarly to Luisa, she becomes defined by this. To others, it looks like Isabela’s life has been a perfect dream since the moment she opened her eyes.
However, Isabela reveals that ‘so much hides behind my smile’. The movie accurately highlights the pain and entrapment that comes with perfectionism. Although being perfect can bring admiration and success, it is also riddled with fears of failing, not being good enough, and being a disappointment. These fears drive people to avoid making mistakes and to maintain their high standards at all costs. Indeed, the pressure to remain the golden child leaves Isabela feeling like she has no choice but to fulfil this role and like Luisa, she sacrifices what she wants to not let others down.
Isabela expresses her frustration with this: ‘I’m so sick of pretty, I want something true’. Deep down she is not free because she is unable to be herself. This is true of perfectionism and how it sadly stifles individuals’ and organisations’ innate creativity and freedom to try things and experiment, all of which are important aspects of innovation and growth.
Isabela asks ‘what could I do if I just knew it didn’t need to be perfect?’ This question is a gateway towards change. Once we become aware of the pros and cons of perfectionism, we can move towards exploring who we can be if we are not perfect all the time. To do this, Isabela rightly identifies that she needs to reconnect with how she feels in the moment. Indeed, looking inward can help us get in touch with our values and what we want to do and not just what we should do.
Isabela breaks through the constraints of perfectionism by experimenting and creating something new. To her surprise she creates a cactus, which she picks up gently to admire. I loved this scene. It represents a metaphor I share with my clients to explain acceptance of negative emotions and of parts of us we do not like. We cannot get rid of them and to accept them we need to learn how to make space for them and hold them gently inside of us. This is similar to how we need to hold a prickly cactus very gently, because if we squeeze it or forcefully try to get rid of it, we will hurt more. Isabela accepts the cactus as part of her when she says: ‘It’s not symmetrical or perfect. But it’s beautiful, and it’s mine’.
Stepping outside of our comfort zone can give us the opportunity to challenge beliefs that hold us back in the first place. We can learn that the bad things we anticipated by trying something different will not necessarily come true. Isabela learnt that even though the cactus she created was not perfect, she was still OK. When we develop psychological flexibility in this way it can improve our well-being and thrive even more, because our hard work is no longer driven by our fears of not being perfect but built on a foundation where we know that we are good enough already. This process is true of organisations too, as dropping the mindset of achieving perfect products and outcomes can make way for greater experimentation and creativity.
Encanto also illustrates the important role that others have in supporting us to break through these pressures and patterns. We all need to have the space to be held, seen, and heard; to be accepted as we are whether we feel OK or not. Although Mirabel, Isabela’s sister, was initially frustrated and jealous, she was able to be with Isabela in her anger and hurt, to accept and understand her needs and encourage her to explore her new freedom. We do not have to break through our patterns alone.
Encanto offers these learnings and so much more. If you watch it, notice what resonates with you. I will end with some final take-aways from Luisa and Isabela:
There is great strength in vulnerability
In letting go of perfection we can find freedom, creativity and joy
We can learn to accept all parts of ourselves and each other, prickly or beautiful
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