7 Things Disney's "Encanto" Tells Us About Healthy Families
Movies can be excellent tools for self-directed growth and counselor-supported therapy. They provide mirrors of personal experience and relationship dynamics, as well as illustrations of what to do (or not to do). They are also good starting points for conversations about wellness, especially for sensitive topics hard to introduce on a regular day.
One such movie is Disney's 60th animated offering "Encanto."
At first glance, the story of Encanto is about a young Columbian girl, Mirabel Madrigal, who is coping with being different from the rest of her family. Unlike Frozen's Elsa, Mirabel is not the magical one. Instead, she appears to be the only one skipped by the Miracle, a force that has blessed each member of the Madrigal family with magical gifts. The Miracle had helped the older generations of the Encanto community, Mirabel's grandmother Abuela Alma included, move forward with life after being displaced by violence from their home.
The specific magical gifts each Madrigal family member receive are not as relevant to the plot as what they symbolize. Instead of being powers, the gifts characterize roles people end up playing in their families. There is the strong one (Luisa), the perfect one (Isabel), the weird one (Bruno), the funny one (Camillo), the emotional one (Pepa), the nurturing one (Julieta), the family baby (Antonio), and the one-who-hears-more-than-she-understands (Dolores). Using a magical setting, Encanto unpacks how family trauma can create intergenerational ripples of pain and repression, how roles and expectations are double-edged swords, and how being the emotional center is arguably the strongest power a family member can possess.
Here are 7 Things we Learn about Healthy Family Systems from Disney's Encanto.
1. Healthy families provide the safe space to explore identity.
The theme of being true to one's self is not new in animated movies. But whereas most stories make self-discovery and self-love primarily self-work, Encanto showed how families can support or hinder identity development. Expectations from the family, whether voiced or implied, subtle or loud, influence our felt comfort to be true to who we are.
Expectations are not inherently bad. Arguably, there are no relationships without expectations, and pursuing the needs of the whole do require sacrifice from its individual members. But when expectations create pressure to conform to a role at the expense of well-being or growth, as with the case of Luisa who felt she is "worthless if she is not of service" , Pepa who had to always watch out if she is "clouding" or Isabela who has to be "perfect", expectations become burdens that take its toll.
Healthy families can strike a balance between communicating expectations and allowing room to negotiate said expectations. When children are young, parents primarily become formators of their children's values, attitudes, and to a certain extent personality. But over the course of time, individual family members need to go through the process of being their own person. This requires the family to be a safe place to explore one's authentic Self.
2. We are more than the roles we play.
A powerful line in Lin-Manuel Miranda's excellent soundtrack is on how "stars don't shine, they burn." Even if the roles we play in our families are of our own choosing, fulfilling these roles do consume energy. And we need to be conscious that we are more than the roles we play, and our loved ones are more than the roles they have. Constellations do shift --- roles can be shared from time to time, new roles can be created, and members can even swap roles amongst themselves.
In dysfunctional families, roles have sometimes become rigid in order to "save" the family in some way. Take an over-functioning mother, for example. She may have had to be that because of an under-functioning spouse. Or the funny one may have had to play the family clown because the atmosphere is so toxic at home sometimes, there has to be someone that lightens the mood. A child may become an overachiever to restore honor in their home, as his elder brother is the Black Sheep.
But deep inside, how many of our strong ones --- the "taga-salo" in Filipino families, wish they can rest or be the ones taken cared of for a change? How many family comics hope you take them seriously too, or that the burden of being the family distraction be carried by somebody else? How many achievers realize they need not define their worth by the GPA?
Healthy families see persons, not roles.
3. We transmit healthy --- and unhealthy --- patterns of behaving across generations.
Family systems are very much a product of their history. And this is both for good and for bad. Good coping can be passed from one generation to another; take the case of parents who learned the value of hard work and actively taught their children to earn their excess. But unhealthy patterns can also be intentionally or unknowingly passed from one generation to the next.
Abuela Alma is a good person and a good matriarch. There are no villains in Encanto, everyone is just a human being finding their way. But she went through hardship and possibly trauma, and this has created a way of being that may not be as understandable outside of its original context. Losing her husband in a tragic way, having had to raise three babies, being the head of a whole community in the stage of rebuilding --- this takes superhuman strength. Forced to be strong all alone, she may have gotten overly attached to what has helped her survive: the Miracle.
The "Miracle" need not be something magical. It can represent anything that has helped us cope. It can represent our reputation, certain people in our life, or a forced ability to not cry when things are tough. After a trauma, these temporary coping may become rigid, and may seem more important than anything else in life. Abuela was helped by the Miracle, but over time her need to show that she is worthy of the Miracle's gifts (and perhaps the sacrifice of her husband) has eclipsed everything else. Even when she no longer has to work so hard, she forced herself to --- and compelled the rest of her family to do so as well.
The impact of history on our family can be unnoticed, but can be explored when we watch our reactivities. A family who tends to be overreactive to even the slight insult for example may have a story that can be explored. When there are things that we do not understand in our parents or grandparents, instead of reacting we can do better to understand the context where they are coming from. Many times understanding our family's past can help us develop some objective distance from our families dysfunctional knee-jerk reactions to things, which is important in deciding the way forward.
4. The elephant in the room needs to be acknowledged.
Family secrets can be very toxic things, in worse ways than what an animated film for children should show.
"We don't talk about Bruno" (even while quietly always talking about him) illustrates how families can have secrets. In Encanto, the secret is Bruno: the weird one whose gift doesn't seem benefit the whole. He has left the family for 10 years, and yet instead of people talking about the pain of the loss, or worrying if he is okay wherever he is, or even discussing how to bring him back home, they seem to have cut him off. They have even dehumanized him in some ways, speaking about him solely in terms of his doomsday prophecies.
There are families who hide secrets. This may be a member with mental illness or addiction, someone in prison, unplanned pregnancies or debt. At worse, some families hide or tolerate physical and sexual abuse. Family secrets speak of a culture of intolerance for weakness, a culture of silence or toxic shame.
Family secrets may mean a family would need more support to sort out their challenges. But breaking a family's denial of the secret is the first step to family wellness.
5. The emotional center is very powerful.
Fans of Encanto know that Mirabel is special --- just not in the way every other Madrigal is. And her power is not something gifted by the Miracle. Instead, her power is her ability to bring the family together. Mirabel is able to empathize with others in her family, seeing them for who they are outside of what they project or what has been projected upon them. Further, she genuinely appreciates her amazing family, even if she doesn't shine as brightly as they do.
Mirabel's power lies in being the emotional center of the family. The whole theme of the show is that they need a new foundation --- a way of saying they need to recognize history, break its unhelpful legacy, and start anew. When Casita revealed the drawing the image on the front door of their new home, it showed Maribel at the center of the family. She is the tie that binds.
In families, we also have emotional centers --- and we can all aspire to be more emotionally resonant with one another. Often those perceived as the weakest family member like Mirabel --- those with presenting mental health problems for example --- are the most empathic of family members. They can be very powerful in pulling everyone together, as they tend to be the most sensitive one at home.
Healthy families can balance tasks and feelings, pressure and support, intimacy and independence.
6. Family needs to be connected to the community.
When the Madrigal's magical home was destroyed, and the family members' gifts also disappeared, it seemed hopeless and alone. That is, until the townsfolk they have so passionately helped through time came to their aid, reminding them that they are just "down the road."
Family systems do not exist in a vacuum. They are a part of bigger systems. Healthy families are connected to their neighborhood, extended family, churches, local governments, and even their country. When you care about the community, you are also supported by the community. Your relationship with the outside world is a healthy give-and-take that helps you survive tough times.
7. Families are resilient.
And perhaps the most important lesson of all: no matter how bad things may be at the moment, families can learn, adapt, heal, and move forward.
There are no inherently bad families, only families who may need to find new ways of being. Since in family systems, each part affects everyone else and the whole, we do not really need for everyone to change to create ripples of positive changes. It can start with one person doing something differently.
Did you like Encanto? What lesson about your family did you take from it?