Therapist Thoughts: Disney's Encanto and Generational Trauma

NOTICE: Spoilers for the Disney animated movie Encanto ahead!

If you’re like me, the first time you Encanto left you in a puddle of tears when more of Abuela Alma’s story was revealed. Putting together the history of her life, the loss of her beloved, and the pieces she had to build her family and home made so much sense when you examined the puzzle that was the Madrigal family’s anxiety to be perfect. The perfection that everyone in the town and those in the family saw was the shield and product of generational trauma.

Disney's "Encanto" was released on Disney+ on Friday, December 24, 2021. It follows the Madrigal family who each have their own unique powers.

What is generational trauma?

You may have heard of the term before (maybe even after watching this movie). Generational trauma is the pattern of challenges a family may experience as a result of a major historical or traumatic event that is passed down to younger generations. Generational trauma may be a result of holding oppressed identities and facing significant oppression or discrimination from society. When a member or members experience generational trauma, they often teach younger generations techniques to survive in ways that they had or, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have some form of dysregulation that impacts their children and children’s children.

When you look at Abuela Alma’s story, you could see major cultural and personal trauma occurring: the destruction of her home town that forced her, her partner, and her newborn babies to pick up their lives and relocate to escape violence. This is a traumatic event in and of itself. However, the biggest trauma that triggered the miracle candle to manifest was watching her husband’s murder in the river. With her suddenly in charge of a town’s worth of people and her newborn children, alone, her response was to ensure everyone was safe. And how does she do that? By doing everything she possibly can to ensure the miracle was protected under perfect conditions.

And that’s where the Madrigal family members come in.

Everything good in response to everything bad

When something bad happens, the logic is to do something to make it right.

When something very, very bad happens, the logic is to do something very, very right…sometimes even impossibly perfect.

If you listen to Abuela Alma, try to count how many times she says the word “perfect” or “perfectly.” What is the purpose of something being perfect? It means that there is nothing unexpected, nothing painful, and nothing will require fixing. This is the total opposite of trauma where it is often unexpected, painful, and often requires some sort of repair. But for Abuela Alma, no longer stemmed from making sure no one in her family lost their lives in a horrible way; it was generalized. It was generalized anxiety to make sure everything was perfect.

Now, I’m not going to sit and nit-pick to diagnose the Madrigal family, because that is not what this post is for. I am, however, going to continuously ping the pattern of anxiety as a response to trauma that, commonly, is passed down as generational trauma. If you listen, Abuela Alma isn’t the only person who says things must go “perfectly.” Tía Pepa says it numerous times, and even Augustín (Mirabel’s father) says it when Mirabel reveals she snuck into Bruno’s tower. And if we look to the youngest generation, Isabela’s entire persona is built around her being the perfect grandchild while Luisa is constantly worried about not being enough or able to protect her own family from disaster (her entire hit song was about the pressure she feels).

Perfection (or more realistically, the constant drive for perfection) stems from anxiety.

Generational trauma can also lead to other challenges in a family like difficulty with emotion regulation, difficulty trusting others, and even confusion toward caregivers who are supposed to love yet also hurt you. In addition to all of these things, another huge layer to the Madrigal family story is their cultural value of family.

How culture plays a role

The Madrigal family is based in the country of Colombia. It has a collectivist culture in which the needs of the group are prioritized over the needs of the individual. This is not an inherently bad thing (arguably more than half of the world functions with this culture)! Remember, many of us reading this post right now are from Western, individualistic cultures in which we think the opposite. Excess can exist in either spectrum: too much focus on the self can be just as harmful as too much focus on the group.

Excess is what we saw. There was a huge emphasis on gaining approval from family members (namely from Abuela Alma) and ensuring that others were living up to the impossible perfect expectations, often at the cost of the self. Tía Pepa was taught that her clouds were a bad thing and constantly suppressed her emotions, Isabela was not allowed to make anything except beautiful flowers, Luisa believed that she had to continuously give and serve, and Bruno’s gift of seeing the future often named unexpected (and therefore anxiety-provoking) events that led to him (kind of) leaving the family. While there was significant familial support embedded in the tasks they all were assigned as family members, as it is quite normal for the family to pitch in and live together, they were all under the same umbrella of thinking mistakes, or imperfections, were inexcusable.

This brings us to a huge, huge point: avoiding things that make us anxious will, paradoxically, make us anxious.

Image of Mirabel Madrigal from the Disney movie "Encanto".

What Mirabel helped healing to look like

When Mirabel went to her sister Isabela and the latter made that prickly cactus, it was from Isabela’s emotional outburst. Suddenly, Isabela let herself go and didn’t have to hold in her sacrifice. She had a moment to be authentic and made something unexpected. What ensued after was Isabela making all sorts of plants and greenery that reflected her authentic self. She splashed colors on her clothes, rose above on the top of a palm de cera, and danced around with Mirabel with unchained greenery spewing from her fingers. It wasn’t perfect; it was authentic, and that made the candle grow brighter.

Until, of course, Abuela Alma saw.

Abuela Alma’s response was to be expected; what she witnessed was different from the normal life they constructed around perfectionism. Normality is different from functionality. The normal, day-to-day family life they lived was wrought with pressures and anxieties that were hurting the family members. While it was normal, it was dysfunctional. What Mirabel introduced wasn’t normal, but it was clearly more functional because (1) it was realistic and authentic for them to be imperfect and (2) being imperfect and authentic brought them joy.

It is hard to let go of something that you know as normal because it rattles the cage in ways we didn’t know possible. Living in dysfunction is like waiting for a jump scare in a movie and not knowing when it’ll happen. Living in a functional way, but after a life of dysfunction, is like constantly waiting for a jumpscare that will never happen…but we don’t know that. Abuela Alma did not know that, either. What she did know was that when she was relaxed and happy, a massive jump scare, or trauma, happened and took everything away from her.

And yet the perfection she constructed to prevent more trauma was the family’s downfall again.

Mirabel is more than just a main character with a quirky personality. For the Madrigal family, she was a break in the cycle, the one who could end the generational trauma.

Healing from what was passed down to you

There are a few things that a person can do to heal from generational trauma.

  1. Recognize what is occurring. This may be when you have a huge reaction to something. It might be like having a huge fear response when something breaks, a lot of anger when rent is due, or heavy anxiety when traveling to someone’s house.

  2. Identify the origins of this anxiety. A lot of the time, generational trauma manifests as a response to responses. Remember, reactions to huge trauma in one generation can cause a waterfall of other events to occur. With the previous examples, maybe something breaking meant that you were punished. Maybe anger was because parents experienced poverty. Maybe anxiety because the house where someone had events that took place that made you feel discomfort.

  3. Acknowledge your emotions and the origins of them. This can be as simple as naming what you’re feeling with the simple sentence of, “I’m feeling _____ right now because this reminds me of _____.”

  4. Remind yourself that you are safe. Oftentimes, generational trauma responses are there to help us survive (just as any trauma responses are). It might be as simple as giving yourself an intentional reminder that you are capable of managing the struggles that arise.

  5. Seek support. The best way to work through generational trauma to break cycles is through support. The most effective support will likely be that of a therapist or mental health clinician. In therapy, you can explore specific reactions that you’re having, their origins, and what healing can look like for you and future generations.

  6. Be kind to yourself. Generational trauma isn’t something that can be mended in a single hour. It can take a bit of time to undo years and years of what was practiced, but believe us when we say it is possible.

I am a huge fan of Encanto, and it isn’t just because of the bops like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” It’s a beautiful tale of culture, familial pain, and healing. It also showcases how possible breaking the cycle can be. Generational trauma does not have to have a hold on you, and Cultured Space therapists can help you explore how.

We’re here for you.

When you’re ready.