Recently I went to see a movie from Disney about a pair of sisters who have an adventure. And I’m going to talk about one of those characters in-depth today.
I see so many parallels in Elsa’s story to that of someone with C-PTSD.
Elsa and Complex PTSD
Hold on. Don’t abandon the idea just yet.
Think about it.
As a child, she locked herself away to prevent herself from harming her family. Her father continued the pattern with the gloves and the words “Conceal it, don’t feel it.” He helped her freeze and withdraw. So instead of learning, she simply went into a pattern of being and fearing who she was.
Conceal it. Don’t feel it.
A mantra of CPTSD.
In the scene where Elsa’s father givers her the first pair of gloves my heart broke a bit. That scene resonated with me and it still does. Here we see a father trying to help his daughter in the only way he can think to help. In the process his form of ‘helping’ teaches Elsa to avoid all those emotions. He literally says “Don’t feel it.”
Out of his good intention, he deeply wounds his daughter. His action emphasizes that she has an unmendable and dangerous flaw.
In the first installment of the movie. (Frozen, in case you haven’t guessed by now.) we see Anna reach out to her sister and at great personal cost save Elsa. But before we get there we see how Elsa is alone. Alone in her room. Alone in the palace. Alone even on the evening of her coronation. She has made herself singular so that her ‘flaw’ doesn’t hurt someone she loves deeply.
Then her delicate balance is upset. In the moments that follow she is out of control. Everything that she has held so tightly finally escapes. At first, in the palace, in the village, she is terrified. In addition, she sees that the people around her are also terrified and repulsed by what they see. Her flaw. Her power. Her true nature.
To avoid the rejection that follows Elsa flees to the top of a mountain, where once again she is alone.
With distance from her life, her responsibilities she can see the restrictions she has placed on herself.
When she sings “the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all” she’s recognizing the limitations she has resigned herself to until now.
What follows is an ecstatic release of all the self-imposed restraints falling away. She recognizes that she is different, but in those first moments, by herself, she is unafraid. As she builds her castle on the hill she rejects all the expectations of those around her and her own skewed view of herself.
Pardon the language, but she truly “Let’s it go.”
CPTSD and the Moment of Realization
To me, that moment echoes the instant when I first saw all the ways I had bent or buried or dismembered myself in order to be accepted by my family. I finally perceived the cage I had constructed around myself. And, although I would have loved to have resolved all my issues in the length of a single phrase of music, it was also the moment when I knew there was no going back.
The past was in the past. Elsa emerges from that song changed, and not changed.
She is changed in that she has embraced who she is and accepted her ‘problem’ as another part of her. She is not changed in that when Anna finds her, Elsa is still terrified of what she could do to her sister. So, in that regard, Elsa is still frozen in the past.
By the end of the first movie, Elsa embraces herself and her ability to love, long suppressed, is the key to saving the kingdom from the icy clutches of winter. In this sense, Elsa is saved and drawn into the family. But, still unaddressed, is what she believes to be the fundamental reason why she is different.
CPTSD and Making Connections
In someone who suffers from Complex PTSD this might be reflected in all the work we do to make connections. To draw ourselves out of our own restrictions, and to distance ourselves from those who would make us less. But, while it makes us functional, it leaves us with that all too common sensation of emptiness. Elsa in the second installment of Frozen reflects our interaction with the world.
In Frozen II, Elsa is in the world, indeed she’s a very important part of the world. She’s the queen. But, at the same time, she is uncomfortable. She worries that she could fail. She feels a pull, the need, the call to define herself. Accepting the role she was expected to fill is no longer enough.
So, with support from family and friends, she sets out to find the truth, and in the process finds her truth. Throughout the first part of the movie, Elsa is tested. These challenges don’t just come from the entities of the forest that she needs to confront. They also come from Anna. Who insists that Elsa not shut her out again.
But, Elsa needs room to grow. Something that perhaps Anna isn’t ready to accept.
When the sisters are separated each follows a path that is essential to their individual growth.
CPTSD and the Quest for Healing
Elsa enters the glacier with anticipation and a growing sense of the coming connection. It fires her from within. As she steps into the center of the circle and claims her power she proclaims – “I am found.”
Three words strip away the last of her doubt about herself. The moment she finds not only a purpose for herself, but also her true self. The moment that empty wound in her center is closed.
One day I hope that I can say those words. Or even, I am healed. That would do. But, for those of us out here in reality that moment won’t transpire in a rush or a glorious shower of magic.
Instead, our path to finding ourselves and healing our wounds will come in incremental steps. One small victory at a time. A boundary set there. A refusal to accept ‘less than.’ A moment when we discover something new. Tiny victories that will string together to heal our centers and define us.
Elsa’s tale, and her growth, in my mind, are reflections of the journey that many, perhaps most of us with c-ptsd need to make. One constant arc to reclaiming our lives, made of tiny victories, first to free ourselves and then to find ourselves.