So why do I care for this character so much? Why do I love Abuela?
Because she’s a perfect (albeit fictional) example of how someone might organize themselves in the wake of traumatic events.
And I find her incredibly relatable because her way of organizing herself in the world is a lot like how I organize myself, too.
(This is the point in the post where I’m going to tell you to stop reading if you haven’t seen Encanto and don’t want any spoilers.)
Abuela’s story as a classic trauma response.
In Encanto, we learn that Abuela endured a massive trauma.
Forced to flee from her home with her infant triplets and husband, her husband was murdered trying to protect them as they fled (caveat: I presume this – Disney didn’t explicitly show this, it’s only implied).
So there she was – a young, post-partum mother of three with no home, no partner, and no safety in the middle of the Colombian countryside.
And then “a miracle” happened and she was given and granted safety and refuge (in the form of an ever-burning magical candle) and she was able to not only raise her babies but provide a home for their babies and a community sprung up around them all.
And, as we learn minutes into the film when the first song starts to play (The Family Madrigal), Abuela forms an organizing belief about what will keep her family safe:
We swear to always
Help those around us
And earn the miracle
That somehow found us
The town keeps growing
The world keeps turning
But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning
And each new generation must keep the miracle burning
In essence, as I understand it, she believes it – the safety, the security – will disappear if she and her children and their children don’t show up in service, working hard and pushing themselves to “earn” that safety.
The past is still present for Abuela.
The dangers of her history aren’t there anymore, but Abuela effectively believes the danger could be back at any moment, all the safety and security ripped away from her and those she loves.
And so she continues to push herself and her family relentlessly towards hard work and self-sacrificing service, the very things she believes will protect them.
Like I said before: she is so darn relatable.
Relentless hard work and control as coping mechanisms.
When we endure traumatic events – be it prolonged and protracted childhood abuse and neglect and/or single incident traumas like a car crash, rape, or robbery – if we don’t have the proper support at the time of the event(s) to help us effectively “metabolize” the trauma, we may form maladaptive beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us and then further form maladaptive behaviors around these beliefs.
What’s a maladaptive belief?
For example, a young girl who has an abusive father may grow up believing, “I can’t trust men, all men are bad.”
It’s a maladaptive belief insomuch as it’s negatively biased and irrational – while it’s true that her own father was “bad” and couldn’t be trusted, there are men out there in the world who are good and who can be trusted.
Another example of a maladaptive belief central to this essay is one Abuela holds: hard work and self-sacrifice and controlling everything and everyone will help keep me/us safe.
Abuela believes that if she can just control the people and events around her and if they keep pushing themselves hard, she and they will stay safe.
And while hard work and control probably did keep her “safe” in the early years of raising her triplets solo, Abuela cannot see the safety and security she currently has that won’t disappear if she relaxes her standards and stops trying to control everything and everyone so much.
This piece – the inability to stop pushing and controlling others and my environment as a form of self-protection – is how and why I relate to Abuela so much.
It’s one of my primary organizing principles stemming from my traumatic past, too, and one I’m still working on changing and challenging, even today.
Why? Because there’s a painful cost to relentless hard work and control as coping mechanisms.
It works until it stops working so well.
At the end of the day, all of our trauma-earned beliefs and behaviors have pros and cons to them.
Let’s go back to the example of the young woman who believes “I can’t trust men, all men are bad.”
Perhaps the “pro” of this belief is that, as a teen and young woman, she keeps herself from dating and avoids possible events like date rape, being broken up, unwanted pregnancies, etc (all risks in her mind if she allows men into her life).
But possible “cons” of this belief might include a growing sense of misandry (prejudice against men) which trickles into non-functional behavior when she manages people at her first job and possible grief about ever becoming a mother because she can’t trust anyone to be a good partner to her and her kids.
(Caveat: I’m speaking heteronormatively and assuming this young woman would be interested in being sexually involved with male-identifying individuals.)
All our trauma-informed introjects – the stories we swallow whole about our experiences – have pros and cons to them.
Abuela’s coping mechanisms of choice – control, hard work, and self-sacrifice – have their own pros and cons.
Pros: Hard work helped her raise her infant triplets as a single mother and showing up for the townspeople in service likely built some degree of social safety net for them all.
Cons: She’s pushing her loved ones away and (unconsciously) negatively impacting their mental health with her unrelenting standards.
Personally, I know that my own unrelenting drive to work and desire to control everything can sometimes (okay, okay, often) translate into making my life harder than it needs to be, burning me and sometimes those that work alongside me, out.
There are costs to our maladaptive beliefs and behaviors.
And, as Abuela found out, ultimately, Casita crumbled despite the control she desperately tried to exert.
But (and this is the part I love at the end of the movie) the “safety” was there in the form of relational security which Abuela hadn’t had before (presumably it was just her and her three infants) when the townspeople came to help her rebuild the Casita and recover from the hardship.
She lost control and she was still safe.
(And, side note, you know you’re an EMDR trauma therapist when you see that moment and want to jump in and install it as a resource for her to help rewire those neural pathways… yes, I’m super “fun” to watch movies with.)
Abuela is, for me, such an endearing and relatable character.
She’s not a “mean grandma” – she’s a matriarch trying to keep her family safe and protect them so that they don’t have to endure what she traumatically had to endure.
Her intentions are good though her actions are misguided and informed by the past, not the reality of her present.
And I think Abuela and her story has a lot to teach us, especially those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds.
Prompts to help you explore your own trauma-informed stories:
To help you, like me, use Encanto as a teachable moment, I want to provide the following prompts and journal questions:
- What stories and ways of being in the world do you know that have about what keeps you safe from “more bad things” happening? Example: “If I don’t rock the boat and keep people happy, I’ll stay safe.” or “If I don’t let myself get too close to others, I’ll be safe.”
- What are the pros and cons of those stories? What does that story cost you? Example: “I may not be rocking the boat but I’m living a life that’s inauthentic.” or “I’m not being hurt by others but I feel painfully, unbelievably alone.”
- If you let go of that story and tried the opposite belief on, what safety exists today that didn’t before that might also help keep you safe/support you through hard things? (hint: think about the community and capable relatives rallying for Abuela – something she obviously didn’t have when it was just her and her three infants.)
- And finally: which character from Encanto do YOU like the most? I would love to know.
If you feel so inclined, please share your answers to these prompts and/or any other thoughts and reactions you had when reading this essay in the comment section of this blog below.
When you share, our community of 30,000 monthly blog readers can benefit from your earned wisdom and experience and possibly see themselves in your story, feeling less alone.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.