Pixar’s latest animated feature Turning Red has been making a big splash since releasing earlier in March, garnering praise for its ambitious attempt to tackle complicated themes of puberty, emotional regulation, adolescent friendship, and family conflict. On top of it all, the film does so through a cultural lens, weaving in deeper subjects like intergenerational trauma, familial obligation, and toxic perfectionism.
As a therapist, I often help clients wrestling with these experiences in addition to other real life manifestations of Turning Red’s allegorical panda. Although there is no formal therapy depicted in the film, there is one particular scene I found that channels the essence of one of the most popular therapy models today.
Moments before the third act kicks in, 13-year-old Meilin Lee, the movie’s shapeshifting protagonist, takes a moment to reflect before engaging in the ceremonial ritual to extract her panda. Aware of her despondency and stumbling upon a recording of Meilin having fun with her friends, father Jin Lee gently addresses his daughter in one of the film’s most poignant moments. He humanises his daughter’s ‘panda’ by drawing a comparison with how Meilin’s own mother struggled with it and delivers a profound message: ‘People have all sides to them (Mei). And some sides are messy. The point isn’t to push the bad stuff away. It’s to make room for it ; live with it.’
In a nutshell, what Jin Lee aptly described is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). As its namesake suggests, ACT is a therapeutic intervention that utilises practices of acceptance and mindfulness to help individuals cultivate a richer and fuller approach to living.
To facilitate this, ACT teaches the following four skills: mindfulness, cognitive defusion, cultivation of acceptance, and the pursuit of a values-driven life.
- Mindfulness skills increases the ability to be present. When we’re actively aware, open, and in contact with our current state, we develop the consciousness to control our attention and expand the range of possible responses to the emotions and events we experience. Meilin discovers this process herself when she realises that taking deep breaths and slowing down causes her panda traits to dissipate.
- Cognitive defusion, which is just a fancy term for separating ourselves from our thoughts. Thoughts can often seem irrevocable to us; we hold them to be absolutely true and always indicative of reality when that’s certainly not the case. Meilin thinking ‘I’m a monster’ does not make it so; she’s simply having the thought that she’s a monster. Through defusion, we learn how to take a step back from our judgmental mind instead of being governed by it.
- Cultivation of acceptance or making room for difficult emotions, thoughts, impulses and sensations. Our natural inclination towards inevitable life experiences as these is to fight and struggle against it or to avoid and run from it to alleviate discomfort and pain. It takes a toll on us, fosters an internal sense of shame as it did for Meilin, and drains our capacity to live fully. When we choose to stop resisting and avoiding in favour of just letting them have their moment in the spotlight, we develop a psychological and emotional flexibility that allows us to more fully experience life.
- And finally, the pursuit of a values driven life. As mentioned in the last point, we can’t live a life based on avoiding negativity and pain; rather ACT encourages us to align our actions and behaviours with the pursuit of what’s ultimately important to us. In a parallel process, Meilin eventually understood that if she were to discard her panda, she would be doing so out of wanting to please others and avoiding the hardship in having to live with it. In choosing to keep it, Meilin was making a decision not based on what she’s afraid of but rather on what she valued in life: autonomy, perseverance, and self acceptance.
The pain, trials, and challenges of our metaphorical pandas may be unavoidable in life but it’s how we respond to it that dictates the measure of suffering experienced. With ACT, the goal isn’t to eradicate the panda in your life; rather, like Jin Lee suggests, we want to be able to change our relationship with it to achieve a lifestyle that’s workable and beneficial to ourselves. It certainly seems like his insights went well as by the end of the film Meilin has been able to achieve just that.
Josiah Teng is an Asian American therapist based in NYC. He has worked on relational issues, substance and recovery, and life transitions.