Many of us with children or grandchildren anticipated the release of Disney’s Frozen 2 this fall. I heard a number of interviews with cast members and writers as the date came closer, and I was struck by the title of one of the songs they mentioned: “The Next Right Thing.” That is a 12-Step slogan my sponsor in a 12-Step program had urged me to adopt, and I thought it was an interesting coincidence that Frozen 2 would have a song by the same name.
Over Thanksgiving we visited one of my daughters and I took her and her children to see the movie. The experience was mind-blowing. I didn’t feel as if I were in a children’s movie; I was in a 12-Step meeting, with all of the wisdom and perspective and surrender to a trusted Higher Power that I have come to love in my 12-Step meetings. May I show you what I found? Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Codependency Makes Its Way to Disney
Codependency is a word that is thrown around, often as an insult, without sufficient understanding of its meaning. Before I offend you by telling you your favorite pair of sisters are codependent, let’s define the term. I’ll use the description from the Healing Through Christ Family Support Workbook[i]:
[Codependency means] our mental and emotional health are directly connected to and dependent upon what other people are thinking and doing. We are acting codependently when we tell ourselves, “We will only be happy when our loved ones stop their addictive behaviors.” Therefore, our happiness, peace, and stability are dependent on what our addicted loved ones are or are not doing, placing us in an emotionally vulnerable position.
When we allow our loved ones’ actions to dominate our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, we are reacting in a codependent manner. “. . .keep in mind that so much of what we call codependency is simply human attempts to avoid, deny, or divert our pain.” That is why processing our emotions is critical [to avoiding codependent behaviors].
In healthy relationships, our emotions are certainly influenced by the good or bad things that happen to our loved ones—but we are not dependent on them for our happiness.
There are so many classic codependent situations and phrases throughout Frozen 2! When I got home I did an internet search for “Frozen 2 12 Steps” and found an interview with Kristen Bell, who voices the character Anna. On ABC’s The View she explains that one of the writers journaled as Anna and Elsa (the sisters in the movie), and “even went to see a psychologist to discuss the sister’s relationship.”[ii] Bell adds “I want Anna to deal with her codependency, because she lives for everyone else and I often do that.” Boom! There it is, I wasn’t imagining it! I became even more excited when I read the next two paragraphs:
“When I’m alone I don’t really know what to do or how to function. ‘The Next Right Thing,’ is a dramatic song, but it asks this question that I was begging for us to explore that none of us talk about, which is what do you do when you don’t know what to do. We’ve all felt that but no one talks about it,” Bell said.
“I take a lot of inspiration from my husband and his sort of AA exposure and his sobriety,” said Bell of her husband, Dax Shephard. “One foot in front of the other. When I’m feeling anxious and depressed, you just get out of bed and then you walk and brush your teeth, and then you have some breakfast and you take it in tiny little steps. You just do the next right thing.”
During the movie credits, my 14-year-old granddaughter Abigail and I discussed some of the relationships and how resilient Anna had been in her response to her situation. It gave me an opportunity to share principles I have learned in meetings through our shared movie experience; I took my husband to see the show a few weeks later and found more and more little nuggets of 12-Step truths. I excitedly shared my discovery in my 12-Step meetings and talked to others who had gone to the movie, finding the same connection to their step work.
Dependence is Different Than Love
This is not an exhaustive study. We’ll leave that for a future grad student’s dissertation. But I see themes in the show and lyrics that can provide powerful lessons to discuss with our families. And it’s a great excuse to buy the movie!
In the song “Some Things Never Change,”[iii] there is a repeated theme of wanting things to stay the same and finding safety in friends and family. Is that bad? No, unless it is a result of a fear of change–change that could be necessary for growth. The characters sing about relying “on certain certainties…I’m holding on tight to you.” Elsa asks “Is something coming? I’m not sure I want things to change at all,” and everyone reaffirms “I’m holding on tight to you.” Our fear of change is natural, but if it makes us resistant to growth, it is holding us back—just as Anna and Elsa’s fears hold Elsa back from growth that is essential to her and to her family and country.
Elsa expands on this fear in “Into the Unknown;” she is resistant to the call to go outside of what is familiar and safe. She tells the voice calling her that she is “blocking out your calls…I don’t need something new,” but then admits towards the end of the song that she “knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be.” This simultaneous yearning and fear accompany every newcomer into a 12- Step meeting. There is a hope for change, a hope for healing, coupled with a fear of what will be required. “Into the Unknown” could be a theme song for a Step One meeting, because the yearning for relief finally compels a newcomer to search for the real self underneath the pain.
Kristoff shows us another side of codependency in his song “Lost in the Woods.” When he realizes Anna is gone, he is not just sad or heartsick—he is shattered. He is literally lost in the enchanted wood when Anna in gone, but he also loses himself. He asks fearfully “Where am I, if we’re not together forever? You’re my only landmark.” Kristoff has lost a loved one and doesn’t know how to get her back. I have heard the real agony of a man or woman who asks the same thing about their addicted spouse—I don’t want to demean that pain by comparing it to an animated character, but this loss of self is common when a spouse discovers sexual addictions or substance abuse. A wife may come to a meeting hoping to learn how to fix her husband, only to discover that the meetings are for her, for her healing, for her ability to be well and whole and even happy regardless of her spouse’s choices. When she is able to stop merging with her husband’s identity and addictions, and become secure in her own identity and relationship with God, real healing happens. She is better able to face whatever may happen in her marriage, allowing her husband to heal on his own terms without trying to fix him, or rescue him, or manipulate or control or bribe or any of the other deceptive tools that seem desperately necessary, but only cause more pain for everyone (this of course applies to men with addicted spouses, as well).
Eventually the pain of the problem becomes greater than the pain of the solution; if Elsa does nothing, if she ignores the call, the forest will remain enchanted, Arendell will be uninhabitable, and the people she loves will be threatened with destruction. She willingly stops merging with her sister and finds courage to begin to work her own recovery: in “Show Yourself,” she expresses the desire to become self-aware:
I have always been a fortress
Cold secrets deep inside
You have secrets, too
But you don’t have to hide
I’m dying to meet you
It’s your turn
You are the answer I’ve waited for
All of my life
Elsa and Queen Iduna (her mother):
Into something new
You are the one you’ve been waiting for
All of my/your life
Searching for the mysterious voice, Elsa finds herself, the one she has been searching and waiting for all of her life. This resonates with me, as newcomer who brought a burden of shame with me into a 12-Step meeting: shame at who I am, who I’m not, what I’ve hidden, what I’ve never come to know about myself. I was drawn to the peace I saw in the lives of those living in recovery. As I become more and more honest, and begin to know myself in a way I never had before, I become more authentic, more willing to be seen, and more accepting of myself and others, both as I am and as I am becoming. “Show Yourself” echoes the self-discovery and joy that is part of the 12 Step journey, as God helps us to let go of our false selves and see who we really are.
The Next Right Thing
Elsa is willing to embrace a new journey, but what of Anna? After the triple losses of Kristoff, Olaf, and Elsa, she is in deep despair. This moment is captured with the same slogan my sponsor told me to use when I felt overwhelmed and defeated: do the next right thing. Listen to her acknowledge her grief and describe her loss:
The life I knew is over
The lights are out
I’m ready to succumb
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor
When it’s not you I’m rising for?
But within her, as in each of us, is the ability to do one more thing, take one more step. She hears that truth encouraging her to trust and move forward:
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind
“You are lost, hope is gone
But you must go on
And do the next right thing”
. . . I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor
When it’s not you I’m rising for?
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
Recovery is Letting Go and Allowing Growth
Anna’s song is familiar to me; I hear hope, despair, resolve, pain, and, most importantly, trust in that Tiny Voice that is the foundation of 12-Step recovery. She is willing to be willing. Each painful step forward moves Anna to a future beyond anything she (or the audience) can imagine. She makes amends for long-past wrongs, and in doing so, frees herself and others from the impact of those wrongs. This is a story of growth, of setting things right, of letting go of fear and allowing others to grow while they each choose to do the next right thing for themselves. The best part? This Disney movie, this fairy tale, is real. Not the talking snowman. But the courage, the progress, the hope when hope seems gone, the fellowship that supports each of them as they do their own work—it happens every day. I feel it when I attend or call into a 12 Step meeting. It is coming home.
The author attends Healing Through Christ meetings and Overeaters Anonymous. Both are based on the 12 Steps, which began with Alcoholics Anonymous. For more information, visit www.healingthroughchrist.org, www.oa.org, or contact the author.
*In 12 Step meetings, participants learn how to identify and let go of situations that are out of their control; they learn to “let go and let God,” turning to God to work in their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Healing Through Christ (for those with a loved one in addiction). Whatever the specific meeting or reason that brings them to the 12 Steps, the emphasis is not just on physical changes, but on spiritual and emotional healing as well, by working the 12 Steps of recovery.
The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, as adapted by the Healing Through Christ Institute, LLC for those who have a loved one in addiction
STEP ONE Come to understand and accept that we are powerless over the addiction of a loved one and recognize that our lives have become unmanageable.
STEP TWO Come to believe that the power of God can restore us to spiritual and emotional health.
STEP THREE Decide to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God the Eternal Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
STEP FOUR Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of ourselves.
STEP FIVE Acknowledge to Heavenly Father, to ourselves, and to another person experienced in Twelve Step principles, the exact nature of our wrongs.
STEP SIX Become entirely ready to have God remove all our character weaknesses
STEP SEVEN Humbly ask Heavenly Father to remove our shortcomings.
STEP EIGHT Make a written list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them.
STEP NINE Wherever possible, make direct amends to all persons we have harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others.
STEP TEN Continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong promptly admit it.
STEP ELEVEN Seek through prayer, scripture study and meditation to know the Lord’s will and to have the power to carry it out.
STEP TWELVE Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, share this message of hope and healing with others and practice these principles in all we do.
The 12 Steps of Alcoholics
Anonymous, as adapted by the Healing Through
Christ Institute, LLC for those who have a loved one in addiction[iv]
[i] Healing Through Christ Institute, LLC. (2007). Healing Through Christ Family Support Workbook, pp. 7-8.
[ii](2019, November 12). Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/kristen-bell-anna-deal-codependency-sister-elsa-frozen/story?id=66938615.
[iii] Read All The Lyrics To Disney’s ‘Frozen II’ Soundtrack. (2019, November 15). Retrieved from https://genius.com/a/stream-read-all-the-lyrics-to-disneys-frozen-ii-soundtrack.
[iv] Healing Through Christ Institute, LLC. (2007). Healing Through Christ Family Support Workbook, p. vii.