When you work in mental health, it can be difficult to just watch a movie. There’s just so much psychology going on!
If you were a 90’s kid, like myself, you likely enjoyed the re-release of the new Lion King in July. Whether you preferred the new Beyoncé enriched version, or the pure 94 version, it turns out The Lion King is a perfect representation of the trauma process and its treatment.
Here’s a quick spoiler-ridden synopsis of the movie:
Simba is prince of the lions and looks up to his dad, Mufasa. He enjoys his childhood and sings a bunch. Then, in the shared trauma of every 90’s child, Scar, Simba’s uncle and master gaslighter, kills Mufasa (in slow-mo). He then convinces Simba the tragedy was his own fault and gets him to run away.
Simba (now traumatized by the death of his father) makes a new life with new friends, Timon and Pumbaa under the motto "hakuna matata" (literally meaning “no trouble" in Swahili). He then comes to age during a brief montage.
Simba’s childhood friend, Nala, pops up and tries to get him to return home to take his rightful position as king of the Pride Lands. After Simba chats with the spirit of his father in dramatic scene boomed by James Earl Jones, Simba realizes his purpose. With the help of his friends, Simba fights off hyenas, confronts Scar, and ultimately throws him off a cliff. The movie ends as the circle of life continues with a newborn cub presented to the assembled animals around Pride Rock.
So what can we learn about trauma:
1 // Good parenting doesn’t prevent it
Mufasa checks all the boxes for good parenting. Mufasa sets healthy boundaries (as seen in the rules of the elephant graveyard) and even reinforces them without shaming his child. He teaches responsibility, philosophy, respect… all the healthy stuff. However, Simba witnesses the death of his father AND gets convinced it was his fault which creates a true trauma reaction. This doesn’t mean Mufasa failed as a parent or father, in fact, those healthy parenting efforts would likely lessen the chance of severe symptoms and ultimately set Simba up for success in battling his trauma… and Scar.
2 // Avoidance is the “go-to” symptom
Traumatized by witnessing the death of his father and internalizing the event as his own fault, Simba’s fight or flight instinct is triggered and he slips into survival brain. Fleeing the Pride Lands, he eventually finds a sort of safety in “hakuna matata,” or “don’t think about it.” He suppresses and denies the traumatic event (because it was awful) and avoids discussion of his history with his closest friends. With a little bit of a stretch, you could even say Simba’s anti-animal diet is another form of avoiding the memory of killing of his father. When he’s confronted by Nala in his young adulthood, thinking of the Pride Lands is still painful, so he avoids again.
3 // You can be fine (for a while) without treatment
Simba’s carefree lifestyle is fully functional for him. He’s fed, flourishing, and free. He has friends and enjoys the lack of responsibility, but then Nala comes in and triggers Simba effectively breaking him out of his decade-long numbing episode. When she appears, Simba is reminded of all the aspects and responsibilities of his life that are in disrepair. As he realizes that his avoidance of the Pride Lands has resulted in their decay, he is overcome with grief and panic sets in. It is only in this stress and turmoil that Simba sees he can no longer avoid; he must confront his trauma.
4 // You need a team
Through the guidance of Simba’s local mental health clinician, Rafiki, he rediscovers his sense of self and plots out what must be done to restore his integrity and the Pride Lands. The teamwork doesn’t stop there though. His friends all come together to perform a brief musical number, support Simba in his epic fight against his old enemies, and provide the structure for Simba to break through his old limiting beliefs and fears.
5 // Recovery is all about beliefs and it can be a little rough
It is not the event that creates a traumatic reaction; it’s the meaning the belief of the event. Even if the belief makes no sense. Simba’s belief of his traumatic event is scripted nicely for us by Scar “if it weren’t for you [Mufasa] would still be alive… What will your mother think, a son who causes his father’s death… run away and never return.” If Simba were to sit on my couch, we would note the possible truth and falsity in these statements. We would also look at the belief of “hakuna matata” and how it has served and limited him. Then, we’d build new constructive beliefs; a sort of new set of morals to the story.
In the movie, Simba has to face the fact that his distancing from his responsibilities and identity has resulted in despair and problems for the previously flourishing Pride Lands. (This is often the most painful part of recovery and often is what results in seeking treatment.) Once he sees what has happened, he fights off the lighter symptoms, presented as hyenas, before taking on the core trauma embodied by Scar. Once Scar is defeated, there is no spell broken or miracle returning the Pride Lands to their former glory. Time passes, the community of the Pride Lands likely does some heavy work led by Simba, and only then does life return symbolized by the presentation of the new prince at the end of the movie.