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What if Moana went to therapy? : A journey of defining self

It can be easy to write off fictional heroes, especially princesses, in animated Disney movies. You may think “everything works out in the end (spoiler alert!) so we shouldn’t bother taking a deeper look into their story,” but that would be ignoring a precious opportunity to see an example of life from a new perspective. As you will see, we can learn a lot from our fictional heroes as they often experience situations and life events that are parallel to our own. Looking at it through the perspective of therapy can give us the opportunity to delve into someone’s psyche learning more about them and in the end, ourselves.

Let’s say Moana, a teenager of Pacific Islander heritage, daughter of the chief, sits down for a few sessions of therapy right after her grandmother’s death. She is having to process her grief after losing someone she loves and respects but also the only person who truly understood her. Grief can have different effects on people and for Moana, there is a sense of obligation. Her grandmother believed she was chosen by a higher power (aka the ocean) as the answer to an age-old prophecy to save the world from utter destruction and death. Talk about pressure! On the flip side, Moana is also the daughter of the chief and is expected to lead the people of her village and make decisions that are in their best interest. She is also the only female leader mentioned in the entire story so there is an added element of expectation there and she is so young! A teenager, still figuring out her identity and how she fits into the world around her which is broken, impaired through years of painful history and trauma of which she does not fully understand.

The dictionary definition for trauma is that it is a deeply distressing experience whether this be physical or emotional. Such experiences can have happened either directly to you or be something you witnessed. The aftermath of which can vary from person to person. Something we are learning more about is what happens when whole groups of people, sometimes generations, are affected by a traumatic experience. These types of traumas can be labelled different things from cultural to generational trauma depending on context. At the core of it, it’s about something really awful happening and affecting everyone from children, parents, grandparents, neighbors, communities, even entire races/peoples. For the people of Moana’s village, there has been a shared experience of losing loved ones at sea, time and time again. Previous generations were “voyagers” who explored the ocean going from island to island. After pirates and dangerous sea creatures became more prevalent in the ocean due to a series of events, boats stopped coming back. This meant that whole generations of people were lost and it kept happening. It makes sense that after a while the understanding became that the open ocean was a place where you faced death and lost loved ones. Of course, you would discourage people from going out there! Although, for Moana, she has a love for the ocean, more deeply rooted than the fear taught to her by the people around her. There is also a necessity to go out and fulfill this prophecy because the crops on her island are dying and there are no fish in the surrounding reef. The ideal answer for Moana is to combine her passion with her destiny but that would be going against her father, not only male patriarch of her family but also her village.

In a collectivistic culture, it is important that the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual and your connection to your family is of utmost importance. Moana has to decide how she can honor both her grandmother, her family, and her village with her decision. Some therapy could help support her decision by giving her an opportunity to understand where she comes from and where she wants to go. In our lives, we’re not often given times to gain perspective. If Moana went to therapy, she would have the chance to delve deeper into all the things other people want for her as well as the things she wants for herself. In the end, the decision is hers and hers alone. We cannot fix other people’s problems and we can’t make people do what we think is best for them. Moana has to process her grief and be the leader she wants to be by her own accord.

What can we learn from the story of Moana? Firstly, losing the people we love is never easy and when you’re young, losing the person that supported you the most can leave you lost, not knowing who to turn to for help in creating your sense of self. Secondly, the people and culture around us can be deeply impacted by traumatic experiences. The reactions to which can be taught for generations shaping the viewpoint of whole entities of people. Lastly, there is no blueprint for how we should view and conduct our lives. Everything that surrounds us has the ability to influence our understanding of ourselves and even though we may not be “fulfilling destiny” the way Moana was expected to, we each have pressures that we feel like we may not be able to live up to. The important thing is that we take time to find healthy supports for our journeys, take into account everything that makes us who we are, and give ourselves grace when we don’t live up to expectations every time.


Applehelen Kirby is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who is passionate about her clients and finding ways to support their emotional growth. Applehelen is specifically interested in the use of expressive arts therapies, dance movement, yoga, and mindfulness. She also has a love for the sciences, specifically biology and medicine as well as the arts, with dance holding a special place in her heart. She loves reading and movies, especially comedies and thinking about how our lives can be like stories with different narratives and outcomes.

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