What a Troll Can Teach Us About Fear

Trolls and Fear“You are lucky it wasn’t the heart!”

Princess Elsa nearly kills her younger sister with her magical powers as they are playing together making snowmen and sliding down magical mountains of ice in the movie Frozen (2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios). It is then that the audience meets Pappie, the Troll King. The parents go to a secret village of trolls for advice on healing their youngest daughter, Anna.

“You’re lucky it was not the heart,” says Pappie gravely, “the heart is not so easily changed.” Then he adds with a more optimistic tone, “but the head can be persuaded.” He heals Anna, and then turns to Elsa, explaining, “Your power will only grow, there is beauty in it but also great danger…you must learn to control your powers, fear will be your enemy…”

As Disney parents often do, the king and queen overreact by locking their daughter in a castle. They hide her from the world and tell her to conceal her powers, which they view as dangerous and shameful, missing the most important part of the troll’s advice. Elsa began to think of herself and her powers as the enemy instead of recognizing the true enemy as fear itself.

How does this relate to the rest of us?

Pappie the troll king is teaching us a basic concept. We cannot control how we feel, (The heart is not so easily changed) but we can change the way we speak to ourselves (the head can be persuaded).

Who wouldn’t be afraid in a similar situation? Of course it is terrifying to see up close that we have the capacity to hurt the ones we love. We can’t magically will ourselves to not be scared, but what we can do is try to change the way we talk to ourselves about our fears so that we are not allowing fear to guide our decisions.

Elsa’s thought: “If I unlock my bedroom door, I’ll hurt the people I love”

How Our Brains Play Tricks on Us

This is a perfect example of a “negative prediction,” also known as a “catastrophic thought”, a very common way of thinking that leads to anxiety and avoidance. Because something happened in the past, our anxious brain tells us it will inevitably happen again in the future. Then if we don’t know any better, we believe the catastrophic thought and respond as any mammal responds to perceived danger: fight, flight, or in this case hide.

Some other examples of negative predictions are:

“My boss is going to think I’m an idiot”
“I’m not going to be able to keep up with everyone else”
“If I ask her out she’ll laugh in my face.”
“I’ll never get into a “good” college”

What To Do Instead

When we allow ourselves to believe that we have future-telling abilities, we are guided by fear and forget that “the head can be persuaded.” Instead, Pappie reminds us to challenge our own thoughts. With a negative prediction, it’s a process of reminding oneself that there are many different things can happen in the future. This is a crucial step in learning how not to let fear be our worst enemy.

“Maybe my boss will think I’m an idiot, maybe she’ll think I’m brilliant, maybe she will be thinking about a fight she had with her daughter on the way into work, maybe someone else has the same idea I have and is planning to pitch it today.”

We need to remember not to become too invested in any one particular outcome because the number of future possibilities are infinite. We don’t want to replace the scary thought with an equivalent positive one (“I’ve got this in the bag… so I don’t need to bother preparing”).

Master psychologists teach us that the work is to learn how to look towards the future with curiosity and excitement rather than fear and avoidance. (Agazarian 2004).

If you did see the movie Frozen, you’ll remember that there is a character who truly embraces this concept. He is a little snowman who loves to imagine what his life will be like in the summertime!