The Psychology of Elsa from ‘Frozen’

Drea Letamendi
Movies Animation
Movies Animation Disney

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Being “frozen” can mean many things. It may mean isolating ourselves. It may mean shutting the world out. Or numbing our emotions. We might be frozen because it is protective, feels safer, or allows us to maintain a status quo—a sense of stability. We might be frozen because we’re scared that we can’t tolerate what it feels like to be close to others. We might be frozen because we’re told we are too intense for others to handle, so we pull back. We may even be convinced that “being cold” is simply how we were born.  But is being frozen a choice?

With Frozen 2 nearly here, our consulting psychologist takes a look at what motivates the ice queen herself, Elsa.

ELSA’S BEGINNING

For Elsa, Princess of Arendelle and older sister to Anna, being frozen meant hiding the magical powers she possesses, the supernatural abilities that allow her to control and manipulate ice and snow. Growing up, it was never clear why Elsa was capable of manifesting freezing cold elements. Her father, King Agnarr, explains that she was born with the condition. As children, Elsa and Anna would play together, often creating adventures out of the slippery ice peaks and mysterious caverns that Elsa would build for them. They were not only imaginative and creative, but the girls delighted in using the ice and frost to slide, skip, and leap unreservedly. They took risks. Elsa and Anna trusted one another completely. (Watch Now on Disney+)

Arendelle children of royalty were not allowed many opportunities to play much with other youth, and Elsa and Anna spent much of their time alone and unattended in a spacious, lonely castle; the two girls, however, found healthy release using their imaginations. Elsa felt affirmed by her little sister’s genuine admiration of her abilities. Anna felt special because her sister shared her unique talents with her. But their relationship changed after a pivotal event. Caught up in the exhilaration of playing, Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic. Horrified, Agnarr and Queen Iduna take the siblings to a colony of forest trolls for advice and healing.

The leader of the forest trolls, Grand Pabbie, is able to heal Anna, explaining that it was her “head” that was injured but thankfully not her heart, which would have been much worse.  Here, an important decision is made. The troll leader alters Anna’s memories so that she forgets about the accident –but this also means forgetting entirely about Elsa’s magic. Anna might recall that they shared happy times together, but she will have specific amnesia about her sister having supernatural powers. She will be completely unaware that Elsa struck her in the head with an icy bolt.

Like a Disney princess version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the intervention created an irreparable psychological chasm; any memory associated with the threatening idea (in this case, magic), was extricated from Anna’s brain, and the remaining fragmented memories coalesced to form a cohesive enough narrative to keep her unknowing. Though it is psychologically invasive, the trolls explain that a memory wipe would protect Anna from further harm because she would not seek her sister’s magical qualities—more importantly, she would not be upset by the memory of Elsa hurting her. Furthermore, the trolls lecture Elsa about controlling her powers, insisting that she hold in any urges to use magic. Keep them hidden. The message Elsa interprets is, of course, that she must hide who she is. Her innermost quality, the spark that gave her and her sister joy, is toxic, destructive, and dangerous. There is something wrong with her.

As a result of the traumatic event, the King and Queen isolate both sisters within the castle, closing the property off to their subjects. Worried she could injure her sister again with her unpredictable (and growing) powers, Elsa ceases all contact with Anna.

“Conceal it, don’t feel it”

– THE MYTH OF ERASING BAD MEMORIES

It may seem like a good idea to extractor erase our unwanted memories. Harmful, traumatic and painful memories are difficult for us to tolerate, and can overwhelm us with sadness, fear, or self-blame. In fact, neuroscientists have experimented with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) as a method of erasing negative memories that cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who live with PTSD often re-experience their painful memories in the form of upsetting flashbacks, terrifying nightmares, or startled reactions. These symptoms can disturb or interfere with their daily functioning—wouldn’t it make sense to erase the catalyst that caused the disorder? Yet, even intensive procedures like ECT do not completely expunge the targeted, upsetting memory—in fact, it isn’t so much memory extinction that is the goal in most psychological interventions, but fear extinction.

The purpose of treatment isn’t to forget people’s painful memories entirely, but intentionally alter and re-adjust their meaning so they’re less upsetting.

Psychologist and author Rick Hanson, Ph.D. explains that our brains have a “negativity bias” such that negative experiences stick like Velcro and positive ones slide off like Teflon. This bias has a deep-rooted evolutionary component, but today, Hanson asserts, “our negativity bias makes us feel needlessly frazzled, worried, irritated, lonely, inadequate, and blue.”  How could we overcome the heaviness of such damaging memories? Dr. Hanson recommends pairing the positive and negative. Focus your awareness, he suggests, “on both your pain and a feeling of being cared about by another person.” By making the positive feelings stronger than the negative ones (over time, with brief mental practices), we can mindfully stay with the feeling of being cared about. We can actually use positive memories to override the negative ones. Research indicates that these techniques merely “overwrite” the negative material without actually erasing it.

Similar techniques share a common foundation: When we examine our traumas with rationale, intentionality and self-compassion, we can begin lessening the intensity of our reactions. These emotional associations—the ones that cause us pain—are the things we must erase over time, but we must also grow from them. In fact, sorrow, loss, and hardship are necessary learning experiences; we gain resilience, tenderness, and motivation following these emotional setbacks. The forest trolls may have thought they were helpful by wiping Anna’s memories, but it was more important for Anna to learn to overcome the fear associated with her accident, not to forget about Elsa’s magic, which happened to be the connective tissue of their relationships, a manifestation of the love she felt toward her sister Elsa. The sisters lost the opportunity to heal together, to rewrite the trauma collaboratively, to forget what was unpleasant about it but honor the new story they created that they can both live with. The fact that Anna was non-consenting to the mind-wipe and had no agency or awareness of the decision-making made the parent’s intervention even more problematic.

Why do We Create Ice Palaces?

Three years after the accident, at Elsa’s coronation ceremony, the girls are asked to present themselves to the subjects of Arendelle. Their parents now dead from a shipwreck, the sisters have little guidance but find themselves falling into comforting each other like they did as young children. Anna is excited, curious, and open to new things. Elsa, however, is risk-averse, anxious, and self-doubting. This is her biggest test. She must accept her crown and scepter with ungloved hands. Should she slip up or let her emotions overwhelm her, she may let the magic out, revealing who she really is. Far worse, she might hurt someone. Elsa manages to make it through the ceremony without a setback, but at the gala, in seeing how happy her sister is, Elsa realizes how closed off she must continue to be. She is emotionally standoffish and icy toward Anna. “She just shuts me out and I never know why” explains Anna, confused and disappointed, to her new-found love interest, Hans. Anna is unaware that Elsa is detached due to fear, self-blame, and protectiveness. Further dysregulated by learning the news that Anna and Hans are to be married, Elsa loses control. She lashes out indiscriminately, and although she doesn’t mean to put the town at risk, her powers cast an icy spell over the fiord of Arendelle. Reminded of the pain she put Anna through, Elsa banishes herself far away at the top of the snowy mountains and creates an ice palace. “I belong here, alone. Where I can be who I am without hurting anyone.”

Why does it sometimes hurt to be close to others? For many of us, keeping others at arm’s length is a protective strategy.  Forming meaningful and fulfilling bonds can scare us because it means the stakes are higher; the pain we might feel by losing them or worse, by being abandoned, might be unbearable. Many times, the people we are close to may not realize that our detached style of relating may link back to our formative relationships. That is, the way we relate to one another is somewhat informed by nature of our childhood attachment(s) to our earliest caregiver. The King and Queen’s decision to isolate Elsa was crucial in shaping how she relates to others later in life. Elsa may be best understood as having what in developmental psychology is called an avoidant attachment pattern. Elsa had no choice in the matter when her most intimate relationship was taken from her. Seeing her own behavior as the trigger for the separation strengthens her belief that she must keep a distance from those she loves. What happens when the “coldness” generalizes to form a longstanding pattern of behavior?

“Characterological coldness” means having some of the following traits:

  • Being aloof and stand-offish, indifferent
  • Seeming impersonal, disengaged, and uninvolved with others
  • Distant and detached –emotionally unavailable or inaccessible
  • Haughty, or projecting superiority
  • Insulated and unable to see others’ perspectives
  • Affectionless or stone-faced (not smiling or reacting with positive expressions)
  • Overly guarded, protective
  • Reactive and sometimes hostile
  • Self-reliant, sometimes unwilling to depend on others at all

Note that these behaviors and patterns are relational. Theoretically, they stem from earlier life experiences. Note also that Elsa simply isn’t introverted or shy. Her “never-ending winter” serves as a metaphor for the worsening of her psychological state. Would she be able to adjust these features at all, or is she stuck like this?

Is it Healthy to Just… Let it Go?

As Elsa discovers some comfort in her isolated ice palace, she reflects on the new experiences of freedom. She is finally “safe” to freely express who she is. The earworm song, “Let it Go,” can be about many things –being authentic, coming out, untethering ourselves from religion, or un-censoring ourselves.  Letting it go means not only expressing our true self but standing up to the social forces that keep us oppressed.  Elsa refuses to be policed by her caregivers, the townsfolks, and anyone who demands that she live by their standards of what is acceptable, normal, or “well.”

Living authentically is, for the most part, healthy because it gives us the benefits of increased confidence, self-reliance, and affirmation. Suppressing parts of ourselves and being shameful of our identity can lead to depression and low self-esteem –sometimes even suicidality. Letting it go fosters positive self-development. Yes, the song is about living authentically, but it is also about standing in front of others, “in the light of day” as we choose to live.  Letting it go means that we will not allow anyone else to manage our bodies.  Letting go is making up our mind to love ourselves as who we are, and boldly living our lives with agency.

Living in Extremes

It is true that Elsa’s trauma was not her fault. However, the chance to restore her relationship and heal herself is a part of her own abilities. Is it possible that Elsa is unable to heal from her trauma because she keeps it frozen inside of her?

Elsa asserts that the “cold never bothered her anyway,” withdrawing completely into the ice palace. She relegates herself to the role of the villain. As she transforms into the ice queen, some of her rigid styles of thinking are revealed. True—we all see the world in black-and-white terms at times. In fact, our human brain’s tendency is to categorize and to understand the world in either/or terms. But Elsa’s all-or-none thinking has profound effects on her relationships and her own well-being. All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes. What are some examples of this cognitive distortion, sometimes what psychologists call “splitting?”

 I’m a terrible person.

There is something wrong with me.

My sister is the best at everything and I am the worst.

I do not deserve to be happy. Ever.

I hurt a person I love; I am a weapon of destruction.

Elsa utilizes extreme thinking as a protective strategy, to organize right from wrong, good and bad, pure and evil. But binary thinking can be exhausting because it robs us of much of the complexity that makes life and relationships so rich. It may be possible for Elsa to operate in the gray: this means adjusting her relational style without violating her values or ideas about herself. That way, she can preserve her personhood. Ice and snow are manifestations of her inner being and she can manage these abilities on her own terms. She does not have to give this up.

How can Elsa begin to see herself as more warm and loving? Some self-directed strategies include mindfulness (being fully aware and present with her state of emotions); distress tolerance (being OK with uncomfortable and sometimes emotionally painful situations, not abandoning or retreating when things get tough); interpersonal assertiveness(continue “letting it go” by forming boundaries, respecting herself as independent from others, and stating her needs); and very importantly, emotional regulation. For Elsa, regulating her emotions means developing an acceptance of her powers and actually being able to change the way she feels. That is, should she grow uncomfortably icy again, she must understand how to adjust the feeling to a less extreme one.

Not giving up her powers also means that Elsa may occasionally be cold. She may, at times, continue to be standoffish, distant, or attached. And that is OK. Elsa, in fact, learns that she is able to heal Anna with her own love—her compassionate embrace is what ultimately saves her sister from freezing to death.  Realizing that love is the key to controlling her magic, Elsa ends the deadly winter of Arendelle—as well as her own.


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Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.