Low Self-Esteem CBT Formulation: Encanto’s Surface Pressure

After a wee break, Psy Fiction is back with another fictional formulation for all you fellow psychology/movie fans! Our “case study” this time is from Disney’s amazing new animation Encanto. The magical Madrigal sisters will be helping to explain the CBT Formulation for Low Self-Esteem

“No pressure, Sis!”

There I was minding my own business in yet another COVID lockdown, contemplating my twelfth rewatch of Hamilton*… when BAM! Disney drops Encanto. Now… I can’t be the only one that fell in love with this gorgeous movie, particularly in the psychology crowd. With a refreshing change from the classic Disney tropes of princesses, love interests, and there being a ‘big baddie’ to fight… Instead we have a complex but engaging story touching on themes of family roles, culture, intergenerational trauma, self-worth, perfectionism, unrelenting standards, and healing through relationships.

*this month

Can I get an Amen for emotionally intelligent and progressive kids fillllllmsss?! Also not to mention Lin Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack which has absolutely no right to slam so hard. But before you head off to play ‘We don’t talk about Bruno’ on repeat for the rest of the day… can we please talk about the psychological themes in Encanto? Case formulation is once again our friend when it comes to understanding what is going on for these characters!

There are many themes raised by different Madrigal family members which we could focus on and explore in Psy Fiction; Abuela’s trauma and grief for instance, or the emotions around Tío Bruno leaving the family. However, I wanted to focus on a common theme for the 3 Madrigal sisters: self-esteem. Our loveable lead character Mirabel battles with her own self-worth, being the only family member without a magical gift. Isabela also talks about her struggles in needing to be the “perfect golden child”. But the star of our formulation to illustrate self-esteem will be the eldest Madrigal sister Luisa, who opens up about the pressure of her role as being the strongest family member.

The CBT Formulation Model for Low Self-esteem

What is Self-Esteem?

Self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves. It’s based on our opinions and beliefs about ourselves, which can sometimes feel really difficult to change. (Mind)

Low self-esteem is defined as a self-evaluation or representation which is negatively biased and inflexible.

Having low self-esteem isn’t a mental health problem in itself, but they are closely linked. If lots of things affect your self-esteem for a long time, this might lead to feeling depressed or anxious (Mind). It is important to note that low self-esteem is not a diagnosis, and in true Psy Fiction style we want to focus on psychological principles and formulation models that helps us to understand someone’s difficulties, without the need for a medical approach with diagnostic labels.

What is the CBT model for low Self-Esteem?

Fennell (1997; 1998) proposed low self-esteem as a predisposing or vulnerability factor, which may underlie both depression and anxiety symptoms. This self-esteem formulation is a Longitudinal Formulation, similar to Beck’s original CBT formulation developed for low mood (see Game of Thrones blog post) and the specific anxiety longitudinal formulation (see Finding Nemo blog post). Longitudinal means it considers past experiences in someone’s current presenting problems.

Fennell 1997

This self-esteem CBT model suggests that low self-esteem stems from global negative core beliefs about the self (the ‘bottom line’), which develop from early life experiences. This leads to unrealistic life rules or high standards (‘dysfunctional assumptions’), which need to be met to feel worth and protect the individual from activating ‘bottom line’ beliefs. When a situation (‘critical incident’) is inevitably encountered where the unrealistic standards are challenged, this activates the ‘bottom line’, and triggers vicious cycles of feelings, thoughts, and behaviour.

Incidents where rules and standards may not be met, trigger negative predictions (e.g. “I’ll fail my exam”) resulting in anxiety symptoms (right cycle on the model), such as physiological responses (e.g. heart racing). This subsequently leads to maladaptive safety behaviours, (e.g. avoidance or over preparing), which end up making anxiety worse and enhancing evidence for the ‘bottom line’ negative beliefs. In situations where dysfunctional assumptions/standards have not been met, it leads to confirmation of the bottom line, and subsequent self-critical thinking. This maintains feelings of depression, which perpetuates and strengthens patterns of negative future predictions (left cycle on the model).

Luisa Madrigal’s Formulation

Luisa is Mirabel’s eldest sister, whose miracle gift is super strength. She is portrayed as playing the role of a quiet, gentle giant in the family and village, who undertakes numerous tasks such as building houses, moving bridges, carrying donkeys etc… She is always happy to help and seems to pride herself in using her strength to support others.

However, we see Luisa’s strong and calm exterior starting to crack when her gift begins to fade and she notices that she is getting less strong, and feels less able to undertake the heavy lifting which she usually does with ease. It is at this point that we see Luisa questioning her self-worth, as well as opening up about the high expectations put on by herself and others. Luisa communicates this all, of course, via the absolute banger “Surface Pressure” – so if you haven’t seen Encanto (or even if you have and just want to relive it) then this song in the video below will help you to get a sense of Luisa’s character *cranks the volume up to 11*.

Low Self-Esteem CBT Formulation Example

In the movie, Luisa presents with feelings of nervousness and anxiety when her strength begins to fade, and her mood drops significantly when she loses her gift completely. We can use the low self-esteem model to understand Luisa’s experiences, her self-identity, as well as her presentation of anxiety and low-mood (used interchangeably with ‘depression’ in this model).

The formulation demonstrates how Luisa’s early experiences, family history, and role within the family, contribute to her identity and responsibility to look after others. It also explains the source of her link between self-worth and her gift of strength, as well as her viewing emotions as weakness. This all gives rise to the development of dysfunctional assumptions about the need to be strong and perfect at all times in order to feel worthy, to protect others, and for others accept her. However, when these assumptions or standards are challenged (when her gift starts to fade), this leads to anxiety. When these standards are completely not met (when she loses her gift), this leads to low mood.

These vicious cycles of anxiety and low mood then both maintain feelings of low self-esteem, by confirming the bottom line negative core beliefs about herself. This is all described in more detail in the diagram below:

Fennell 1997

So, based on Luisa’s past experiences, as well as her family’s understandable response to trauma and loss, we can use the self-esteem CBT formulation to understand her difficulties around anxiety and low mood during the movie. But this is not where we leave the lovely Luisa… for we see, in the final musical number, how support and validation from her family and wider social network of the village help her to start breaking the vicious cycles of low self-esteem.

Hearing messages from Abuela and the family such as “I think it’s time to learn you’re more than your gift” and “the miracle is you, not your gift, just you” helps to challenge the core negative beliefs about her worth. Luisa shares with her sisters that she is strong “but sometimes I cry”, only to receive acceptance and validation from her sisters who tell her “So do I”, helping to normalise a range of emotions, showing these are not weaknesses.

We leave Luisa with her acknowledging that “I may not be as strong but I’m getting wiser” and her taking a restful break – yasss to this self-care queen!

Hasta La Vista, folks!

Thanks for reading! Psy Fiction will be back with another famous formulation soon… but until then I would love for you to stay in touch!

Please subscribe and leave any comments or feedback below!

What star of the screen would you like to see a formulation for in the future?

Let me know in the comments!


References and additional information:

  • About Self-Esteem – Mind Charity website
  • Safety Behaviours – Information sheet from Get Self Help
  • Fight or Flight – Information Sheet from Therapist Aid
  • About Anxiety – Mind Charity
  • Fennell, M. (2009). Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, 1st Edition: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd. (Book – also available for £2.99 on kindle)
  • Fennell, M. (1997). Low Self-Esteem: A Cognitive Perspective. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 25(1), 1–25. 
  • Fennell, M. J. V. (1998). Cognitive Therapy in the Treatment of Low Self-Esteem. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 4(5), 296–304.

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Check out a previous post!

Anxiety Cognitive Formulation: Facing Fears in Finding Nemo

15th March 2021


Disclaimer: All original Encanto and Finding Nemo image and video rights belong to Disney Pixar. Other images are referenced. Images and reference to the original films are used in this blog post in the understanding that it falls under ‘fair use’. This is due to the images and reference to the films being used in the context of a commentary/critique of the original material for educational purposes. To my knowledge, the use of images in this post do not deny the owner of income and they are not being used in this context for monetary gain of the user.


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