A Healing Story: Using Wisdom from Pixar to Heal from Trauma

Healing is a creative process and an active process. We have to be an active part of bringing pieces together, of creating a whole out of what was shattered and a new whole out of how we making meaning of the trauma. It is an active of creativity. In a recent article in Fast Company about creativity at Pixar studios, Ed Catmull, one of the leaders at Pixar, describes the act of creation like raising a child. He compares the movie, the idea of the movie, to an ‘ugly baby,.’ … “when you think of how a movie starts out. It's a baby. It's like the fetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar's stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it's not attractive, and it requires protection. When I was a researcher at DARPA, I had protection for what was ill-defined. Every new idea in any field needs protection. Pixar is set up to protect our director's ugly baby.”

“A new thing is hard to define.” It is such a relief to hear this sentence about creation because when language fails us in healing, it can often get pathologized. But the part that can be hard to describe can be ‘what is new.’ When you are bringing the pieces of yourself together, you often think that you will feel the way you once did—we all want to return to the familiar. But if you think about it, really take in all the new experience you had through trauma, and all of the learning you are doing through healing, it’s not really possible to return to a previous state. You have created something new—and it can be really hard to describe at first—as any new act of creation can be.

“Every new idea in any field needs protection.” And this includes your new growth, you new tender self, your new behaviors, new thoughts, new attitudes. They need protection. Not isolation, but protection. What’s the difference? When you protect a child, you protect it from harm, from destruction—not from life, from learning, from experience. In fact, you want a child to have exposure to a wide swath of life. You want it to pat the dog, to run outside, to roll and tumble. But you want to not overwhelm it, you want to allow it to have the experiences it can manage.

As you go through the process of healing, it is just as important to watch that you aren’t putting yourself in a position where you are totally overwhelmed. You need to protect the newer parts so that they can grow. But equally important, you need to help that part of you grow. You need to take your new thoughts, new behaviors and new attitudes out in to the world and let them stretch—let that part of you reach and find the edges of the new parts. You need to practice standing on your new legs and falling down in a safe space.

I like Pixar’s metaphor because I think that the problem of healing is sometimes more a problem of ‘stance’ than anything else. If we hold healing selves as an ‘ugly, but lovable baby’ who needs support and help through our post-trauma healing and growth—if we see our new growth through the eyes of loving, and amazed parents—we create the optimal environment for growth. Without this stance we can create an environment that constantly hold us back from healing. Holding a loving stance allows us the learning curve we need. Allows us to make mistakes, to get feedback, to practice and practice. This is what Catmull wanted for his team, and for his movies—the ability to take an idea and work with it long enough—and have an environment where everyone could contribute.

Catmull continues, “Of course you can't protect the baby forever. At some point, it has to grow up and change into something, because the beast is still there. That's a positive thing. Because sometimes the ugly baby would rather play in the sandbox forever. It's a lot like raising a kid. It's complex and interesting. But most people want to make it simpler than it is.”

“Most people want to make it simpler than it really is.” Most people will want to make your healing journey simpler than it really is too. Healing isn’t simple—it’s not a linear process and it is hard to sum up in words. You know this from your experience, but it can be hard to explain within a culture that wants simple 140 character answers to everything. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014