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Overcoming complex family dynamics: A psychologist’s reflections on Turning Red

Domee Shi’s fabulous animated film Turning Red (2022) depicts the story of Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a Chinese-Canadian teenager embarking on the awkwardness and pain of adolescence. At the start of the film, Mei states confidently “some people say ‘beware – if you focus on honouring your parents, you might forget to honour yourself’. Luckily, I don’t have that problem. I’m my own person, 24/7, 365… Though some of my moves, are also my mum’s…”

Mei sees herself as totally comfortable in her own skin, someone who can be both ‘cool’ and a high achiever, having a close group of friends while able to meet her family’s expectations, such as working at their temple and studying every night. However, Mei’s self-delusion is obvious to her friends, who comment that Mei is “brainwashed” as she anxiously rushes home for dinner and temple duties, rather than continuing to hang out with them.

The beginning of Turning Red paints a picture of what it can be like for a teenager to have been raised in a certain type of complex family dynamic. Though Mei paints a rosy picture of her life as she introduces herself, she has a stressful energy about her as she rushes between many commitments, trying to keep everyone, including herself, thinking she’s totally fine and happy to be doing it all.

But Mei isn’t fully aware that juggling all these commitments is mainly motivated by her inherent desire for others’ approval - especially her family’s. Though she may enjoy some of the activities she does, a lot of this enjoyment is actually the high she gets from receiving external validation. These nice feelings help maintain Mei’s self-delusion that she is her own person who enjoys living this busy, pressured life.

What Mei doesn’t notice (or is unwilling to) is that her friends are concerned about her – not only because they want to spend more time having fun with her, but because they see her living this “brainwashed” life that keeps her focused primarily on meeting her family’s relentless expectations.

This is such a common pattern I see for people I work with – they come to therapy because they are highly anxious and need strategies to help them feel calmer, but when we delve into their situation together, we often uncover a common underlying set of beliefs and behaviours that drive chronic anxiety, known in my profession as “schemas”.

Schemas are usually viewed by the person as reasonable, realistic and potentially a positive aspect of their identity. For example, having certain schemas can make people hard-working, selfless, kind and reliable individuals, which are qualities that are usually labelled positively by society. However, because schemas often take people to more the extreme levels of these traits, they can also lead to chronic challenges with relationships and mental health.

Schemas develop throughout childhood and adolescence, and cement in early adulthood unless, by then, the person’s environment has changed enough that the person learns more helpful life lessons and develops more adaptive, self-compassionate beliefs.

Mei’s schemas

Mainly because of her family context, Mei seems to be developing the three most common schemas I see in clients - “unrelenting standards”, “self-sacrifice” and “approval seeking”…

Unrelenting standards

Mei has very high standards for herself in all domains, which leads her to overwork to maintain her high levels of achievement. On the flipside, others with this schema may actually avoid achievement-related activities, because they believe they can never fulfil the unrealistic and relentless expectations placed on them – like that classic saying, “if you don’t try, you can’t fail”.


Although Mei tells herself at the start of the film that she is loving life, the thought of prioritising her own enjoyment over her family’s needs and desires is very difficult, based on how she reacts when her own fun conflicts with what her parents expect of her. People with this schema might feel that they need to retreat from others in order to meet their own needs, and to feel less guilty or ashamed about putting themselves first (something they have usually been pre-programmed to feel by their early life experiences).

Approval seeking

Humans are tribal animals, so it is adaptive for us to seek acceptance from others. However, people with the approval seeking schema will go to great lengths to fit in no matter who they are with, often at the expense of their own identity, needs and values. Mei’s behaviours during certain parts of the film are great examples of what this can look like.

For example, Mei is trying so hard to fit into every situation, that it leads her to supress important aspects of her character depending on who she is around. This schema is triggered in a major way when Mei’s lies are caught out by her mother and Mei then needs to choose between maintaining her mother’s approval by lying more, or getting her friends’ approval by accepting responsibility for her actions.

Mei chooses to lie at the expense of her friends, to maintain her mother’s approval. Prioritising the approval of parents over everything else is not an uncommon choice for people to make. In spite of our physically safer modern environment, we still operate mostly from tribal instincts, which are to keep the approval of our primary caregiver, who is our main protection from danger. These instincts were cultivated in our genes over millenia.

The central question of Turning Red – will Mei keep her schemas or keep her panda?

Mei’s status quo is shattered on the day of her 13th birthday, when she wakes up as a giant, adorable red panda. Her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) then reveals that the women in their family all turn into a giant red panda at a certain point during adolescence and must complete a special ritual through which the panda spirit is supressed into a piece of jewellery that the women must wear for the rest of their lives (I could write a whole separate article about the feminist symbolism inherent in this aspect of the film, but I’ll save it for another time…).

The ritual can only be performed on the night of a red moon, so Mei must live with the panda spirit until the ritual can be performed. First, her mother locks her in her bedroom to wait out the days until the ritual. While in her room, bored, lonely and depressed, Mei figures out that when she feels calm, she temporarily becomes human again. So, she practices her breathing and visualisation skills in order to “calm the panda”, then demonstrates them to her parents to convince them to let her return to school, which they reluctantly agree to.

When Mei accidentally “lets the panda out” at school, after first scaring and shocking her classmates, they quickly decide that Panda Mei is the coolest thing ever, and she becomes extremely popular - everyone lines up and pays to get photos with her, hug her and watch her do her funky dance.

While Mei’s family prepare for her ritual, Mei and her friends are having a great time using her cuteness and energy to earn money to pay for tickets to see their favourite band *4Town in concert. They almost reach their target when Mei realises that the night of the red moon is the same night as the concert, and she must choose whether to avoid the ritual to see the band and keep her powers forever, or attend the ritual, lose her panda energy, and miss out on what she believes will be the best night of her life.

Mei’s panda, and the choices she must make once it is unleashed, have strong parallels to what it’s like growing up in a family culture that prioritises duty and responsibility over discovering your own identity and passions. Mei’s story also shows what it’s like to overcome the effects of living with the unrelenting standards, self-sacrifice and approval seeking schemas.

Like Mei, along their path to recovery, the people I work with often need to make choices between their own passions and pleasures vs. fulfilling a perceived duty to others, whether it be to their family, a toxic workplace, or a demanding partner or friend.

If you resonated with anything from this post, I encourage you to watch Turning Red and reflect on the following questions:

  • What are the traits of your “panda” and how do you feel about them?

  • Do you let them come out, or do you supress them?

  • What do you think your family/partner/boss/friends’ attitude is toward your “panda” traits?

  • In upholding others’ expectations of you, what do you end up sacrificing in the process? What are the things you have to miss out on in order to control your “panda”? What is your *4Town concert?

If you feel like you’re constantly ‘suppressing your panda’ to get through life and maintain others’ approval, and the thought of changing this seems overwhelming, seeing a psychologist can be a helpful way to figure out what might be holding you back from showing up as your authentic self, and to learn skills that might help you break free from the mental and interpersonal barriers that are keeping your panda caged up!

All images in this post were taken from Turning Red, Disney & Pixar, 2022


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