The movie Tangled provides many excellent examples of what it feels like to live in the “fog” of emotional abuse.
In the song “Mother Knows Best,” Mother Gothel says:
“Go ahead and leave me, I deserve it
Let me die alone here, be my guest
When it's too late, you'll see, just wait
Mother knows best.”
Survivors of emotional abuse, particularly parent-inflicted emotional abuse, often resonate strongly with Tangled. If you have seen the movie, you know Rapunzel is fearful of leaving her tower. Mother Gothel has instilled fear of the outside world in Rapunzel, and she has also instilled a sense of obligation for Rapunzel to stay to demonstrate love and loyalty to Mother Gothel. The fear is twofold: the outside world has been misrepresented, and even if it had been represented accurately, Rapunzel would be unlikely to leave out of her sense of obligation to her mother. Mother Gothel is aware of Rapunzel’s empathy and compassion, and she takes advantage of these qualities by pointing out how Rapunzel will “hurt” her mother if she leaves home.
We see the guilt play out later in the movie when Rapunzel leaves her tower and discovers the outside world is not as terrifying and evil as expected. Unfortunately, even as Rapunzel enjoys her adventures and has new experiences away from her mother, Mother Gothel is emotionally present. Most survivors of emotional abuse can relate to this: being physically away from the perpetrator does not automatically break the cycle. We see Rapunzel wrestle guilt and obligation, vacillating between euphoria and regret, stating “This will kill her!” and sobbing because she feels so guilty. As a side note, Rapunzel is 18 years old in the movie- legally an adult. Emotionally abusive parents rarely recognize their children as adults, regardless of age.
The FOG Cycle Defined
The “fear, obligation, guilt” cycle was first defined by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier in their book Emotional Blackmail. The “FOG” is an appropriate acronym because it captures the confusing, murky feelings experienced when we are experiencing emotional abuse.
The fear goes both ways. Typically, the perpetrator is fearful of not getting what they want. Often, the behavior is coming from a deep fear of abandonment. That said, people can deeply fear abandonment and choose NOT to harm their loved ones. There is never an excuse for abusive behavior, and you have done nothing to deserve this behavior. Because the perpetrator fears losing you, they will often project that fear onto you. In Rapunzel’s case, Mother Gothel is dependent upon Rapunzel for eternal youth and beauty, so she is fearful of losing Rapunzel. Instead of being honest about her motivation for needing Rapunzel around, Mother Gothel instead instills fear in Rapunzel. She tells Rapunzel the world is scary and that Rapunzel is too weak and dumb to handle it. When we hear these messages over and over, we begin to believe it.
Family abuse is particularly insidious because we are bombarded with messages implying obligation. Most major religions have passages about honoring parents, holding family in high regard, etc. There is a stigma associated with estrangement. Most people feel some level of obligation to have relationships with family members. Perpetrators of emotional abuse will lean into the sense of obligation you may be feeling and remind you that you “owe” things to them simply because they raised you or are related to you. News flash: being on your family tree is not a free pass to harm you. And besides, if their supposed reason for treating you this way is that they love you, why do they want you to live in constant fear, obligation, and guilt? That is not love.
Guilt is not always a bad thing. It can remind us we have gone against our own values. The guilt in the FOG cycle, however, can keep us stuck in people-pleasing the perpetrator. In the cycle of emotional abuse, there is rarely room for us to develop and live by our own values. Guilt is not useful when it keeps us putting aside our own needs to meet someone else’s need for control.
Hope and Healing
Tangled also provides an example of hope and healing. Rapunzel does and has several of the things that are useful for breaking out of the FOG cycle.
I would love to hear your thoughts about the mother-daughter relationship in Tangled. In future posts, I will dive more into the how to recognize emotional abuse, how to protect yourself, and how to heal.
Forward, S., & Frazier, D. (2019). Emotional blackmail: When the people in your life use fear, obligation, and guilt to manipulate you. Harper.
Greno, N., & Howard, B. (2010). Tangled. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.