“Shelving your agenda,” or temporarily delaying one's own needs to meet those of another, is crucial for healthy relationships. In Frozen 2, Kristoff nails it.
By Jonathan Decker (Clinical Director, LMFT, Film Critic)
Through Cinema Therapy we use movies to help you develop skills for living your best life and unlocking your inner strength, based on principles from psychology and family therapy. For more like our Cinema Therapy Facebook page.
I loved Frozen 2. It has so much meat on the bone, as it were, to chew on when it comes to developing, maintaining, and growing healthy relationships. It packs an incredible amount of wisdom into its running time; healing communities from poor leadership, dealing with betrayal, restoring trust, turning enemies into friends, coping with grief, managing the pressure of responsibility, and building trust between siblings, friends, and romantic partners all factor in. There is much to dissect, and future articles will do so. But one moment in particular sent shocks of joy to my system. It involved Kristoff, Anna, and six simple, beautiful, powerful words. (Spoilers ahead)
What Does it Mean to “Shelve Our Agendas?”
Some context. In helping couples manage the conflict, insecurity, hurt, and anger which threaten to decimate the love between them, I work hard to get them grasp the concept of “shelving your agenda.” That's a phrase I once heard Dr. John Gottman use to describe the skill of temporarily bypassing our natural defensiveness, desire to explain ourselves, and urge to correct or question someone else in favor of being present for the needs of another in the moment. We put our needs on the shelf. They will come off the shelf later, but for now they're up there so we can be there for someone else.
This is different from “bottling our feelings,” which is a type of conflict avoidance in which we habitually ignore our own feelings and needs in order to soothe another person, leaving us feeling unfulfilled and resentful. Sooner or later this can lead to increased insecurity, passive-aggressiveness, or emotional outbursts, as most of us can only take so much self-denial and one-sided sacrificing in our relationships.
In contrast, “shelving our agenda” implies that our feelings do matter, our perspectives will be voiced, our questions should be answered, but that if someone we love is in need, then all of those other things don't need to happen right this second. If they're hurting, overwhelmed, or afraid, we show up for them. Period. We listen. We don't correct. We don't offer guidance or counsel unless these are asked for. We empathize. If necessary, we show humble accountability. We ask questions only to gain clarity about the other's perspective or needs. In doing so, we help soothe them, validate them, support them, and show them that they're not alone.
This is much easier to do when the other person is vulnerable. It's markedly more difficult when their fear, pain, or stress manifest as anger. It's much harder, as well, when their actions affect, offend, or hurt us. Mindfully practicing patience, humility, forgiveness, and perspective-taking towards them will allow them to soften towards us, bond with us, and feel safe with us.
When the other person feels heard and supported, when they see that we practice accountability and empathy, they are then in a position to do the same with us. We can un-shelve our agenda. We can explain our perspective. It's easier for them to listen, be accountable, and be empathetic because we've already done the same for them. Shelving our agenda sets the tone for the interaction. Sometimes the other person (once calm, supported, and heard) will take our agenda off the shelf for us.
Kristoff Shelves Like a Boss
In Frozen 2, Kristoff feels increasingly marginalized and confused in his relationship with Anna, whose concern for her sister and kingdom occupy much of her attention and energy. Granted, his multiple “foot-in-mouth” moments as he tries to propose to her do little to smooth things over. Still, when her anxiety over Elsa's safety leads her to hastily depart without him (she does briefly try to find him, but time is of the essence), he is left to worry about her. In the awesomely cheesy 80's power ballad “Lost in the Woods,” he worries whether she cares for him as much as he does for her and whether there is room for him in her life. He's hurting and confused.
When Anna returns with rock giants in hot pursuit, Kristoff arrives in a heroic bit of dues ex machina, pulling her aboard his reindeer just as she's about to be crushed to death. I've seen hundreds of moments like this in hundreds of films, and I fully expected Kristoff to deliver the type of self-aggrandizing dialogue guys always say when they've rescued the girl. “Lucky for you I was here.” “I was in the neighborhood.” “Once again, I've got to save you!” Or, more realistically, I expected him to use this moment to voice his agenda. “Where have you been?” “I've been worried sick about you!” “What did you do?” “I can't believe you left me” Or the kicker, “What's going on?” implying that she's made a mess which he now has to fix.
But he doesn't say any of that. He simply says “I'm here. What do you need?”
I almost fist-pumped and shouted in the theater. This, this is “shelving your agenda” in profound, beautiful simplicity.
We, the audience, know what Anna's been through. We know she's got a plan. But Kristoff, arriving fresh on the scene with zero context, has no idea what's going on. He sees that the woman he loves is in distress. Naturally, he takes action to help with the immediate threat. But then he's got questions. He's been hurting over her. He's been justifiably upset that she left him without explanation. He's got unresolved anxiety because he still hasn't been able to ask her to marry him. He's uncertain about their future. He's got all these needs.
But these needs don't matter to him in this moment. In this moment, all that matters is that she needs him. Instead of presuming to take over, he trusts that “she's got this” and asks how he can support. He shows humility. He also shows tremendous strength and courage. His masculinity is not diminished in any of this, it is only enhanced. And she loves him for it.
Once he's been there for her, once the crisis is over, Kristoff and Anna un-shelf his agenda together. She apologizes for leaving him. He utters those amazing words, “It's okay. My love is not fragile.” He gets context from her on all the craziness that was going on. He proposes, she accepts. All of this intimate goodness may not have happened if he'd demanded that his needs get met first. But he put them on the shelf and they came off later.
Be Like Kristoff
This is not a gendered skill. It is not something that only men should do for women. It is for wives. It is for husbands. It is for parents, siblings, and friends. It is for businesses with upset clients. It's for everybody. My rule of thumb: whoever is upset or in crisis has the floor, while the other takes the listener position.
Far too often if one person is upset, the other gets also upset, gets defensive, and tries to push their perspective. Then the first person doesn't feel heard and pushes back, and now we're in a situation where the “winner” is determined by who can be louder, meaner, a quicker thinker in the argument, or more forceful.
Don't do that. Don't push back. But don't bottle your needs, emotions, or perspective either. Put them on the shelf. Be present, empathetic, humble, and accountable, then take your agenda off that shelf later if you still think it's prudent. And if you're not sure what all this looks like, pay close attention to Kristoff.
Cinema therapy is the guided practice of mindfully watching films, identifying with the characters, and experiencing very real healing and growth by projecting oneself onto them as they learn. Developed by Dr. Birgit Woltz, it can be a powerful supplement to traditional therapy.
If you'd like extra support with your relationships or well-being, please schedule a complimentary 15 minute-consultation with Jonathan here. He's certified in cinema therapy and would be happy to include film recommendations to aide your process of growth and healing.