Breaking Out Of Someone Else’s Box

Everything Everywhere All At Once Breaking - Out of Someone Else's Box

Who chooses what’s “right” for you? In the best of worlds, you do. But, if you’re afraid to trust your own voice, it can be very hard to believe that. Especially when there are people in your life, and other voices inside, who tell you they know the right answers. And, so, in Everything Everywhere All at Once we watch Evelyn Yang finally forced to do battle with her father’s expectations and interferences, as she’s barraged by her many unlived lives. Not to mention, a seemingly brutal IRS agent who (really) is her own closed-down, frightened, hungry self.

Plus, there’s a failing laundromat, a beleaguered husband who’s filed for divorce, and a daughter, Joy, (turned Jobu Tupaki) – who is fighting to break out of her mother’s box of “what’s right” because of Evelyn’s own fears. Yet, as hard as she tries, Joy can’t get free of a “nothing matters” kind of despair that not being seen or heard, or accepted can bring.

Yes, inside us are many selves; neglected superpowers and abandoned dreams. How do you regain what is lost? The kaleidoscope of forgotten feelings that bombard you as they resurface can feel like too much – an everything, everywhere, all at once, kind of too much. Yet, Evelyn must face her feelings to recognize and embrace the most important thing she’s left behind: Love for her daughter, husband, (and herself) for who they are.

Why doesn’t Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) see her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) for who he is, a man capable of helping her? In another Universe, Alpha Waymond tells her: “I’m not the Waymond who wants to divorce you, I’m the Waymond who’s trying to save you. You can either come with me and live up to your potential or lie here and live with the consequences.” Can she?  Her poor self-esteem is getting in Evelyn’s way.

“What Fragile Branches Your Self-Esteem Rests On”

Fragile self-esteem (those awful, insecure feelings about yourself) causes many things. Immobilization. Discouragement. Disorganization. Fear. Even believing you must prove how good you are by doing everything yourself: needing no one’s help. That’s Evelyn.

In fact, she thinks Waymond (sweet, lovely Waymond) is the weak, incompetent one. It’s not true, but Evelyn sees it that way because she’s trying so hard to prove her own worth. And, since she can’t allow help, Evelyn ends up in a big mess. Waymond tries to remind her, yet Evelyn can’t keep her focus to get prepared for the tax lady, Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). And, who that hungry Dierdre is, is Evelyn’s problem.

Dierdre is tough, inflexible, and self-righteous. So is Evelyn. She’s that way with Waymond. And, with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). She loves Joy but doesn’t know how. Love isn’t about telling someone how to live their life; it’s about acceptance of who that someone is (and of yourself too). And, if you don’t have that acceptance, it leaves you starving, depleted, and very sad. Joy is almost unbearably sad, as we’ll see. Evelyn is sad too, since Joy doesn’t call, and unreasonably angry because Joy doesn’t “listen.”

Evelyn’s the one who can’t listen. And, this lack of self-awareness and alienation from those she loves leads to everyone feeling awful. As Waymond says: “What else is coming next to make us feel small and stupid? … Every day, I don’t know what is going on, but somehow, I feel like it’s all my fault. The only thing I know is that we have to be kind.” Waymond’s right. Kindness (and learning to express your love) goes a long, long way.

Otherwise, everyone, everywhere, all at once, feels a starvation that’s hard to live with.

This is What Starvation for Love Looks Like

Starvation for love looks like Bagel Dierdre. Like Evelyn. Like Waymond. And, it looks like Joy. That starvation starts with not loving yourself, which is what happens when you’re constantly told: “what’s right.” (In other words, what’s wrong with you.) Gong Gong (James Hong) is that way with Evelyn, who makes Joy feel the same way. When Joy’s not being Jobu Tupaki, tears run down her face. Starvation for love is why Evelyn must tell Bagel Dierdre, over and over, “I love you. I love you.” Because she’s that part of Evelyn who must learn to love herself; to stop running away from Waymond’s love.

“Think about it,” Waymond says to Evelyn, “Whenever I try to talk to you, you always get pulled away.” And, right at that moment, Bagel Dierdre, pulls her out of the van. That isn’t a surprise if you understand what happens when you don’t want to notice you’re starved for love or that you need it. Because of Gong Gong, love is confusing for Evelyn. So, once she says “I love you” to Bagel Dierdre and means it, Evelyn must face her past in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Unlived Lives & Learning What’s Really Important

There’s the famous actress, Evelyn. In beautiful clothes. Sought after. In the limelight. With Waymond in the wings. There’s Kung Fu, Evelyn, with some power to fight for what she wants when she falls in love with Waymond (who tells her: “We can make our own way.”) That power succumbs to bitter resentment. Gong Gong’s still around; his voice loud in her mind. “I saw my life without you,” actress Evelyn says to Waymond, “and it was beautiful. I should have listened to my father and not gone with you.” And, that causes everything everywhere all at once.

Evelyn is drawn into a swirl of “What If’s?” Alpha Waymond warns her about the temptations of the other universes. Right now, she can’t listen. And, anyway, she must face her unlived lives to discover what is truly important. It’s the only way she’ll save Joy from the grips of Jobu Tubaki, who’s Joy’s rebellion; her anger and her depression wrapped into one deep sadness that Evelyn can’t see her or hear her or accept her for who she is: “I’m so sorry you’re still hung up on the fact that I like girls … in this world.”

Joy (as Jobu) gently takes Evelyn’s hot dog fingers in her normal hands: “Here, let me help you open up your mind. Look. Open up … I got bored one day and I put everything on a bagel. Everything. My old report cards, my hopes and dreams, all the personal ads … You see, when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes The Truth.”

But, if you put everything on a bagel, does it really have to add up to “Nothing Matters?”

Nothing Matters is What Depression Tells You

Nothing Matters? Is this True or False? It’s the voice of depression. And, it‘s False. It’s Jobu’s lonely mantra, inside the tough wall surrounding Joy; built out of being misunderstood.

And, this is how depression works: “If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life, goes away.” Make nothing matter. Shut down your feelings. You think the pain goes away because you start to feel nothing. But it doesn’t. It seethes inside. It eats you up. You get sadder. Until someone sees. And, for Joy, it needs to be Evelyn. But, will she? Evelyn doesn’t yet know how exactly to “save Joy.”

Alpha Gong Gong, the father who told Evelyn what is right, has got a point about pushing Joy too hard but is also very wrong: “…You created Jobu Tubaki. You have to watch out or you’ll become just like her.” Wait a minute. Jobu Tubaki is a fighter. So, maybe being like Jobu isn’t all bad? Except for that “nothing matters” problem she has in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Jobu Tubaki may have taken it to an extreme, but at least she’s trying to break out of all those misguided parental “should’s” (like Gong Gong’s and Evelyn’s) and come up with her own truth. Yet, without gentle, loving guidance, what is truth and what is not gets very confused. Anyway, let’s aim for your truth being more hopeful than nothing matters.

The good thing is: If you believe that you’re living your worst self, the only way is up. Yet, how do you sort out what’s true and what’s not, with clamoring voices in your head?

Breaking Out of Someone Else’s Box

What does someone else’s box of what’s right sound like? Maybe it sounds like this: “That is what you’re supposed to do; when you’re supposed to do it; and how you’re supposed to do it. Do it now.” It’s Bagel Dierdre’s voice. She’s stuck in it too. Breaking out of the box someone else’s voice puts you in, is what Jobu Tubaki’s about:

“I am your daughter. I am Joy. Every version of Joy is Jobu Tubaki … I know the joy and pain of being your daughter. Right is a tiny box invented by people who are afraid. I know what it’s like to be in that box. You don’t have to hide behind Gong Gong anymore. You don’t have to be in that box either.” Are you reading this? Neither do you.

How can you find your voice, the true one that expresses what’s right for you? And, how do you know for sure? That’s hard when you have other voices vying for you to believe their “truths.” Parental voices are especially hard. Can you get their love and be yourself? That struggle makes for a lot of unhappiness; even the nothing matters kind.

You can’t easily come alive and be happy if you’re fighting against your parent’s voices in your mind, which criticize you and tell you that you’re wrong for being you. Evelyn tried. She chose Waymond against her father’s coercive warnings and inability to really love and support her. But since she never completely stood up to him, she’s not happy with herself or her choices. She lives in regrets. And, she couldn’t accept her daughter either.

Seeing What You See & Feeling What You Feel

Jobu Tubaki tells Evelyn: “I wasn’t trying to kill you. I was just looking for someone who could see what I see and feel what I feel. And, that someone is YOU.” Joy is Jobu because she’s sad and hurt. When Evelyn sees Waymond’s hurt, too, and his need for her kindness, she realizes how much she does love him. Now, she can reach out her hand; seeing their happy times together and all the ways he makes her life good: “I’m sorry.” Waymond (the real Waymond, not the Alpha Waymond) smiles. Evelyn sees him.

Yet, Joy isn’t so sure she feels safe if she hopes for her mom’s love. And, she says to her, with big tears on her glittered face: “Eventually, [hope] all goes away.” Can it stay?

It’s in opening up that hope lies in Everything Everywhere All At Once. First, Dierdre does, admitting to Evelyn the rage she felt at her divorce; how she went hard and bitter: “We’re bitches.” “No,” Evelyn tells her: “You’re not unlovable. There’s always something to love.” And, Evelyn stands up to her father: “I’m no longer willing to do to my daughter what you did to me. How could you do it so easily? I spent most of [Joy’s] childhood praying she wouldn’t end up like me. But she turned out to be stubborn. aimless, a mess, just like her mother.”

Maybe Evelyn can be different than Gong Gong? Maybe now she can be Joy’s mother.

Love in Everything Everywhere All At Once

It’s important to have someone kind who has your back. Like Waymond for Evelyn (even if it took an awfully long time to see) and Becky for Joy. Kindness is where hope lies. Being able to feel Waymond’s love helps Evelyn stand up to Gong Gong: “Now I see, just like me, the universe gave her someone kind and forgiving to make up for you.”

Not loving someone for who they are is not kind. Only true acceptance gives you the power to fight against a sadness that creates that despairing voice of “nothing matters.”

Joy begins to feel hope that she might finally matter to her mom when Evelyn says: “Maybe there’s something out there that makes us feel like smaller pieces of shit. But maybe there’s something that makes you still look for me and makes me still want to be with you. I will always, always, want to be here with you.” Joy is wary: “Why? You could be anywhere else. Here we only get a few specks of time where anything makes any sense.” Evelyn won’t let go: “Then I’ll cherish those few specks of time.” They hug.

Everything Everywhere All at Once ends with this message: Love, acceptance, and loving yourself are more important than all that regret for unlived lives. And, you know what else? Here’s the thing about an Everything Bagel: it includes every possible choice combined into one “Bagel World.” Even to feel for another person.

In the best of worlds, families can be like that too. Willing to accept everyone’s different decisions. Because everyone has a right to their own truth (at least as long as there isn’t unkindness mixed in.) And, maybe you don’t need an AlphaVerse to prove it.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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