7 Powerful Trauma-Informed Lessons from Rocketman


*Spoiler warning: This article reveals the general storylines of Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody*

Have you seen the film Rocketman yet? I hope you do! Here’s why I think it’s a beautiful movie that everyone should see. Like the film Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman provides a powerful example of how attachment trauma in childhood can fuel a cycle of shame, pain, and addiction. Even better, it also reveals a pathway to recovery. Rocketman is trauma-informed because it helps us understand how emotional injuries impact a trauma survivor’s behavior and what that person needs for growth and healing. Through compassion, support and reparative relationships, healing is possible.

I love to see that more movie studios are choosing projects based on real life to create a safe space to show pain and healing. When I look at these movies through a trauma-informed lens, I see huge potential to promote greater compassion and understanding for all.

Both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody offer trauma-informed perspectives and insights into human struggles. By understanding the power of holding pain in gentle recognition – kindly reflecting on what happened and why the pain is there — imagine how much of a difference we can make in helping those around us to feel more accepted, supported, and valued.

Here are my top 7 trauma-informed takeaways from Rocketman, with some parallels in Bohemian Rhapsody:

1) Trauma is trauma!

The movie’s scenes from Elton’s childhood show emotionally abusive, negligent and unavailable parents, and sparse expressions of love and support. Because his trauma came from relationship pain, rather than physical pain (such as physical abuse), some people might say Elton John did not experience “Big T” trauma. He “only” experienced “Little T” trauma, largely made up of attachment trauma.

But from a trauma-informed view, the damage either way can be just as devastating. That lack of nurturing and attachment as a child left the future Elton without resources to cope with the huge challenges of fame, adulthood, and the struggle to understand his sexuality. He continued to suffer deeply as an adult.

He tried everything available to cope using substances, sex, alcohol and food to feel less badly and maintain a high profile career. Like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Elton John struggled with not fitting in, feeling overwhelmed, and not feeling good enough. This is why I believe using “Big T” and “Little T” is a mistake—because trauma is trauma!

2) Shame fuels the cycle of addiction.

In both movies, the characters experience hardship and shame as they struggle to come to terms with their authentic selves as artists and human beings. They feared violence and rejection for their homosexuality before today’s somewhat improved attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals.

Like people with addiction today, they faced contempt and rejection for their substance abuse. Perhaps all this wouldn’t have been so difficult for them if the culture around them had been more accepting and compassionate. Compassion is essential in healing the cycle of addiction.

3) Reparative relationships are healing.

Trauma can cause people to miss opportunities for real healthy connections in their lives. When someone grows up with attachment trauma, they don’t always recognize or embrace the people who are actually going to be there for them.

From the first time they met, and throughout their relationship together, Bernie Taupin offered secure attachment. He let Elton John know—in his words and his actions—that he was there for him. This is the basis of a healing relationship! In Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddy Mercury’s girlfriend and his band mates offered secure attachment to him. Both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody show the power of restorative, healing relationships.

4) Success doesn’t repair trauma or make it go away.

Often those in pain think that money or success will make the pain go away. It’s a myth that “having it all” makes life pain-free. Here’s evidence: For two of the most famous musicians on the planet, great wealth and success couldn’t deliver personal happiness or peace. The pain of trauma still remains. Both individuals had reached the height of stardom. They had adoring crowds all over the world. But that didn’t make them happy because fame didn’t provide real connection.

5) The turning point: When doing everything to feel less badly doesn’t work.

Many trauma survivors seek help and begin the process of healing only after they’ve acted from within the trauma framework. They did everything they possibly could to feel less badly, only to ultimately realize their approach was not working.

Elton John and Freddie Mercury used drugs, alcohol and sex, and Elton John also used food, attempting to make the pain go away. Both Elton John and Freddie Mercury eventually found the support they needed in the people who loved them. They asked for help, and began to learn about self-care.

6) You give healing to yourself.

Rocketman was set in a drug addiction treatment center. We watch an artistic portrayal of the adult Elton John’s therapeutic journey through flashbacks. We see him come to terms with the injuries seared deeply into body memories as a child. In the final scene, where he hugs the child he once was, we see a powerful image of the healing process. The adult Elton John was able to nurture the inner child part of him that had been longing for that nurturing and secure attachment his entire life.

In trauma-informed therapy this is exactly how healing is supposed to happen! You can’t live your childhood over, or get healing support from parents who don’t know how to give it. But you can give it to yourself. You can give your child part what it needs, to grow stronger and healthier. Seeing the post-recovery Elton John embrace his childhood self was so movingly spectacular, from a trauma-informed point of view. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the process of self-discovery and healing is more inferred. We see Freddie Mercury’s character prepare to die in peace, surrounded by those who actually do love him.

7) You never know who is struggling.

If you were like many of the people who saw Rocketman, you were probably surprised to learn that Elton John struggled and felt such pain for most of his life. If you only looked at him as a performer, from the outside, you wouldn’t have known. Like many trauma survivors, Elton John tried to paint a pretty picture on the outside. This is one of many important reasons why everyone deserves our compassion. You never know what someone is going through even if everything appears to be wonderful. 

What is the most important takeaway from Rocketman?

Ask for help.

As Elton John said in this video:

“If you’re in a bad way, and you’re unhappy, ask for help. It really is so difficult sometimes, but when I did, a lot of help came my way, and my life, since I got sober, has been quite the most amazing journey…. I don’t have to wake up in the morning feeling like I don’t want to wake up.”

We want to remind you that healing is possible. Contact us for trauma-informed therapy in Alexandria, Virginia at 703-518-8883.

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