A psychologist weighs in on the crucial life lessons we can all take from Dumbo

A psychologist weighs in on the crucial life lessons we can all take from Dumbo

With Tim Burton’s remake of the high-flying Disney classic Dumbo hitting theatres, we round up expert tips in self-confidence gleaned from Hollywood’s bravest little elephant.


Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Colin Farrell


Tim Burton

Release date

March 29, 2019

More movie details →

Long-time fans of Disney’s 1941 animated big-top classic, Dumbo, will likely remember two large players in the elephant’s eventual circus success story: his oversized ears. But with the release of Tim Burton’s new live-action remake (starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Eva Green on trapeze) it’s worth noting the influence of Dumbo’s famous good-luck charm — a "magic” feather bequeathed to him by his self-appointed mentor, Timothy Q. Mouse.

Dumbo isn’t the only one who needs a little physical (or mental) reminder of his abilities. Humans have their own “feathers” too, such as a lucky coin kept in a pocket or a memento from a family member to remind us we’re loved or even an affirmation we recite to boost confidence before a big meeting.

We asked Toronto-based clinical psychologist Katelyn Gomes to explain the importance of these talismans in our lives, and why Dumbo reminds us that everyone (even an elephant) needs a supportive mind trick once in a while.

It’s natural for humans to fly with “feathers”...

In psychological terms, Dumbo’s reliance on his feather is what’s known as an “anchor,” or as Gomes explains it, “an external cue that links you to a certain mindset, mood or memory.” She explains that our understanding of this pairing of stimulus and response is as old as Ivan Pavlov and his dogs — though their link was between dinner and a bell. Anchors are also commonly seen in sports, where athletes will wear a special glove or shout a meaningufl chant before big games. “They’re a way to enhance performance in some way, a way of getting positive reinforcement, which is a very natural need for us,” says Gomes.

…But you shouldn’t rely on anchors alone

“If you only think you can achieve something thanks to your ‘feather,’ whatever that anchor is for you, that can downplay your natural abilities,” says Gomes, referring to how Dumbo had to learn he could fly all along, without his feather. “It’s important to acknowledge all of the inner strength you have that helps you succeed beyond one external stimulus — all your hard work, practice and resilience.” Gomes says finding the line between using your “feather” as a safety crutch and remembering your own internal tenacity is the key to maintaining true confidence: a pivotal realization for little Dumbo.

Get by with a little help from your friends

If you’re finding that your current anchor lacks effectiveness, take a page out of Dumbo’s book and lean on friends for a confidence boost. “It’s normal for us to want external validation and to feel like we fit [in with] our peers — that we’re liked and likeable,” says Gomes. “Acknowledging that is healthy.” Still, she cautions that, like Dumbo, our self-esteem can’t be solely tied to external validation, from mice or feathers. Instead, she recommends cutting yourself a little slack: “A lot of people tend to have critical self-talk. Use a compassionate voice with yourself. It won’t make or break your self-esteem, but it will support it.”

Stay in tune with your inner child

Dumbo is a childhood favourite, and Gomes says it’s actually the activities we loved as youths that connect us to our deepest well of confidence. “Think about what you enjoyed doing as a kid, and get back into those things,” she says. “As a child, you probably got a lot of pleasure out of certain hobbies, knowing you didn’t necessarily need to be the best at them to enjoy yourself.” Whether you’ve got a physical advantage (ears and plumage) or not, what makes someone a success is soaring high on happiness — both in and out of fairy tales.

This one is a great pick for you if you enjoyed Tim Burton hits like Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Dumbo is the perfect movie for the whole family

Relive the nostalgia of this Disney classic, and share it with the kids for their first Dumbo experience. There are plenty of life lessons to take away from the endearing tale, and Tim Burton’s adorable rendering of Dumbo begs to be seen on the big screen.

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