Just Butterflies: Steven Universe and Distress Tolerance

“Watch Steven Universe,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said. Alright, I’m joking, but Steven Universe certainly is unique in how it handles serious and pertinent topics such as queerness, characters who are coded as people of color (POC), and characters living with mental illness. The show’s depiction of mental healthcare in particular isn’t just broad, it’s also cutting-edge, incorporating aspects of a relatively new method of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to explain how to live with mental and emotional distress.

TW: attempted suicide, trauma, GIF warning
*NOTE: I am not a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist and am merely speaking from my own experience as someone diagnosed and living with major depressive disorder and learning dialectical behavior coping techniques from a licensed DBT therapist. Any coping practices mentioned in this article should be discussed with your psychologist or therapist before attempting.

While there’s been no confirmation from Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar on specific emotional or mental disorders, fans have picked up on how the show depicts mental health issues ranging from depression and  anxiety to PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) behavior. Heck, all you have to do is to look at the Steven Universe tag in the “Not All Toons are Neurotypical” Tumblr to see how fans have connected with the characters. More importantly, however, is how the show includes distress tolerance in its plots.

Steven represses his feelings in "Mindful Education"
Steven represses his feelings in “Mindful Education”

Enter Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of dialectal behavior therapy (DBT). Linehan, who revealed in 2011 that she attempted suicide as a teen while suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD), initially developed dialectical behavior therapy for others with suicidal impulses. She soon found that her combination of behavior therapy and Zen philosphy also helped consumers deal with other diagnoses such as BPD, depression and anxiety. Like Steven Universe, a large part of DBT’s strength lies in the validation and acceptance of patients’ distress brought on by triggers or flashbacks to traumatic events. Survivors’ instincts may be to repress or “stuff” their feelings, but stuffing or even denial leads to more issues later down the road. Instead, both Steven and Dr. Linehan encourage mental health consumers to recognize, approach, and accept and process their pain and suffering in order to be truly peaceful with themselves.

If, however, a survivor is in a “crisis” (what Dr. Linehan defines as a highly stressful, short-term event that creates intense need for an immediate solution), then the survivor needs to use distress tolerance skills called “crisis survival skills” to resist relying on self-/destructive coping techniques. Steven Universe demonstrates crisis survival particularly well in “Mindful Education” when Garnet uses paced breathing and imagery techniques to help Steven and Connie feel safe before Connie can acknowledge her guilt and pain over accidentally injuring a classmate and Steven can deal with his distress over his identity. The show also depicts triggering thoughts/memories as harmless butterflies in both “Serious Steven” and “Mindful Education” as a visualization technique to help Connie and Steven (and the audience) understand how to let go of their fears and pain. Even “civilian” characters such as Peridot and Greg benefit from crisis survival skills; the show depicts Steven using music to relax and distract Peridot from the Cluster crisis and Greg tries to listen to his relaxing music CD to self-soothe and cause an emotions switch.

Connie and Steven in "Mindful Education"
Connie and Steven in “Mindful Education”

As effective as distress tolerance techniques are, however, they also come with potential pitfalls. For one, Dr. Linhan warns against using crisis survival skills as a replacement for actually solving and processing underlying issues. Steven Universe accordingly includes follow-up episodes and scenes such as “Lion 4: Alternate Ending” and Peridot processing her fears about the Cluster by making up her own song in “It Could Have Been Great.” Lapis Lazuli takes two whole episodes (“Same Old World” and “Barn Mates”) to learn how to cope with the idea of living on Earth and with Peridot, but the show makes no judgments on how long processing and healing from trauma takes. In fact, the whole plot of “Room for Ruby” revolves around how Navy’s immediate acceptance of Earth and the Crystal Gems is unrealistic. Of course, not all trauma is a result of war — in “Storm in the Room,” for example, Connie uses her crisis survival skills when she fears her mother’s been in a car accident.

It’s not unusual for cartoons aimed towards kids to be hopeful, but by approaching mental healthcare in a responsible and realistic way, Steven Universe is hopeful for those living with mental illness too.

Stephanie Tran

Stephanie Tran

Queer, 20-something intersectional feminist, Vietnamese-American, and born fangirl. Writes about anything geeky and thinks about food too much. You can find Stephanie's Twitter rants at @YouAndYourEgo.