Fairy tale therapy. Working with fairy tales. Beauty and the beast.

I have discovered that it is much easier to conduct and organize regular seminars on topics that are familiar to everyone than events dedicated to fairy tales. Because for many of my readers, this is not an obvious story at all: why compare their emotions and life situations with fairy tales.

20 August, 2023

In a rather pedantic-academic explanation, fairy tale therapy can be seen as a variation of the projective method aimed at exploring emotions and our current life situations. However, fairy tale therapy is not limited to actual fairy tales. For me, it encompasses any use of emotionally resonating stories (plots from movies, narratives from people around us, myths, stories conjured in active imagination, or even those observed in dreams) and symbols from them to understand our own emotional processes and relationships with the external world. Fairy tale therapy is most analogous to a thematic and time-limited therapeutic group. The latter can be long-term, spanning a year or a predefined number of sessions (most commonly 10 or 20). Fairy tale therapy, on the other hand, is often conducted in a single session but occasionally extends to two. Nevertheless, the essence is somewhat similar—seeing oneself, experiencing novelty, "encountering the world" through other participants, and assimilating the experiences that occur.

In the context of fairy tale therapy, participants' processes do revolve around and align with specific fairy tale narratives. In a therapeutic group, without a predetermined program or thematic exercises, life situations and participants' themes can entirely shape the course of all processes and discussions.

However, it may remain unclear how we should interpret tales, myths, stories, and movies in such a way that it holds significant meaning for psychotherapy or even group work. Why invest time in narratives when we can proceed conventionally, whether in individual therapy or group settings? Why not follow the classics, wherein clients discuss what holds the greatest emotional significance for them? Similarly, group participants might adhere to this principle, leading to an effective dynamic group when facilitated by an experienced and skilled leader.

Consciously, I saw the sea for the first time when I was three years old. A couple of weeks before this momentous event, my mother told me that we would "go to the sea," and that I would "know what it looks like and be able to draw it." She emphasized drawing because I had a deep love for drawing during that period. It made me wonder whether I could draw the sea even before the trip. So, I asked my mother, "What does it look like? Can I draw it right now?" She replied, "Maybe. It's like a big lake, but you can't see the opposite shore at all." For the next two weeks, I pondered how a lake could look without another shore. However, I couldn't manage to draw anything. My consciousness simply didn't know how the edge of the world could appear if there was no land (accessing the internet at that time was an unreachable possibility, and postcards with sea views were only displayed at my grandmother's house, a place I hadn't been to in the crucial two weeks, and I never paid enough attention to them to understand and remember). The realm of fairy tales, stories, and symbols was just as enigmatic for me. Either you've seen and experienced it, and there's no need for explanations, or you haven't. Then it's easier to "travel" once and everything falls into place.

In individual psychological work, I most often referred to tales like "The Girl Without Hands", "Bluebeard", "Fisherman's Wife" (the Grimm Brothers' version), "The Snow Queen," "Peter Pan", "Rapunzel", "Trouble and Care" and "Mimosa." I always engaged enthusiastically with the tales brought by clients or even those they invented. I knew, read, and interpreted many other stories, but I rarely had a reason to explore them more deeply unless working with a few individuals or discussing them with colleagues.

I do not set myself the formidable task of showing how to feel tales using text (and what value there is in immersing oneself emotionally in "other people's stories," which often seem quite fanciful from the perspective of common sense). This is the aspect that is best and most naturally realized through experiential engagement (fairy tale therapy, personal psychotherapy). However, I can partially address the matter and provide an example of how one can enrich their understanding of the essence of fairy tales.

Here's an example. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. We have a tradition where either my spouse or I tell her fairy tales at bedtime. In all these tales, the main character, following another established tradition, is named "Pink Dress," even if it's a story about "Little Red Riding Hood," "Snow White," or "Sleeping Beauty." I understand her preference for giving the main character the same name every time, along with her pseudonym. Regardless, the invitation is to empathize with the main character and learn something from the experiences that occur in the tale. So why deny oneself the pleasure of placing oneself at the center of the story without any intermediaries? Once, I told her the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast”. Initially, my daughter got distracted and wasn't paying much attention. It's typical of her when it comes to new, unfamiliar tales that she hasn't yet "fallen in love" with. But then, suddenly, she listened to it to the end and couldn't get enough, repeatedly asking for that same story. After a month of repetitions, I felt puzzled because, firstly, I had narrated the Disney version, which I myself don't fully favor compared to other more captivating renditions of the "Beauty and the Beast" narrative (like Charles Perrault's, "The Scarlet Flower," or Villeneuve's versions). Secondly, I was curious to decipher what had captured her interest, and initially, I had few interpretations about it.

I was initially bothered by some of the most basic, mundane, surface-level, and negative associations in the tale "Beauty and the Beast." What troubled me was that the main heroine sacrifices her well-being for a man who draws her into a relationship by force. Initially, he holds her father captive (imprisons him in the castle) and later agrees to exchange "captives." In this case, Belle becomes a prisoner in his castle. Unlike the story of "Bluebeard," she is not tempted or enticed by any allurements or hopes. She ends up in the castle as a captive, compelled against her will. In the versions by Villeneuve, Charles Perrault, and "The Scarlet Flower," the Beast behaves coercively in the form of an ultimatum only with the father, but invites one of his daughters to become the mistress of the castle (in the event of their refusal, he intends to kill the father but not harm the girls if they choose not to engage with him, not come to him, or leave during the process). In these alternative versions compared to the Disney plot, I personally felt more empathy for the characters' decision to be together. However, in the Disney version, it seems to depict a sort of Stockholm syndrome, which later transforms into a marriage. (But this is only if you view the tale and interpret it "objectively"*).

*Interpreting fairy tales (and dreams, and any stories) can be subjective or objective. Objective interpretation involves identifying with one of the characters and perceiving other participants in the plot as individuals with whom the protagonist (whom our attention is directed towards) has certain relationships. We can explore and make sense of these relationships, drawing parallels with everyday life. We observe what feelings and reactions certain episodes and forms of relationships evoke in us.

Subjective interpretation entails considering all participants in a dream, story, or fairy tale as different sub-personalities within the same psyche, soul. In other words, if the characters are in conflict, it reflects an internal conflict rather than an external (interpersonal) one. When they love each other, it signifies the harmonious integration and cooperation of diverse forces and energies within us, rather than the joy of "creating a successful and happy marriage." If our characters "live long and happily," and even have children, it signifies the fertility of a certain aspect of our soul, the fullest realization of the aspect being explored, endowed with both masculine and feminine psychic abilities and our true essence.

And the second aspect that troubled me was that one of the two main "positive" characters (the Beast) initially displays extreme "narcissism," indulging in the vices of arrogance, indifference, and lack of compassion, which undergoes transformation throughout the plot. What could captivate my daughter in the theme of transforming destructive narcissism? Certainly not her dad, who is definitely "not from this fairy tale." (I, too, apparently tried my best. Besides, I am a woman, and the plot clearly revolves around male figures.) I even considered adding a moral lesson to the story, like "my dear, sometimes destructive narcissists don't change! Your mom." However, I refrained from comments because let archetypal plots speak for themselves. Moreover, an "objective" interpretation is always more superficial and less informative than a subjective one and contributes less to healing or growth. Incidentally, again, in the versions of Villeneuve, Charles Perrault, and "The Scarlet Flower," the Beast isn't initially portrayed as a carrier of heavy narcissism either. He is depicted as a victim in the past, succumbing to the seduction of his stepmother, who was also a powerful sorceress. For refusing to engage in an "incestuous" relationship with her, she curses him, and only true love from another person can break the curse, despite his repulsive appearance. Thus, the Beast doesn't serve as a chance for redemption and transformation for a sinner, but rather as an "orphaned" hero, facing difficulties that make it much harder for him to attain what others find much more easily in life.

In the end, I acquainted my daughter with all four versions. After some time, she enjoyed all of them and didn't give preference to any particular one. Interestingly, despite the significant changes in the plot, her perception and interest remained unaffected. Personally, I diverted my attention from objective interpretations and arrived at an observation that, from the perspective of a subjective interpretation, all the different plots are indeed very similar, and minor details do not hold decisive significance for the main question. It seems that the central motif revolves around the value of integrating the shadow (the repressed and ugly aspects within ourselves), which holds unseen treasures for us.

In all versions of the tale, significant attention is given to describing the splendid palace possessed by the repulsive and embittered Beast. This wondrous palace is bestowed upon our Beauty, almost at the very beginning of the story. The richness and beauty of these treasures (described in great detail) suggest to her the correctness of her actions, the place she has come to, and the connection she is building (with herself, meaning the "Beast"). Naturally, in the subjective interpretation, the entrance to the magical castle isn't about earthly materialism, where material possessions take precedence and enthusiasm is mustered to tolerate ugliness. On the contrary, the supporters of the material, external, and superficial-social aspects are represented by Beauty's sisters (present in three out of the four mentioned versions). They endure one defeat after another and are "disfigured" by their attitudes and limitations (men, who are so desirable for them, aren't interested in them and instead gravitate toward Beauty).

And Beauty represents that aspect of the soul which strives for the internal, the non-superficial, towards the deep layers of the unconscious and the collective. She cannot be distracted by any temptations of society, she is unafraid of the ugliness she encounters during her descent. Among all the sisters, she is the one who seeks to establish a connection with the deep wellspring of power and envisions a possible path towards that source (which remains unattainable for her father and sisters). However, this journey is impossible without undergoing trials and it's impossible without transformation within the source itself. The Beast "allows" her to approach and transforms itself so as not to harm her. So why is the Beast unattainable for her father and sisters? I won't delve into the details of symbols here (Maria-Louise von Franz's book "The Interpretation of Fairy Tales" beautifully delves into that), as the article is already quite lengthy, but aging fathers usually represent conservative, time-tested, yet stagnating psychic attitudes. These fathers are usually without women and without the possibility of new children. They are no longer "patents," and breakthroughs and soul transformations are no longer possible due to them. However, if these fathers are caring and protective (as is the case in the Charles Perrault and "Little Scarlet Flower" variations), it means that these attitudes have served us faithfully and provided support until now, and they represent a safe haven. But to remain solely within them would mean the death of the soul and stagnation. Therefore, it is Beauty who must undertake a great journey.

If we were to reframe the same story from the perspective of a man while staying within the realm of subjective interpretation... Let's consider such a fairy tale as a man's dream. What would it be about then? Certainly not about embracing the shadow, it seems. Beauty appears to be an inappropriate symbol for the shadow material of the soul... Or so it seems. On the other hand, what's needed to truly manage one's wealth, resources, and legacy is to find an insightful, courageous, intelligent, and faithful "mistress" for one's castle. And this is not about the external, but the internal. That is, it's about the healthy feminine within a man, allowing it to flourish without suppression or devaluation. It's about the masculine unfolding not through opposition, expulsion, or suppression of the feminine within oneself, but through growth and cooperation with "feminine" attributes. In a sense, this could also be a form of embracing the shadow – reclaiming the "exiled" or devalued feminine. This is to give a significant place and role to the feminine, and it's the final touch to make the entire construct of the soul function in a way that would never happen within the "hermit" and "beast" castles. Without the presence of certain feminine forces within (internally), the entirety of the masculine essence would be disfigured. The result might be a castle, but without life. A resource, but one that's frozen and unproductive.

I provided these reflections on the tale of "Beauty and the Beast" as an example of how sometimes, through narratives rather than theory, knowledge, or other practices, we manage to quickly connect with collective experience and enrich ourselves through it. It helps us progress further in our pursuits and endeavors, increase the productivity of our own souls, and enhance the effectiveness of our efforts. It guides us to find hints for our trials and transform lifeless beauty into abundant beauty. I don't know of a way easier and quicker than using the plot of this tale to convey the idea of "treasures of the shadow." Perhaps through other plots and stories with the same theme, but that's about it. That's why I greatly value the opportunity to encounter and learn from various life stories. And to be deeply moved by the processes that unfolded within them. By engaging with them, we tap into the wisdom of the universe. Folktales or narratives passed down through generations are like a "repost," validated over the centuries, in contrast to plots that have receded into the background and faded from memory. In the most enduring and universally transmitted plots, it seems that there is a wealth of material about the most universal challenges, passions, hopes, and desires. It doesn't matter that the names and details of the plot adjust to fit a specific era, its challenges, and peculiarities.

About me

Maria Dolgopolova – a certified clinical and a jungian psychologist (Moscow Association of Analytical Psychology, an IAAP training candidate studying in CGJung Institute in Zurich) with a background in gestalt therapy (Moscow Institute of Gestalt and Psychodrama, Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) and in psychoanalysis of object relations.


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