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Myth and Fairy Tale: The Use of Old Stories in Psychotherapy

I love telling stories in therapy.

I don’t do it frequently, but sometimes the work unfolds in such a way that, in a given moment, a particular story seems the most resonant and helpful response.

Usually the stories I tell are myths or fairy tales -- the Old Stories -- stories of imprisoned and enslaved women like Rapunzel and Cinderella; of orphaned or unwanted children such as Vasalisa, the Ugly Duckling, and the Greek Hephaestus; of trauma and redemption, for example the Mesopotamian story of Inanna's descent to the underworld, or the Japanese tale of the Crescent Moon Bear; stories of individuation, such as the Grimm Brothers’ “Fitcher’s Bird” or “The Frog Prince.” There are many more, of course: many more stories and many more universal themes of human existence.

Of course, people love a good story: that’s one of the things that makes us deeply human. But modern society is replete with options for entertainment, so what makes the Old Stories unique? More pointedly, what makes them so valuable in depth psychotherapy?

Archetypes and Your Internal Life

The importance of the Old Stories unfurls far beyond entertainment or historical interest. Their therapeutic value is less in their overt content than in their symbolic depths: the Old Stories are archetypal. That is, they bring to life invisible blueprints for diverse parts of the human psyche, intangible reflections of the basic impulses that exist within each of us. We tend to favor, and sometimes get hooked by, certain archetypal aspects of ourselves, for example the peacemaker, the yes-man, the victim. Simultaneously we often repress the opposite -- say the warrior, the rebel, the rescuer. (Which are favored and which are shunned will be different for each person, of course.)

Everyone more or less chooses unconsciously which archetypal energies to express (and how), and identifying these tendencies is nowhere near as simple as taking an online quiz. We are not so cut-and-dried as to choose a particular way of being and stick with it consistently across all situations: some things trigger us more, or differently, than others. Moreover the archetypes are not so two-dimensional either. Each one is a complex constellation of energies, each of which may bloom or wither depending on the context.

Many people are familiar with human- and animal-like archetypes such as the king and queen, the golden child, the orphan, the rebel, the witch, the peasant, the beast, and many more. But in and around each of us are also archetypes of other kinds: forest, flood, tower, war, beauty, love, sex, birth, death, underworld. The list goes on and on. Often even entire stories are archetypes -- stories of descent, rebirth, journey, struggle -- and in these tales other archetypes, like those named above, act within the story’s framework. In fact, it’s fair to say that the entirety of history (and prehistory too) is a bustling bazaar of archetypal energies all intermingling, interacting, and influencing one another.

When Archetypes Meet Story

Certainly archetypes are interesting enough to study in isolation from one another, but when they constellate together inside of a story, that’s when they wake up and really start moving. Then we can see their many varied aspects and deepen our understanding of the world, of each other, of ourselves.

Snow White.jpg

Imagine the character Snow White without the forest, without the wicked stepmother, without the huntsman, the dwarves, or Prince Charming. The young woman may exist, but we don’t know much of anything about her (or, more pointedly, about the archetype she represents) until we see her in the landscape of the story, interacting with various types of people -- various other archetypal figures. The stepmother awakens one aspect of Snow White (the meek daughter), the huntsman another (the free woman), and the dwarves still another (the generous matron). And we haven’t even got to the disguised stepmother or Prince Charming yet!

Who would you be in that story? We might all like to think we’d be the brave, kind huntsman who lets Snow White run free. But can we really say there is no part of us that is the jealous stepmother, fearful of the loss of her beauty? Or the weak father, afraid to stand up to his powerful wife? What about the besotted prince with perhaps a bit of a rescuer complex -- is there any of us who hasn't felt such an impulse? Do we not all have within us a truth-telling mirror, a dark and dangerous forest, a cozy cottage, a poison apple? What is your poison apple, and which part of you persists in delivering it? Which part of you succumbs to it? Which part will pull you back from the effects of that poison?

Now we begin to see how any single person may manifest a countless number of archetypal energies. Now we begin to see how self-inquiry coupled with story may lead to consciousness and how that, in turn, may give us a wider array of choices about how to act. 

Now we begin to see what purpose the Old Stories may serve in psychotherapy. 

Seeing Ourselves in the Old Stories

Through story we learn who we are.

Stories first remind us that we’re not alone, that neither our anguish nor our triumph isolates us, that the full spectrum of feeling is, in fact, a key legacy of being deeply, fully human. We recognize ourselves in the longings and the foibles of our ancestors' stories – for example in the Ugly Duckling who longed so hard to fit in that he almost lost sight of his true self, or in Rapunzel’s father, who made a deal with the dark side to avoid being punished – only to subject himself to greater punishment in the end. Stories are revelations that others have confronted and survived such terror and awe as our own.

Stories also remind us of truths we’ve lost, re-inviting us back into awareness. We learn to trust our instincts through the dark wilds of the psyche, to sort through the daily noise to get at the things that really matter. We find missing parts of ourselves. With the Russian Vasalisa we rediscover our intuitive voice; with the ancient goddess Inanna we learn to sit with our pain rather than fight so hard to dispel it; with Frodo and Sam we realize the value of shedding the extraneous in order to power through what seems unbearable.

We learn we can, after all, bear the very thing that seems most unbearable.

And finally, the Old Stories evoke images that live within us as a counterbalance to the toxic personal stories we tell ourselves -- stories like “I don’t have what it takes” or “I always mess things up” or “I’m unloved and unwanted.” In fact these poison darts are the mundane starting-points, respectively, of the stories of hobbits and Hercules and Vasalisa -- all of whom came through their trials greater and more truly themselves for it.

If we let them, such characters will sit with us like strange and wise companions, little daemons that curl up in our guts, tap on our shoulders, and resound in our chests -- bidden or not -- when we need that reminder. If we listen to their stories, if we take the time to understand them, if we really make friends with them, and let them live in our psyches like enduring stories do, they’ll be there waiting when our mundane modern selves most need to feel connected, and speak truth, and summon the courage for a new way forward.