Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Media in Transition Conference
The Work of Stories
May 7, 2005
by Bette U. Kiernan, MFT
An exploration of fairy tales has special value for psychotherapy: Psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, and Carl Jung among others looked to fairy tales and myths to represent of the anatomy of the psyche. The deep truths embodied in fairy tales, which depict complex developmental processes and group dynamics, and afford the means for transforming the pain of psychological wounding into creativity, continue to offer much to the steadily expanding field of psychotherapy. Their very brevity, and arresting themes, and imaginative treatment of significant events allow them to be interpreted, reinterpreted, and expanded upon in an infinite number of ways to allow individuals to comprehend their environment and their personal difficulties and to construct guides to action through enhanced knowledge.
Close scrutiny of the patterns in fairy tales from such contemporary psychological perspectives as family systems, object relations, and cognitive frameworks can yield new insights. As Joseph Campbell stated, “The folk tale is the primer of the picture of the soul”. An understanding of the dynamics represented in the journey of the fairy tale heroine or hero that typically lead them from misery to their highest realization may reveal means for helping clients in their psychotherapy.
Stories are important in our lives. We gain a sense of who we are through narratives, the telling of stories to ourselves and others about what has happened to us. We form our identities through integrating our personal family histories with the legends of our culture. However, when our stories become habitually sad, rigid and repetitive, they may become the subject matter of the therapy hour.
Because fairy tales and myths follow the heroine or hero as they go through periods of darkness to transformation, these classic stories may be said to encode patterns that enable the restoration of vibrant functioning. Like the fairy tale protagonist, psychotherapy clients often begin a journey from a black mood of depression or personal crisis, onto a new path. Ultimately, through encounters with significant others and confrontation of challenging circumstances, both protagonist and therapy client may be led to higher development.