• The familiar, recurring themes in fairy tales make them a useful tool for exploring your own internal struggles

  • Author Alison Davies shows us how

Some psychotherapists believe that fairy tales can be used to help clients through their own personal transformation. Just like the hero or heroine of a fairy tale, their clients are on a journey during which they may encounter challenges and dark times. They often have to go through a difficult period of change and as they develop they’ll continually tell and retell their stories, making sense of them in different ways.

Very often psychotherapists’ clients have family problems – and so do the protagonists of fairy tales. In an attempt to break free of their difficulties, these characters must embark on a quest or a journey, and often during their darkest moments they’ll encounter help from an unexpected source, such as the fairy godmother in Cinderella or the seven dwarves in Snow White.

For clients this help comes from their relationship with the therapist. Therapists may invite their clients to see what happens if they identify with fairy tale characters, thus developing empathy and compassion that they can apply to their own situation. Fairy tales allow clients to be objective. They can put themselves in the tale but they know it isn’t real. It can’t really hurt them, and so they’re able to deal with their emotions and look at challenges in different ways. They’re able to remain in control as they face their fears.

Part of the magic of fairy tales is their easy, accessible style and the way they deal with recurring themes, such as being cursed by an evil fairy or put under a spell by a wicked witch, falling into a deep sleep, being reawakened or rescued by a handsome prince. Once you start exploring these tales, their deeper meaning shines through and can illuminate ways to deal with issues in your own life.

The curse or spell 

In many fairy tales the trials of the hero or heroine start after they have been cursed or put under a spell. For example, in Beauty and the Beast, the beast is cursed and transformed into his ugly form until he is released when Beauty’s love is freely given. Similarly, in The Frog Prince, the frog must eat from the princess’s plate and sleep on her pillow for three nights to break a curse put upon him by an evil fairy. After the third night’s sleep, the frog wakes up as a handsome prince.

This is a common theme in fairy tales – one person appears to be cursed or under a spell that must be broken in order for them to transform or become whole again. Psychotherapists often use this to their advantage with clients who have issues that stem from family problems. Clients seeking an explanation for why family members act the way they do often believe that their family is cursed but, as these tales show, the cursed person still has the ability to turn the situation around and let their true personality shine through to save the day.

The enchanted slumber 

Enchanted slumber is a theme that runs through several of our most popular fairy tales. The beautiful princess is plunged into sleep by an evil curse, frozen in time because she dared to take a bite of the apple or ignored the advice of others. For Sleeping Beauty, the curse was set in motion once she came of age and when she pricked her finger the princess and the rest of the castle fell into a seemingly endless sleep. In fact, this sleep instigates transition. At sixteen, she is no longer a girl, she’s blossoming into womanhood and this is reflected in the story. The transition is something she must go through – she cannot avoid it if she’s going to grow up and become the person she’s meant to be.

Sleep is also used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to indicate a rite of passage. Snow White falls into a dreamless sleep after taking a bite of the poisoned apple. Cast into oblivion, she’s left to stagnate in the glass coffin until the apple is dislodged and the prince rescues her. Released from her slumber she’s now also free to marry her prince and take on the role of queen of the kingdom. But to reach this point she had to succumb to the witch’s evil spell. She had to endure the darkness.

Wakey wakey 

Sometimes we feel we’re in limbo, rather like Snow White in her glass coffin. When you need to give yourself a gentle wake-up call, a relaxing, inspiring visualisation can help. Find somewhere quiet and comfortable, and lie down. Breathe deeply and relax every part of your body by tensing each muscle group in turn and then letting it go. Once you have released the tension from your body, close your eyes and imagine that you’re floating above your body. In your mind’s eye you can see your physical form asleep, but you’re actually in your spirit form and free to roam wherever you choose. Visualise yourself floating around the room, drifting outside the door or window and out into the world. Take a look at your surroundings and enjoy soaring through the air. Know that you are free to go anywhere and to do anything. Then, when you’re ready, return your attention to your body by concentrating on your breathing again. Open your eyes and gradually stand up. Give yourself a shake to get the energy flowing and say, “I wake from my sleep. I am free to be who I want to be, to fulfil my dreams and enjoy being me.”

This will help alleviate feelings of being trapped in a situation by showing you that you have the space and freedom to move forward. Sometimes we just need to think things through in order to instigate the process of change.

Just because Sleeping Beauty is fast asleep, it doesn’t mean that she’s doing nothing. Our imagination is a powerful tool that can be used to create change.

Imagine you’re Sleeping Beauty. You’ve just pricked your finger and fallen into a deep sleep. What happens next? In your mind’s eye, tell the story from this point from Sleeping Beauty’s perspective. Where does she go when she sleeps? Does she dream, and if so what of? Is she aware that she’s lost in slumber? Is she desperately trying to break the spell? Perhaps Sleeping Beauty goes on her own quest to resolve the situation.

Now apply this to your own situation. If you feel you’re stagnating and you want to move forward, compare your situation to Sleeping Beauty’s. Your physical body may not going anywhere, but you still have your mind and your imagination. So what would you like to do next?

Imagine the future as you’d like it to be. For example, if you’re stuck in a relationship and feel that you can’t do anything about it because all your money is tied up in the house you share with your partner, tell the story of what happens next in an ideal world. Perhaps you seek advice about your finances. Maybe you could ask your other half to buy you out of the property. You might also start to think of ways to make more money so that you can save. Then watch the results of the courses of action you’ve taken unfold. See yourself happy and free, living in a new home with no emotional or financial difficulties.

As we have seen, in the fairy-tale world sleep is a powerful tool, offering characters a way to move forward and change both themselves and their circumstances. But let’s not forget that sleep is important in the real world, too. We feel dreadful when we don’t get enough sleep, because it recharges the body and soul. It’s also essential for the healing process and for our general wellbeing.

Transforming yourself 

What can we learn from these themes? Apart from the fact that in all the above stories the heroine needs to undergo adversity to reach her full potential, we can see how these tales follow a pattern that we can copy in real life. To achieve our dreams and fulfil our destiny, we must all go through a period of transformation. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, we must work hard, learn from our mistakes and overcome hurdles and hardships along the way. But it will be worth it as we will reach our goal in the end.

We can transform on many levels – mentally, spiritually and physically – but often before the change takes place, there’s a period of stagnation in which we learn some key things about ourselves and have to tackle any obstacles on the path to our development. This is echoed in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of The Ugly Duckling. When the duckling first appears everyone laughs at him. He doesn’t fit in with his own kind and, feeling miserable, he enters his own period of stagnation in which he has to face constant rejection and peril. It’s not until right at the end of the story that, after he has been through a series of ordeals, he finally transforms into the stunning swan he was always destined to be.

One change we can make relatively quickly is to consciously shift the way we look at things in our life (including ourselves). This small change in attitude can make a big difference.

To feel more positive about yourself and the world around you, and more confident about who you are, imagine you’re standing in front of a magic mirror, not unlike the one in Snow White. If it helps, stand in front of a real mirror. Now imagine that the reflection you see is only the outer part of your personality. The real you – the shining and beautiful hero that is your soul – lurks within, so let it shine! Picture an orb of light glowing in your chest. See the glow spread outward and imagine that you’re surrounded by golden light. Imagine this light dancing in your eyes and illuminating your skin. Say “I unleash my radiant light on the world today. I am perfect as I am.”

You can repeat this twice a day, every morning and night, and before long you’ll begin to see the benefits as you grow in self-esteem and have a more optimistic attitude to life.

Alison Davies is the author of Fairy Tales Can Change Your Life 

Watch therapist Laurie Castelli-Gair exploring storytelling in therapy

Further reading

What your favourite fairy tale says about you

Be mindful of the story you tell yourself