fairy tales, lived experiences, Self-care, therapy, workshops

The therapeutic power of fairy tales

I have been fascinated with storytelling, and more specifically fairy tales, not only for the rich and indirect teachings they offer to people across ages and cultures, but also for their gentle and visceral access to issues and inner dynamics that we normally do not engage with via our linear thinking.

Fairy tales, long told around fires in twilight and in darkness, provide ancient maps for the collective unconscious. As Freud spoke of Dreams being the Royal Roads to the subconscious, I see fairy tales and myths (both being quite different in structure and moral) as these highly elaborate structures built by language but also by body, tone, context, and expressiveness of the storyteller, that disrupt the rational mind and go straight into the unknown, the mysterious, the deep layers of your psyche that usually get very little air in our everyday live.

I was first drawn to fairy tales during my childhood, growing up in Eastern Europe in the 80s there were plenty of Russian folk tales that were told and re-told from generations, each adding its own Bulgarian flair. I remember being fascinated with ‘Mashenka and The Bear’ story. I spoke it in whispers almost every day at bedtime to my only doll. I remember sitting in the backseat on the floor, on that raised little spot of our car Lada (no seat-belts, of course) and going with the story on repeat. Every single weekend on our way to my grandma’s village. My favorite moment was the one where Mashenka yells from inside the basket: ” I see you, Bear! Do not sit for a rest, hurry to get the hot meal to my grandparents!”. My poor parents! I did scream these phrases over and over again with the most dramatic voice!

The idea of the story is of a clever young girl called Mashenka who managed to outsmart the cruel Bear who had kidnapped her. She used wits and the Bear’s weakness to trick him, hiding in the basket and making the Bear bring a hot dish (banitza – a typical Bulgarian dish) to her grandparents and thus escape being his servant for life.



I recently revisited the tale and analysed aspects of it. Such analysis seems to be critical for one’s own psychic integration process. Going back and exploring the stories that were dominant during our childhood illuminates the main ideas that used up most of our mental space and energy. Exploring this can provide an insight into the structure of our own ‘becoming’, as well as a good leeway for change.

For me, it must have been all about outsmarting the adults in my life. I will not go into that but I will only say that this revelation managed to make a lot of unconscious material suddenly click and fall into place. Such moments I call the quiet ‘aaaaa right…’s that move us from a stuck place to one of more air and potential for growth and self-compassion.

The image of the Bear is not without its complexity either. I quite enjoy the Archetypal energy of the Bear symbol. In the Myth of the Goddesses: An Evolution of an Image (an absolutely fascinating read!) the very first concrete representation of the Mother image (4500BC) was the one of a bear. A small animal totem of a Bear holding her cub made out of clay. I will leave the images work its magic for you here…


I believe that all children are entertaining the same archetypal dynamics and these usually relate to their interactions with parents and carers, as well as their own internal configurations of Ego and Self. It is these interactions that become alive and are visualized, concretized, and transformed into visible actions in fairy tales and in myths. Each step, each character, each place carries a significant aspect of the human experience.

Entering the dark forest, for example, is a clear symbol of one’s acquaintance of the dark and unexplored aspects of one’s Self, regardless of developmental stage. For a little child this represents all the unknowns and mysteries of life and the unimaginable future of becoming an adult, hence, the forest is unimaginably scarier.. For an adult, this can be any new undertaking, new milestone of unexplored before emotions of experiences.

Eventually we come to think of every character of the fairy tales as an aspect of ourselves. The evil stepmother or the cruel scary witch are the inner teachers or the Freudian representatives of the superego – all those imposed moralistic ‘should’s that are there first to be obeyed, and then to be resisted, usually after a rite of passage or a whole hero’s (and Heroine’s) journey – to be finally overturned. Only then can we emerge as grown and balanced integrated selves.

The role of fairy tales is to ignite the process of integration through the works of Active Imagination (a term CG Jung uses to describe the process of Individuation and of becoming one’s true and authentic Self).

Does this story serve you any longer?

I have been fascinated in using such creative approaches to therapy in assisting people to first become familiar with their own inner story, the one they usually tell the world and themselves, and then to unpack and explore that story. Only after we can approach the key question of whether this story serves us any longer. Or does it need mending, stitching or a complete re-writing. All these are possibilities. Actually anything we can imagine, we can do!

I am creating a 5-week in-depth exploration of the story on Feminine Intuition, where we will collectively explore our own stories, guided by the ancient fairy tale of “Vasalissa, the Wise”.

Ask within for advice

My use of Fairy tales in psychotherapy sessions harnesses the exploration and power of each client’s own inner mythology.

Aleksandra Staneva, PhD is a counsellor in private practice in Brisbane, Australia. She see clients internationally online.

Contact: horoforwomen@gmail.com

Love, Aleks

More about Aleksandra: http://www.aleksandrastaneva.com


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