Cinderella and Self-Esteem: I

She was called Cinderella because she was lowest on the totem pole; she spent her days grovelling on her hands and knees cleaning up the “cinders”, dusting up the ashes from the fireplace, tidying up other people’s left overs and messes. Her story is more than just about how purity of heart triumphs over greed; it provides us with specific instructions on how to triumph, how to be pleasing and how to successfully please. We are told to be like Cinderella, to be beautiful, kind, thoughtful, obedient, delicate, demure and humble, as well as skilled – dress well, dance well and drive a nice chariot.  Being like the sisters, ugly, slothful, crude, vulgar and lazy, is a recipe for failure, loneliness and emptiness. The story seduces us with an account of the rewards of successful pleasing, where she lives happily ever after like a princess in her impregnable castle with her very own prince, forever. If living happily ever after is the goal of life, then successful pleasing is the means to achieve it, and Cinderella succeeds brilliantly.

You are more likely to charm a prince by being delicate, discreet and subtle and playing hard to get than by being vulgar, coarse and overly available or easy.

The prince is the external source of affirmation, or self-worth. Earn him, and you’re set for life, an intoxicating prospect. Without him, like the ugly sisters, you’re miserable, mean and your life is bitter and nasty.

The Cinderella setup has parallels with “Jack In The Beanstalk”, because Jack’s eternal happiness depends on his skill and cunning, his ability to get his hands on a different external source of affirmation and worth, in his case, a golden goose. The golden goose keeps Jack happy ever after. Jack’s cunning is for his eternal happiness what Cinderella’s beauty, modesty and celibacy is for her: a means to engage others and have the outside world step up as the primary source and provider of positive self-esteem.


Beauty, modesty and celibacy are means to engage others and have the outside world step up as the primary source and provider of positive self-esteem.


Cinderella shows us how, regardless of our station in life, we can learn how to successfully please others and through that, find lasting happiness. In this sense it is a profoundly democratic story, which is another reason it appeals to us as strongly as it does, or used to. Poor girl makes good against the odds. Jack too is a democratic story (another poor boy makes good by his own efforts) though it leaves us with moral questions of making good by taking something that does not belong to him.

We have become cynical about Cinderella these days because we are too familiar with the uncertainties and unliklihoods in the “happily ever after” part. We live too long for “ever after”. Our relationships sour and break down, our friendships end, our careers take unexpected and often unhappy turns. Our finances fail. Our health falters. Our bubbles burst, be they stock, tech and housing market bubbles, love affairs or marriages. Too many of us reach a point, sooner or later, where our well-honed pleasing skills stop working. We try hard to get them going again. We try new ways. We find new partners, new jobs, new friends, new interests, new appearances.  Sometimes our “makeovers” work well, sometimes better than they did for Cinderella’s less fortunate sisters, who, no matter what they tried, they couldn’t squeeze their feet into the glass slipper of acceptance. When our efforts to “reboot” our pleasing abilities fail, we get stuck without others to affirm, value and love us. This is a lonely and miserable place to be, and we often deal with it by numbing ourselves to the pain of our feelings of worthlessness. We drink or turn to drugs. We go to our doctors and get prescriptions.


Good things never last forever.


We want to live in the Cinderella world where good things last forever, but they don’t. In our world good things come to an end and we get left without an outside source of worth, or as we are more used to saying, without someone to love us and make us feel loved. We often say “I can’t live without you”, meaning that without affirmations of our worth from outside sources, be it someone specifically else, others in general or symbols of affirmation such as money, status or reputation, our lives seem worthless and painful, and sometimes so painful that they do not seem worth having.  We can get stuck in this place, and our lives may fall apart and derail.

What we do not know is that we can become our own source of worth and value and even if we know or suspect this, we don’t know how to make it happen.

When Jenny came in for her sixth and final session, she looked bright and cheerful and said how much better she felt, that she “got it”. She said that she understood how to stop making things that happened to her mean something about her and her worth or lack of worth and, because of this, that she was able to be her own source of worth. She told me that her husband was an alcoholic and that when he drank, which was every night, it was she and not him who would feel sick to her stomach and it was she, not him who would wake up the next morning with the hangover. She told me that she thought her husband drank because of her, and she thought that if she was good enough for him, he wouldn’t drink. His drinking made her sick, literally physically and emotionally, because she misunderstood that his drinking was about her when, of course, it wasn’t. She came to understand through our work together that his drinking, even though it affected her, was not about her and had nothing to do with her, that his drinking was about him and him alone.  Once she stopped making his actions mean something about her,  as soon as she stopped personalizing his behaviour, she freed herself from the spiral of devaluing herself and started to feel better. In fact, she said that she felt very well, very energized and better than she could ever remember feeling in her life.  She felt sad for her husband and his destructive drinking but no longer bad about herself.


It is not uncommon for our princes to turn into drunken frogs and inevitable that our golden geese eventually  stop laying.


How would Cinderella have managed if her prince, like Jenny’s husband, had turned into a frog? We don’t know because the fairy tale doesn’t tell us, but we know that in our time, it is not uncommon for our princes to turn into drunken frogs, and our golden geese to stop laying. (Think of the current financial crisis and the looming prospect of financial losses and unemployment.) When this happens to us, we’d better know how to become our own source of worth; otherwise we’ll get stuck in a downward spiral of unhappiness, self-destructive behaviours and pills we don’t need and that can’t help us become who we need to be: that is, our own source of worth and well-being, responsible for ourselves and for our lives.

The next blog will talk about how Cinderella might get over her prince if he happens to turn into a frog or if for any other reason the relationship sours.

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