Whether you were more into Disney or Grimm as a kid, it’s rare to revisit fairytales as an adult. From the infantile to the completely gruesome, they were probably introduced to you by a grandparent forcing you to read. When I came across Berlin-based counselling centre Tales for Life, offering a service called ‘fairytale therapy’, I was hoping for a deep dive into the nasty depths of human psyche packaged up in fantasy characters and wild stories. I went along to a group workshop one Friday evening to see how grim our adult minds had become, before speaking to a psychologist about it all meant. More on that later, though.
On entering the venue, I was required to take off my shoes and replace them with grey felt slippers. Someone then led me to a warm room with laminate flooring where we ate chocolate digestives and grapes. I already felt infantilised. There were six of us in the session, including our “fairytale facilitator”. We began the session by spinning and jumping around the room, then settled down by laying down blankets and cushions – a bit like the end of a very extra night out. Our facilitator went around the group asking what everyone's favourite fairy tale was. I panicked and said “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen.
“Fairy tales are wisdom passed down from generation to generation,” says Borisz Merei, the counsellor who runs the workshop. He uses fairytales with his clients to help them see their own problems within the characters and symbols of these classic stories. He mentions Snow White, a story that has “existed for hundreds of years, but if you look at it from a modern perspective, it’s a step-by-step guide on how to deal with a narcissistic mother”, he tells the room. “People subconsciously understand fairy tales, and as a counsellor I recommend the fairy tale that I think is most relevant to their challenge. Then the healing that happens after is sort of automatic.”
The theme of the session was “new beginnings”, and Merei explained that spring was a great time to make positive changes in our lives. Look, I have hayfever so spring is more like the worst time of year for me – I found it a little difficult to think clearly while feeling personally attacked by Berlin’s severe levels of pollen. We were then asked to think of something we were struggling with, and while thinking over that challenge, to pick a tarot-like card that resonated with us. I thought about my running nose and itchy eyes.
Merei then assumed his role as storyteller by putting on a large, grey felt pointed hat. To be fair, he owned how ridiculous it looked and let us laugh at him. He then asked us to lie down, relax and listen to a fairy tale. Originally, fairy tales are meant to be spoken and heard rather than written, so this was an important part of the process – to listen. He read us the story of “The King’s Son Who Feared Nothing”. I hated it. It reminded me of how every private-school educated, overly confident man strides through life.
Next, we were asked to draw a scene from the story. At this point, we faltered; I, and everyone else, seemed to get it totally wrong. “I wanted to pay attention but I couldn’t, the story didn’t catch me enough,” said another participant, 24-year-old Mariasole. “I enjoyed more listening to his voice than listening to the details of the actual story. I just felt very relaxed.”
I didn’t really get it either, and drew a kind of abstract scene that included robotic flowers because this is where my brain went to during the fairytale, plagued by concerns of our environmental crisis and imagining that in the future nature would be just a memory.
Merei says that not being able to focus the whole time isn’t really a problem. “If you’re trying to remember your favourite fairy tale and retell it, there will be parts of it that you have forgotten and some parts that you clearly remember,” he says. “This is because there is a part of us that’s judging what it is that we can deal with right now and what we can’t. What is important or relevant to us, and what’s not.”
He asked us to interpret each other's drawings, looking for symbols. Everybody else drew literal scenes (trees, gates, fields, people) and of course, nobody got what on earth my robotic flowers were supposed to be. We looked at our drawings against the cards we’d picked earlier to draw our own interpretations. Merei tells us that fairytale therapy is a strand of art therapy - a form of therapy that uses the creative process to work through trauma and other emotional issues - and that drawing is a key part of the fairytale therapy process. We were then asked to do a ‘traffic light’ exercise, where we split our personal challenge into three parts (what do I want; what do I already have that I can use to get there; what are the barriers). We then performed a ritual of jumping over our red barriers while everyone cheered us on. We left the session by coming up with one thing to do in the next week that would help kickstart our "new beginnings".
I wondered whether, given Berlin’s dark history and that the Grimm brothers were German, healing through stories could perhaps be more poignant here. But Merei tells me that it actually originates from Hungary, where he trained at fairytale therapy school Lelki Egészségvédő Alapítvány (LEA). I ask Merei what he says to people who scoff at the idea of using fairytales as therapy. “In fact, I think there are many people who find the concept of therapy too serious," he says. "One of the problems we have is that all of us should be developing ourselves, and that dealing with your soul should be just as important as making sure that you visit the dentist twice a year.”
Although fairytale therapy is different to narrative therapy, both have roots in psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Carl Jung's school of thought. Brenda Crowther, a Jungian analyst and depth psychologist based in France, says working with fairytales can benefit you by letting you look at a personal problem through an objective lens. “You end up developing a relationship to something objective and this takes away a certain obsession with your subjective problems,” she says. “This doesn’t mean that you ignore the subjective problem, but it allows you to see its context.” It seems that fairytale therapy is essentially working with universal symbols and archetypes to solve common problems. “Using fairytales can be a powerful tool for healing because they put you into a mode where you are actually experiencing yourself in another dimension,” says Crowther.
After the full session, I thought about how unusual it was to engage in something that felt so childish. Real life teaches us enough painful moral lessons that there isn’t any need to bury your head in a fantasy book to learn. At the very least, I came away with the knowledge that listening to a bloke read a bedtime story is a calming process – just maybe I’ll leave ones about private school boys for the others.