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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Clinical Psychology and The Red Shoes: Vocation or a Dance of Death?

Growing up I loved watching old films. One story that grabbed me and never really let me go, was the 1948 movie ‘The Red Shoes’. The story follows Victoria Page, an aspiring ballerina who auditions for a world-renowned Ballet company. The director at one point asks Victoria why she wants to dance. “Why do you want to live?” Vicki replies; within this exchange it is clear that the director sees something of promise, and so invites her to study with his company. She is ambitious to become a great ballerina and also sees in him that his ambition and passion for ballet matches hers. Unknowingly on her part, a Faustian Pact is being entered into. Thereafter she ascends quickly to the forefront of the director's own ambitions. The director encourages Vicki to prioritise her career over love and self-care, symbolised by her choosing to put on her red ballet shoes. Vicki’s lover whilst supportive is insistent she cannot have it all: high flying career and idyllic home life. Her lover asks Vicki to make a choice and her indecision becomes her answer, although she quickly regrets it. The story spirals from a light entertainment into a dark tragedy, ultimately ending in her death.

Made in a battered and broken Post War Britain the story poses all sorts of questions on what exactly vocation is and, perhaps, more importantly, the dark side of what it might become. Is a vocation a whole life? Can anyone have it all? The Red Shoes film is based on the 1845 fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, and so I decided to take this story up and look a little further into its symbolism and meaning.

Anderson’s story of ‘The Red Shoes’ is about a young peasant girl named Karen.

Karen and her family are so poor she must walk barefoot. The local shoemaker' s mother devotedly fashions Karen a pair of handmade shoes, made from scraps of cloth. Karen is given the shoes one winter day. It happened to be the same day Karen’s mother died. Having no extra resource to draw on, Karen must wear her handmade red shoes to the funeral, even though their colour is not appropriate for mourning attire.

Not long afterwards, a wealthy, old lady is passing and takes pity on the poor girl. She adopts Karen and insists on burning her handmade red shoes. When the time comes for Karen to be confirmed into the church and take communion, she is taken to the shoe shop to purchase some appropriate shoes. However, inspired by the sight of a princess wearing a pair of bright red shoes, Karen tricks the old lady (who is blind) to buy her a pair of shiny red shoes off the shelf.

Karen wears the shoes constantly although by now she has many pairs to choose from. On the way to church, an old soldier outside the church door sees her and taps the soles of her red shoes, singing a song as he did so. She felt the soles of her feet begin to twitch in time to the song. “Remember to stay for the dance,” he winked at her. Once her feet had begun to move, they wouldn’t stop – she danced and danced, completely losing herself to the movement of her feet. She was thrilled.

But she quickly realised that no matter what she did, she could not stop dancing. The dancing that started as joy and pleasure soon became exhausting, and she was in relentless movement. Eventually, in desperation, the girl went to the town’s executioner. She asked him to cut off her feet to free her from the shoes’ malign power – which he did. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches. Karen believing that she had suffered enough for the red shoes, decides to go to church. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way.

When Sunday comes again Karen cannot bring herself to go to church. Instead, she sits alone at home and prays for help. An angel reappears, bearing roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with peace and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.

I have heard the fairytale of the Red Shoes many times and it always felt like a somewhat oppressive, puritanical cautionary tale: Be careful of having anything too flashy or you might end up stuck with possessed red shoes! But what might red shoes mean? There are many associations we might have to the symbol of red shoes …

Summer Brennan, author of High Heel—an examination of footwear, femininity and transformation - notes, “Red has all sorts of taboo associations with women that we may not always be aware of. In some cultures, red is understandably associated with fire, and so with the devil and sin, or with sinfulness. Think of that scarlet A in The Scarlet Letter. Or of Scarlett O'Hara being forced by her husband to wear a red dress to a party in Gone with the Wind after she's caught flirting with another man. It's a colour that says ‘stop’, but it can also stop you in your tracks in a good way. It's the colour of blood and is therefore associated with violence, but also with sexuality, menstruation, fertility and birth. And in other cultures, such as in India and China, red is considered a bridal colour and a colour of good luck.”

It is interesting to note that in Europe red shoes have traditionally been reserved to be worn either by the pope or royalty. Essentially the ruling social elite who get to determine social norms, the social moral code and in/out group members. As Messy Nessy Chic says:

The [red] shoes’ origins go back to Byzantine days, when they were donned by Norman kings as symbols of bloody martyrdom. Their successors, the Roman Emperors, stuck with it – in fact, they became a standard high-fashion accessory for aristocrats. If your shoes were red, you were somebody.

Brennan points out, red has often been connected with royalty and authority. “I think if red shoes tell us anything about power, it's about where power comes from and what we think it entails,” she adds. “It has to do with destruction, and creation, and who is the centre of attention, and the freedom to express and pursue desire. And, of course, it's about resources, since throughout much of history, the people most likely to wear red shoes were the ones who were rich.”

It is easy to forget that the fairytale actually features three pairs of red shoes - and not all of them are possessed.

The first pair are the handmade red shoes made from scraps of fabric given to the poor, bare-footed Karen by Mother Shoemaker, a village elder. The handmade red shoes may not have been conventional, but they protected Karen’s feet from the harsh winter terrain. When Karen’s mother dies what does she wear? Well, the red shoes, naturally. She has no others and whilst many villagers might then be distracted from understanding that she is in mourning, they were all the shoes she had, and they fit perfectly. This makes me think of times when we have insufficient resources to grieve -maybe we are also in the middle of a different crisis, and we so need to immerse ourselves in distraction: cleaning, socializing or going to work as a way to contain ourselves and keep our feet on the ground so we can cope. These activities are necessary when they are the only containers available to us.

It is also very necessary to remember that Karen was raised in poverty.

The sociologist Peter Townsend, who was a founding member of Child Poverty Action Group, defined poverty in 1979:

"Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong."

Even after safely arriving in a place of resource, it can take a long time to let go of experiences of deprivation (in any of its forms). It takes patience to unlearn hypervigilance and be able to trust that resource previously deprived is now reliably available. As mentioned in a previous blog - the nhs is a kind of impoverished mother. A feature of working with psychologists is how many of them have had experiences of emotional deprivation in work - in that they have an expectation of having to ‘get on with it’ / of coping and avoiding showing vulnerability of need. When I see the below image of child poverty, I symbolically can also feel resonance with unmet need in clinicians and their work in the NHS.

In contrast, to the first pair of shoes, the second pair of red shoes were only observed and belonged to a princess. Made and worn for someone else who she could only admire from afar. I imagine the red shoes must have reminded her of her grief and loss of her mother. This makes me think of the fantasies we have when we see others looking like they can do it all - clinical work, babies, sick family, pandemic. We can imagine if we just do it their way, we also will be able to have it all. We have no idea however if this princess was comfortable in her red shoes, was able to take them off or also was sent on a compulsive dance to her death. It is easy to imagine perfection when we don't know someone very well.

The next pair of red shoes were worn at Karen's confirmation. Confirmation is Christian rite. It confers the gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord) upon the recipient. Given her experience of churches and transitions I wonder how triggering this might have been for her. Places of worship can be sources of great shame, and judgement. They can also be sources of access to community, love and care. They offer protected, regular community time - something that is lost in modern society.

The last time we saw her enter a church in the story was to grieve her mother. So, when she sees the third and final pair in the shoemakers, her choice is an obvious one. We might say she is a repeating a dance from her past. However, these are not home-made shoes. They are shop bought. They are designed by someone else for an imagined other's foot. Previously she approached her church community in shoes that were handmade - a communication, born from personal need and as such a much-needed disruption to the social norms etc The third time she is choosing red shoes, not born from a conscious physical need to disrupt, but rather a psychological desire to disrupt for disruption's sake. She needs attention - but we might be fooled to believe it is her disruption and dancing that need just noticing, judging or validation, rather than their meaning - representing a link to the unaddressed grief of the loss of her mother.

The magical part of the story is that these final shoes are possessed. Carl Jung, describes the idea of possession:

Possession, though old-fashioned, has by no means become obsolete; only the name has changed. Formerly they spoke of ‘evil spirits’, now we call them ‘neuroses’ or ‘unconscious complexes.’ Here as everywhere the name makes no difference. The fact remains that a small unconscious cause is enough to wreck a man’s fate, to shatter a family and to continue working down the generations…. (CW 18, § 1374 - as quoted here in Miller ).

In both the film and the fairytale the possession is connected to dancing. Dance is a performing art form consisting of sequences of movement, either improvised or purposefully selected. This movement has aesthetic and often symbolic value. Dance can be categorized and described by its choreography, by its repertoire of movements, or by its historical period or place of origin. The film expands the concept of the dancer somewhat into the idea of a career, a professional identity and the heroine’s relationship to work and persona. Victoria's work offers a combination of societal accolade, creative living, a controllable experience of being needed/ loved by her audience. How many clinicians perform meticulous dances of calm containment for others, only to go home close the door and all hell break loose - be that rage at children, partner, crutches of alcohol, food, social media ...?

Another interesting feature about the fairytale is Karen's difficulty to display vulnerability to others. Whether in time of grief for Karen, when her mother dies. But also, when she is taken in by the wealthy woman and seems unable to use the mind of this woman to help guide her on her way. She hears the encouragement to wear black shoes to her confirmation as command and criticism and deliberately misleads the somewhat blind old woman regarding her selection. However, if she does not wear black shoes how will people, those not at church know she is going through a rite of passage, a transition? We might imagine they could talk to her - share their stories. Cautionary tales and solidarity. It reminds me about how one of the more astonishing things about being visibly pregnant is the flood of stories offered by women that arrive unsolicited. Often a mixed bag of humour, trauma, excitement, joy, fear, grief and hope.

This makes me think of the necessity of disruption, and also disruption only makes sense if there is sufficient conformity. Karen wearing red shoes to church is only significant if others are not. Her red only works in relation to the black. Can everyone just wear red shoes? Well maybe, but then what must a person wear to stand out. Also given the great expense of red shoes - how is everyone going to afford them and where are the resources coming from? What is less because everyone has red shoes. Moderation, limit setting and living to seasons is not the same as deprivation. But for those who have learnt to be frightened about trusting there will now be enough, there can be a tight grip on controlling the variables as they imagine them.

Karen only seeks help when she speaks to the executioner. She does not seek out counsel from other members of the community. I imagine others could have helped her - to think with her how to solve the situation. The soldier is old, is she the first person who has received his curse? The only one to ever fall in love with red shoes. To lose a mother? To know poverty and hunger? But instead, she chooses to become dismembered. Cut off. Unable now to have her feet on the ground, she uses crutches.

Ultimately, she is left wounded, lonely and still unable/unwilling to trust her community - dictated to by her shame, haunted by the dancing red shoes. The difficulty is that the cutting off doesn’t stop the problem of the red shoes. It just makes them seem like something outside of herself blocking her way. Full of self-pity and ‘look how hard I try’ she gives up before she has even got through the church door. Home alone, she is left with the option that the release through death and complete avoidance of anything remotely triggering of the red shoes must be the solution. A rather violent, dramatic and permanent solution.

For many of the psychologists I have worked with, our clinical psychology career progression can be like the girl with the red shoes. Initially the experience is one of poor resources, handcrafting gifted pieces of psychology and mental health care material together. If we are lucky, we get adopted by a wealthy course that will pay for our training. One full of resources and higher social status. But this is where things can start to go wrong. As a collective, the main way we know to keep our professional self-esteem intact and our feet on the ground is through obsessive working and high performance. As such, we can rapidly step into a situation where we don’t know how to stop performing old patterns and give ourselves time and space to stop and think. Goal setting and planning become our go to resources when we are going through painful periods of loss or transition. When the task is to feel and see how we are transformed by the feelings. If previous endings have always been avoided through red shoe activity, we might not know how safe these feelings around endings are. We can panic and feel shame at our inevitable missteps and inappropriate choices. We can withdraw and rather than remember our need for community we dis-member the experiences and withdraw.

Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in Women Who Run With The Wolves:

[W]e may travel life’s path in one of two ways: in hand-made shoes — crafted with love and care according to the unique needs of the individual soul; or in red shoes — initially promising instant fulfillment, but ultimately leading to a hollow, painful, split existence.

A strong theme permeating through my conversations with psychologists is the belief they are the only one who feels like this - that they are alone. Whilst for many their training gave people plentiful space for reflection and strong grounding in the need to use the minds of others to support thinking. For others this wasn’t held in the training process as a priority. Regardless though, I think for many psychologists once they leave this phase of career the sanctity of group reflective practice falls by the wayside. One of the biggest challenges I see over and over again is how hard it is for clinicians to protect their space to think with others. As such the ability to trust the minds of others inevitably gets lost. We create self-fulfilling, exhausting dances. Never quite being able to rest, or to let go of control. We are neither available to be held or to hold others. The more senior clinicians become, the more isolated and exhausted they are the less and less protected space they have.

This reminds me of a line from Peter Pan: “Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.” ― J.M. Barrie.

This is where I think we require urgent remedy. We need to take up the ignored wealth of resources we have in our psychology profession and take seriously the importance of community. The collective wealth of compassion and care in our community is significant, but it can feel difficult for people to know how to access it or feel this type of help is worthwhile or they are worthy enough to receive it.

So, what are we to do? The story shows that Karen’s state of solitude is whilst lonely also a release.

My alone feels so good, I'll only have you if you're sweeter than my solitude.

- Warsan Shire

Is it possible for our community to be sweeter than solitude? Vicki's family and Karen's community had the potential to be both great and terrible. Likewise, psychology with all our personal and political differences can be experienced this way. Can we be humble enough to recognise we need each other. And as such this dilemma requires necessary protected spaces that can contain our differences so we can be in honest relationship, so we can create the changes required to give and receive care for each other. Facebooks groups are wonderful, but they should not be left as the main resource for this. We need to use physical spaces where we will meet each other and remember our bodies, our human limits, our terror to trust. We can then maybe begin the task of giving and receiving care for our exhaustion and our blind spots to our own and others suffering?

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