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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

Spinning Straw into Gold: A Fairytale Analysis of Clinical Psychology Culture

Updated: May 16, 2022

By Dr Libby Nugent, First Published Aug 12 2021 01:26PM

Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about the tale of Rumpelstiltskin. It is a story I was told regularly when I was in a Jungian analysis and I return to it often. The story of Rumpelstiltskin – albeit under a different name – is thought to be about 4,000 years old and is one of the earliest known stories in Western literature. Something about this story has stuck in our collective conscious and it is not letting go. The name Rumpelstiltskin means ‘little rattle stilt’, from rumpelstilt, a goblin that was rumoured to make noises by rattling posts (or stilts), like a sort of ghost. In Jungian analysis each character in a story is a part of the self/ community. Rumplestiltskin can be thought of as our shadow part in the story. In the tale the queen discovered his name in time. When she informs Rumpelstiltskin of his true name, he angrily disappears into the earth. My initial point is taken from a James Hillman’s interpretation: we are all visited by shadows from our family and community’s past. It may be the rattling, unnamed ghosts of greed, deprivation, abuse, exploitation, addictions, you “name it!” The story promises that when we face these rattling ghosts and are able to name them, we can loosen some of their powerful grip on our lives. Furthermore, that means new life and growth can stay with us! (Gadjos, 2013). This is true for both individuals and communities. As for the theme of spinning: Being a spinster, long before the word became an insult of low social status and relationship failure, is an ancient and honoured craft. It is a job that links many aspects of female identity - a way to clothe family, make a living and express creativity. In Greek mythology, each human life is a thread that the three Moirae, or Fates, spin, measure, and cut. With Rumpelstiltskin's help, the girl spins straw into gold, however even without this aspect of the tale, the ability to take a mass of fiber and transform it into yarn, thread and rope is work of huge value (Windling, 2020). It’s no accident that spinning is associated with language, that we may be said to 'spin' a tale or tell a 'yarn', … Spinning brings a cosmic 'twist' into the raw materials of nature, giving them strength and continuity. When we look at events with a higher awareness, we can perceive the links between them and weave them into an ongoing story, coming to an understanding of their true essence. The spinning of straw into gold can be transformed from a mechanical search for material gain into a quest for meaning and knowledge.” (Hess, 2011). To extend the metaphor to the world of clinical psychology: in our work in formulation we maintain this tradition of taking the raw materials of our patient’s stories, drawing out threads and finding rich narratives that transform into powerful resources. I have been clinician and supervisor to clinical psychologists: pre, post and during training for over a decade; witnessing first hand the unintended consequences of our community culture. I have listened to the rage and frustration of trainees who are giving everything and feel unseen, hurt and exploited. I have listened to confused, frustrated and sometimes bewildered course trainers and supervisors who “gave them everything” only to have it thrown in their faces. I have often wondered why it can feel so difficult to navigate relationships, power and authority in our system. It seems we are all trapped in the same problem, one that cannot quite be named. The plot of the fairy tale can be summarised easily enough: In order to appear superior, a miller lies to the king, telling him that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king calls for the miller’s daughter, locks her up in a tower room filled with straw and a spinning wheel, and demands she spin the straw into gold by morning or he will cut off her head. When she has given up all hope, an imp-like creature appears in the room and spins the straw into gold in return for her necklace (since he only comes to people who are seeking a deal or a trade). When next morning the king takes the miller’s daughter to a larger room filled with straw to repeat the feat, the imp once again spins, in return for the miller’s daughter’s ring. On the third day, when the miller’s daughter has been taken to an even larger room filled with straw and told by the king that he will marry her if she can fill this room with gold or execute her if she cannot, the miller’s daughter has nothing left with which she can pay the strange creature. He extracts from her a promise that she will give him her firstborn child, and so he spins the straw into gold a final time. The king keeps his promise to marry the miller's daughter, and she no longer gave a thought to the imp. But when their first child is born, the imp returns to claim his payment: "Now give me what you promised." She offers him all the wealth she has to keep the child, but the imp has no interest in her riches. He finally consents to give up his claim to the child if she can guess his name within three days. Her many guesses fail, but before the final night, she wanders into the woods searching for him and comes across his remote mountain cottage and watches, unseen, as he hops about his fire and sings. In his song's lyrics—"tonight tonight, my plans I make, tomorrow tomorrow, the baby I take. The queen will never win the game, for Rumpelstiltskin is my name"—he reveals his name. When the imp comes to the queen on the third day, after first feigning ignorance, she reveals his name, Rumpelstiltskin, and he loses his temper and their bargain.Rumpelstiltskin driving his right foot so far into the ground that he creates a chasm and falls into it, never to be seen again. So where do we begin in this fairytale analysis of clinical psychology culture? Hopefully some threads have already begun to twist into shape. In my research around Rumplestiltskin I came across Diane Roshelle’s work and her blog in 2015. She provides a wonderful interpretation of the tale around the necessity of learning how to say no. Her interpretation, transposed and woven into the clinical psychology context is one I have taken up here … For much of the tale the protagonist is known only in her relationship to her father, she is the miller’s daughter. Her tasks of weaving straw to gold are given to her because of a combination of her father’s lies and the king’s ambition. We do not know what the king wants the gold for. He is greedy, yes. But is this for his kingdom or for him? Is he desperate and trying to provide resources for his people or is he hoarding his own wealth? In our early careers, before we qualify as a clinical psychologist there is a part of us that is greedy for a particular knowledge and wants to achieve in the world in this particular way. The task we give ourselves can feel like a fantastical goal that requires magical assistance - we have no real idea of how people accomplish it. As such we all start out being the miller’s daughter needing to spin our identities in clinical psychology. But whether it be a specific post, professional relationship, accessing the clinical psychology training, or maintaining a feeling of competent clinician (rather than under a constant threat of being caught as an imposter) we always seem to encounter a situation which is insurmountable and frankly out of our skill set. Clinical Psychology is not a community that initiates us into the skill of saying “no” to unreasonable demands or allows for personal limitations. Nor are we really a group that values those who do (Roshelle,2015). Very few training courses offer part-time options and the discourse around people who leave the NHS or reduce hours to allow for a different way of life can get aggressive very quickly. Conversely, we often want free access to an abundance of information and support at minimal rates. Training courses are castles of high expectation; like the miller’s daughter, trainees and course staff can feel left alone and locked in, striving to meet the other’s expectations; we also internalize these standards so they inevitably become our own (Roshelle,2015). In the tale, the miller’s daughter is threatened with her head being chopped off if she fails at her tasks. However, the miller's daughter does not tell the king she is incapable of weaving straw into gold. Maybe she believes the king will not listen? Maybe she doesn't want to destroy her father’s reputation? Maybe secretly she thinks she might? Either way, the king believes she can and that she just needs sufficient incentive to perform. In our early careers people are encouraged to work for free, or little money and a lot of over time. This personal cost/investment can start to make us feel desperate, if we are not able to make good on our promise to get on to training. Likewise on clinical psychology training, when the employer exhibits the same greedy attitude as the king - such as demanding high percentage passes in limited years or funding will be withdrawn - jobs and livelihoods are at stake, as well as professional membership for the trainee. If we fail, we might lose our ability to provide for ourselves, have our desired career options, or for the training course access to sufficient future funding for future placements. How will nhs targets be met and our society receive appropriate psychological care if we don’t get enough trainees through? In short, the future is riding on it (Roshelle,2015). This pressure and cost is most strong for those in our community who are from marginalised groups. Rumpelstiltskin shows up on cue and helps the miller’s daughter - but at a cost and she must pay with her necklace, a small sacrifice in comparison to the reward? “How many of us get sucked into a similar deal? It might be sleep, time with friends, a principle, a boundary, but it’s something that seems small at the time. Sacrificing it gets us through. Makes us successful. Puts off that dreaded something that we would lose. But it’s a setup.” Roshelle, 2015. In the morning, when the king returns and sees all that has been accomplished, he wants more. Of course he does. Why wouldn't he? So now there is more straw to spin into gold and she is still locked in the chamber under threat of death. Of course Rumpelstiltskin shows up again, offering to help, and the miller’s daughter again is quick to pay his price. For many of us this scenario, of pulling the hat out of the bag, only to wake the next morning and be given another even bigger task, might feel extraordinarily familiar. The attitude of personal sacrifice of the professional caregiver being necessary and ‘worth it’ for the greater good is ingrained into both clinical psychology and nhs culture: it is always thought worth services at least trying to meet demands to do more with less resources. Predictably after the second success, the King wants more again and the miller’s daughter is set up for a third rotation. The number three often just means numerous in fairytales and in real life, these Rumplestiltskin exchanges can go on any number of times (Roshelle, 2015). However, as a collective the number of times isn’t as important as the fact that this way of working becomes expected —so habitual that there is no acknowledgement of any exchange. “It’s just what you do.” (Roshelle, 2015). On the third encounter, Rumplestilstsin greatly increases the stakes . Whilst the threat of death is still there, if the miller’s daughter delivers the gold she will become the queen. She will receive both an identity of her own and also social power! (Roshelle, 2015). Even if that power might be in service to the king that had been threatening to kill her and making unreasonable demands. (Roshelle, 2015). The sacrifice this time is also different. Rumpelstiltskin now wants her first-born child, he wants to control her future life. Similar to the exchange her father made for her, and now fully habituated to self-sacrifice and dependence on Rumpelstiltskin, she agrees (Roshelle, 2015). In training, both trainees and course staff have the same ‘King’. When everyone is being paid to be there by the same powers, it is quite difficult to have a clear exchange of money for accountability. Who actually is wanting (rather than needing) to be there, who is really making the demands and who has the authority to speak or hear a ’No’ . Where is the person not under both the King’s rule and dependent on Rumplstiltskin that can say “Are you out of your *&^% mind ?” - when the cost gets too high? My experience is that most people say they chose clinical psychology training because self-funding was an impossible task and if they wanted any future as a clinical psychologist then they needed to be salaried to train. However, what is the relational cost of this? I am not suggesting trainees should pay, but rather I am asking that we have a conscious engagement with the impact of these exchanges. Money, its direction of flow and what we offer in its exchange (or absence) matters. After the third night, the miller’s daughter becomes a Queen. She now has both power and a social identity. But is this a loving marriage? (Roshelle, 2015). Is it a marriage of mutual desire? Can either ever feel secure and trust, when she was coerced? Can she ever truly feel confident of his desire if she knows it wasn’t really her that accomplished the cherished tasks? The Queen is not able to own those accomplishments. She was never allowed to fail. Nor was she ever allowed to own her choice. She can always say she was made to do it, or that Rumpelstiltskin did it for her. She is an imposter. The Queen tries to go back on her deal with Rumplestilskin. She offers him all her wealth. In Jungian interpretation of fairy tales children are often symbols of creativity. ‘Rumpelstiltskin helped her “fake it ‘til she made it.”’ so she could become the Queen (Roshelle, 2015). A child—is an act of creation that has nothing to do with Rumpelstiltskin, she has created with her own body’s magic. The child is a validation of her own ability and power . Also nobody accuses the birth mother of the heir to the throne that she is holding an unrightful position of authority. The child symbolises certainty of the Queen’s right to be there. But Rumplsestiltskin now wants that. He wants her ability to hold self-confidence. The final part of the tale, the naming is hugely important. It’s only when the queen is able to name Rumpelstiltskin for what he is that she truly comes into her own power, the power to keep hold of her ‘children’, the power to feel confident in her position and hold personal sovereignty. Likewise in psychoanalytic thinking when we put things into words and are able to bring them into consciousness we see them more clearly for what they are. In doing so Rumpelstiltskin disappears and our options can begin to look quite different along with our ability to take ownership of our choices. However whilst the naming is the end of the fairytale (and in life coming into consciousness of a dynamic) - what then happens to the queen? Naming does not undo what has been done, nor is it a one-off experience. We often have to live our stories many times over - naming them over and over again. We could speculate the queen has been traumatised by her experiences and even if not, she still has a narcissistic father, an abusive partner and patriarchy to contend with. All whilst being a first time mum and holding down a new powerful job. I suspect she is in for a difficult time. So maybe the happy ending is more of a hope that this particular rattling ghost will be laid to rest and the potential for a new future is kept open a little longer. Maybe that’s more than enough . If you would like to join me for more discussions on fairytales, myths and psychology please do got to the events section at my website: Links: Mind Matters — Remember Rumpelstiltskin? (

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