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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Nugent

The Princess and the Pea: Activist, Analyst, Shadow.

Updated: Apr 12

Once upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry a princess; but she would have to be a real princess. He travelled all over the world to find one, but nowhere could he get what he wanted. There were enough princesses, but it was difficult to find out whether they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not as it should be.

So he came home again and was sad, for he would have liked very much to have a real princess. One evening a terrible storm came on; there was thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it. It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! what a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet she said that she was a real princess.

“Well, we’ll soon find that out,” thought the old queen. But she said nothing, went into the bed-room, took all the bedding off the bedstead, and laid a pea on the bottom; then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on the pea, and then twenty eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.

On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept. “Oh, very badly!” said she. “I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!”

Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds. Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.

So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess; and the pea was put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it.

There, that is a true story.

As a child, when I first heard this Hans Christian Andersen fairytale ‘the Princess and the Pea’, I heard it as a rebuke: this princess was too sensitive, she went around making trouble for people making the staff in the house haul mattress after mattress to her room just because she could feel a tiny pea. She was entitled and pathetic. I felt sorry for the Prince being stuck with her. I thought the story was a cautionary tale to Princes - be careful what you wish for, learn how to settle! It was only years later that I came to a different take on the story, thanks to the help of my analyst.

It is rare for me to dislike a fairytale, but I disliked this one. I explained to my analyst how I saw the story as a cautionary tale about being too precious. My then analyst said, “But maybe the point of the story is that some sources of discomfort have a lot of layers placed on top of them. And when you find the source of discomfort you are left with a seed - a life giving thing, with enormous potential for growth. Maybe the princess being able to be so attuned to noticing discomfort under so many layers is a Queen and King making activity?”

Unsurprisingly, since then I have held the story somewhat differently. Now, many years later these are some of my current thoughts and associations to the story:

  • On its surface, the story appears to tell a tale of how a ‘boy and girl meet and marry’. However, as metaphor, the princess is the central character, and is a “seeker. She is lost in a storm and trying to find home. Storm might be a metaphor for personal uncertainty and home a metaphor for individual base, a place to belong, an identity. When playing with the concept of storm it occurred to me in our modern discourse we don’t just talk about storm as weather but we have social media/ twitter storms - that are places that can inspire astonishingly strong emotional and physiological reactions. And plenty of ‘pea’ like comments can leave us unable to sleep and emotionally black and blue.

  • Cities are heavily socialized places where groups of people have been able to construct all sorts of complex structures. You might say they symbolise social complexes.

  • The prince in the story wants a relationship. A prince is someone who has influence and importance but is not yet in position to be a leader over his city - his father the ‘old king’ does that. The kingship in a Jungian interpretation might well be a conscious ruling principle of living - like the importance of speaking truth to power.

  • Typically in fairytales a prince must marry a princess before he can become King and so it is often necessary to find the ‘right’ partner.

  • When we speak of princesses colloquially the phrase ‘don’t be a princess’ comes to mind - we speak of someone full of feeling, maybe to the point of heightened sensitivity. The princess like a prince is someone of importance but does not yet hold full responsibility or authority. The princess in fairy tales often represents something connected to the body and feeling. That’s why Disney has so many of them singing and dancing. Culturally however we dislike body knowledge and tend to deride it - wanting only the superficial Hollywood caricature of ‘attractiveness’ to be related to the feminine.

  • Marriage of the ruling principle to being full of feeling could be the meeting of mind and body - where wisdom is gained through marrying a principle of living to an embodied sensitivity and nuanced understanding of something.

  • Maria Tatar notes that the princess does not resort to conformity to establish her identity; her ability to detect a disturbance is enough to validate her nobility. She doesn’t need to tidy herself up and be socially acceptable. She is too busy being in the storms of life to worry about social etiquette or norms. For Andersen, this indicates, "true" nobility is derived not from an individual's birth (something innate) but from their sensitivity, an embodied learning. Andersen's insistence upon sensitivity as the true indicator of noble character challenges modern notions about social worth. With this perspective the princess’s sensitivity becomes a synonym for self-compassion and reflexivity.

  • Mattresses can be a metaphor for ‘layers’ that must be removed for the presence of the ‘pea’ to become clear. Mattresses are things you sleep on (lie unconsciously on) and are used daily. As items they are bulky and an effort to turn over or take off and on. We tend not to change mattresses too often.

  • When the mattress layers are lifted, a single pea is found. The pea might represent the beginning of something that holds vast potential for growth. It contains promise and potential for all that can develop should the individual now be open to go through a process of self-discovery. The pea is a misplaced object, it is in the wrong environment. In the right place it transforms into something very different. It’s placement in the bed is so aggravating it turns the princess black and blue. These colours remind me of the shadow archetype in Jungian analysis. In this sense the story might become one of integration of shadow parts.

  • The prince travels all across the world looking for a princess but no one is quite right. He eventually gives up and then one turns up at the city gate - but his parents (the older generation ruling principles) cannot quite believe she is for real as she is really quite a mess, thoroughly disheveled by the ‘weather’.

  • Another interpretation might be that in the fairytale the princess represents the analyst - on a quest and soaked in the water and weather of the unconscious. The prince is the activist - he knows he needs a cause, a princess to marry, but which feels right and how to go about this quest?

These interpretations make me think of my own searching and my wish to create changes in the world. The hope of a marriage between the part that wishes to be activist and the part that wishes to be analytic can only be realised if I learn to integrate shadow parts of me. As my clinical supervisor once said, the activist part of me says ‘don’t just stand there do something’, whereas the analyst within me says, ‘don’t just do something - stand there’ see what emerges.

When I reflect on this story the analyst part of me knows that I cannot hold the pain of others until I have validated and understood how I interact with my own hurt. As such I need to be curious about the experiences that turn me black and blue. The fact the princess is ‘black and blue’ from her sleeping on the pea also speaks to reinforce the embodied nature of this form of wisdom. Wisdom that is found beyond emotion, theory and politics. Wisdom that understands something is hidden or being avoided and mattresses are being placed on top of it.

One example of a black and blue experience I came from my relationship with feminism. I discovered feminism in my early twenties and had a wish to protest and rage against the world - to tidy up all the toxic patriarchal systems I felt forced to exist in. I and others needed to be emancipated from toxic masculinity and domestic oppression. I had many righteous ‘discussions’ that would turn me black and blue. As I began removing more layers I discovered Feminist Audrey Lorde's 1970 speech 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House'. This speech was given on a panel called "The Personal and The Political" at the Second Sex Conference in New York. In it Lorde criticizes 'white feminism' and says:

community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.

Poor women and women of Color know there is a difference between the daily manifestations of marital slavery and prostitution because it is our daughters who line 42nd Street. If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color? What is the theory behind racist feminism?

Lorde was deeply critical of the disembodied narratives that occurred in white feminism. Particularly regarding the lack of curiosity concerning embodied differences in the ‘white’ feminist theories. This white feminism assumed sameness and didn’t attend or value embodied difference. Embodied wisdom comes with an acceptance of the limits of life and the need to work within these limits. To feel fully human we must engage in the daily activities of living. Lorde suggested this ‘white’ feminism supported a denial of what it is to be a whole person grounded in reality, as this feminism’s goals could only be met through a racist contracting out of certain roles to lower status people, as a result psychologically putting that part of life firmly in the shadow aspect of white woman psyche. These unwanted tasks of domesticity were to be left with poor women and women of colour. If you look at how many professional institutions are run, this is still the case. Lorde encouraged all people to take up our differences and support each other in living full embodied and grounded lives. Not to try and collapse into an imagined belief of sameness.

Around this time I discovered social justice. I began to remove more layers of mattresses. I could begin to understand how I have been benefitting from the oppression of others and how I made certain groups of people invisible in my wish to disconnect from parts of life. However this too has a shadow side and more layers are to be explored. I have historically found it is easier to avoid and be distracted from my personal pain by speaking on behalf of others - being an advocate and an ally is integral to a role as a clinical psychologist. In this way it is often taught that people have a right to speak their truth and this is to be accepted on face value. Which in its most simple form is completely true, vital worthy.

The princely principle of accepting someone else’s truth and being an ally, is very much a part of social justice enlightenment along with the necessity of ‘storytelling’. We need these stories ‘to speak truth to power’. However speaking truth can easily become a very trickster concept - if we embrace this naively. Having been in a group analytic training for some time you see how a story and its truth, depend not only on the narrator but also time. Truth telling has many unexpected layers. It is important to connect with the notion that we are all in a constant process of growing up and that people are nearly always just not in a position to see themselves, or events around them clearly. We see our lives through particular lenses and attitudes that can take time to remove. As such, one human truth is that we all lie. Sometimes we lie consciously, maybe to make a point, to save face, to maintain an image, hurt someone, or to avoid hurting someone. Sometimes we lie unconsciously to ourselves and we lie unconsciously to others. We lie unconsciously to maintain denial, or a particular self image. We lie unconsciously because we are afraid of not being liked, afraid of being weak, afraid of being seen to not know, of our incompetence, afraid of our anger or are scared of hurting someone.

As a result, our stories are more than the concrete reality of ‘he said, she said’. Most people understand this about the people they love. Why is it so difficult to imagine it is happening to us or people we dislike also? There is no compassion in pretending some people only tell the truth, or others only lie to be mean. We are all works in progress. If we are looking from a distance - we often see this deceitful dance in others. I think maybe that is why such negative mirroring goes on in our social media groups - everyone sees through each other's defenses but then becomes activated and experiences the space as unsafe so we in turn hide and protect ourselves. But we can’t leave it alone - we return to it over and over, we become black and blue.

If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” Virginia Wolf.

All men are liars, certainly. I just let them sit in that chair and lie till they get tired of lying. Then they begin to tell the truth.” CG Jung

Another way of describing this concept is spiritual bypassing: the avoidance of internal conflict and use of ‘right answers’ to mimic compassion.

The spiritual bypasser in us needs not censure nor shaming but rather to be consciously and caringly included in our awareness without being allowed to run the show. ...

there is nothing inherently virtuous about expansion—think of imperialism and colonization, as well as of metastasizing cancer cells—nor anything inherently unvirtuous about contraction. Expansion and contraction are more intertwined than we might think; when we inhale, for example, it may seem as if all that is happening is an expansion of our torso to draw in more air, but there is also a contraction of our nasal tissues and upper throat, which tighten up a bit as we inhale. ...

Blind compassion is rooted in the belief that we are all doing the best that we can. When we are driven by blind compassion, we cut everyone far too much slack, making excuses for others’ behavior and making nice in situations that require a forceful “no,” an unmistakable voicing of displeasure, or a firm setting and maintaining of boundaries. These things can, and often should, be done out of love, but blind compassion keeps love too meek, sentenced to wearing a kind face. This is not the kindness of the Dalai Lama, which is rooted in courage, but rather a kindness rooted in fear, and not just the fear of confrontation, but also the fear of not coming across as a good or spiritual person.

Blind compassion confuses anger with aggression, forcefulness with violence, judgment with condemnation, caring with exaggerated tolerance, and moral maturity with spiritual correctness.

From, Spiritual Bypassing, Robert Augustus Masters (2010).

From this point on, I learnt to mistrust the concept of blind compassion that is so often seen in social justice and allyship and I believe it works to maintain problems.

At the end of the fairytale the pea is placed in a museum, a community resource for learning as an object to be observed. The writer of the fairytale, Hans Christian Andersen makes us aware that is an item someone might steal. Blind compassion to me is like stealing the pea from a museum without actually ever having attended to the source of your own bruises. Having the pea is great but the fact is you still don’t have the embodied sensitivity required to marry your own prince.

It is for this reason that bell hooks maintains that resistance can only be conducted if we are first able to recognise the concealed truth of institutionalised and commonplace domination/discrimination. She argues we learn to do this by recognising concealed truths within ourselves: “we can only recognise reality by breaking through denial.”

In my quest to find a marriage for my inner prince and princess (my inner analyst and activist parts) I am learning to recognise the importance of being able to detect peas. Those tiny bits of displaced and denied identity, that I unconsciously lie on. The taking off of the mattress layers is effortful, clunky and can feel never ending. To do this I am learning to make space for many changes of heart and understand that there is always more I do not know. I now try and really listen to those with whom I completely disagree and see where I might resonate. The road through this quagmire can be pretty humbling but as Victor Frankl said, “What gives light must endure burning.

Dragging metaphorical mattresses off the bed to understand why I am so black and blue is hard work and so support is good to seek out. This might be why I love group analysis. Whilst it is my work to do, it really is less lonely and burdensome when I have people alongside me engaged in a similar task.


Audre Lorde. (1984) “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print

Robert Augustus Masters. (2010). Spiritual Bypassing: when spirituality disconnects us from what really matters

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