When viewed from the perspective of psychoanalysis, the children’s story of Cinderella illustrates a theme that probably occurs more often than we think. It can happen in a step-family, as it does in Cinderella, but it can also happen in any family. It can involve sibling rivalry, jealousy, anger, and being rescued by an exalted figure. It its core, the story is about the many aspects of narcissism.
In the story, Cinderella is adored by her father until he suddenly passes away; abandoned by the man who loves her unconditionally, she falls under the sway of a family of narcissistic women. One of the needs of a narcissist is to be superior. Cinderella’s mother and her two step-sisters have this need. They are all vain and fancy themselves as superior to Cinderella. The fact that her father favored Cinderella, coupled with the fact that Cinderella is a beautiful young woman, stirs up their jealousy and narcissistic rage. So they begin to make fun of her, call her names, and treat her like a servant.
They persecute Cinderella because she threatens to puncture their bubble of narcissism. It is a bubble because narcissists builds their grandiose self-estimation on an insecure foundation. They have not earned this self-esteem, but rather it has been bestowed on them, usually by a narcissistic parent (a parent, that is, who idealizes her or his child). Because the bubble is thin and can easily be punctured, Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters must work extra hard to keep Cinderella down. If she were to assume her rightful place as the confident beauty of the house, it would shatter them.
So for a long time, perhaps years, Cinderella is persecuted by her stepmother and stepsisters. When a child undergoes chronic persecution, their personality is crushed.. They are angry but they can’t express this anger because the persecutors are too powerful. The suppressed anger fills their bodies, their veins, and their muscles; they assume a hangdog posture; they become introverted; their intelligence is blunted; their spirit is stifled. They become the lowly person their persecutors want them to be. By playing the role accorded them, they are given a crumb of approval now and then.
When all the women of the town are invited to a ball at the king’s castle, the mother and sisters plan to go, but the mother forbids Cinderella from attending. The sisters dress up, convinced that the prince will choose them (too vain and out of touch with reality to realize he is out of their league); and off they go. However, a fairy godmother appears and, as the story relates, provides Cinderella with a lovely gown and turns a pumpkin into a carriage. Cinderella attends the ball and the prince falls in love with her. The ending of the story is the kind of dream that those who have been persecuted are prone to. But it is not reality.
The reality is that Cinderella would not have gone to the ball. Even if she had a gown, she would not have worn it, because by then her confidence and spirit would have been broken and she would have been too shy to attend such a ball. She wouldn’t feel she deserved to go. The reality is that it would probably take years of psychotherapy to put her together again.
This kind of narcissistic persecution goes on more often than we might suppose, not only in families but in other spheres of life. The more narcissistic an individual is, the more they have a need to be better than someone else. Often in families that need to be better turns into a need to persecute the family member who threatens that need. Power, as they say, corrupts, especially if it is a narcissistic personality who has that power.
Like in the Cinderella story, the narcissist persecutes those who arouse jealousy, invoke fear, or threaten his or her fragile superiority. It may be a daughter or son or a younger brother or sister who is prettier or sweeter or more talented or more popular or more intelligent that his siblings. It may be a mother or father who regards their child as a rival and are threatened by some superior talent in the child. The narcissist cannot contain the jealousy and fear that his or her bubble may be punctured, so they go in for the psychological kill. I call this The Cinderella Persecution Syndrome.
The beautiful or talented or intelligent child can’t help it that they are who they are, that they are genetically exceptional, but the narcissistic parent and/or siblings view them as deliberately trying to outshine them. Often they say things to the child, often the youngest, such as, “I think you’re getting too big for your britches.” They see such a child as a usurper, as someone who wants to undermine the older child or parents and take away their rightful place of superiority.
A family myth develops, spearheaded by the parents or by a “golden child” who, like Cinderella’s mother and older stepsisters, has been made to feel he or she is the rightful superior parent or child. The myth has it that the designated “Cinderella” is selfish and conceited and wants to outdo everybody else and must therefore be kept down at any cost. A double-standard is erected with regard to how the “Cinderella” is treated and how others are treated. Instead of having their talents supported, the Cinderella often become bullied and abused.
As a consequence the Cinderella grows up feeling guilty about his or her superior talents, intelligent, beauty or other personal traits. They are not only unable to actualize these exceptional genetic qualities, but they end up with feeling of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Since their exceptional qualities caused them to go through a traumatic upbringing, they expect that people will not like them because of these traits, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For every individual who is able to actualize the exceptional traits they were born with, there are just as many or more whose exceptional traits have been sabotaged by the Cinderella Persecution Syndrome and who spend their lives struggling with depression, anxiety and other maladies. Unfortunately, because of this syndrome, such individuals live wasted lives.
Their story is not a Cinderella fairy tale, but rather a Cinderella nightmare.