Ellen Siegelman, Ph.D. is a Jungian analyst in the practice of psychoanalysis, therapy, and consultation in Berkeley and San Francisco, CA. She’s also a dear friend of mine and highly sensitive. She is the author of a number of professional articles plus Personal Risk (Harper, 1985), a popular book on responsible risk-taking and Metaphor and Meaning in Psychotherapy (Guilford Press, 1990), an excellent book for anyone interested in therapy. Somehow we were talking about favorite fairy tales and she said hers was “The Princess and the Pea.” I knew what that was about, so I asked her to write something about “our” fairy tale, and here’s her story of that story…
(Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2009.)
When I was a little girl, I read or had my mother read to me a great number of stories by the brothers Grimm and by Hans Christian Andersen. I was enthralled by most of them, but my special favorite was Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea. Without taking an official poll, I would guess that that story might be a favorite among highly sensitive women because it is, as you may remember, about a solitary woman who looks bedraggled and unprepossessing but is found to have exquisite sensitivity. Here’s the original story in translation from the Danish:
The Princess and the Pea
(also titled “The Real Princess”)
There was once a prince, and he wanted a princess, but then she must be a real Princess. He traveled right around the world to find one, but there was always something wrong. There were plenty of princesses, but whether they were real princesses, he had great difficulty in discovering; there was always something which was not quite right about them. So at last he had to come home again, and he was very sad because he wanted a real princess so badly.
One evening there was a terrible storm. It thundered and lightninged and the rain poured down in torrents. Indeed, it was a fearful night.
In the middle of the storm somebody knocked at the town gate, and the old King himself went to open it.
It was a princess who stood outside, but she was in a terrible state from the rain and the storm. The water streamed out of her hair and her clothes; it ran in at the top of her shoes and out at the heel, but she said that she was a real princess.
“Well we shall soon see if that is true,” thought the old Queen, but she said nothing. She went into the bedroom, took all the bedclothes off, and laid a pea on the bedstead. Then she took twenty mattresses and piled them on the top of the pea, and then twenty feather beds on the top of the mattresses. This was where the princess was to sleep that night. In the morning they asked her how she had slept.
“Oh terribly badly!” said the princess. “I have hardly closed my eyes the whole night! Heaven knows what was in the bed. I seemed to be lying upon some hard thing, and my whole body is black and blue this morning. It is terrible!”
They saw at once that she must be a real princess when she had felt the pea through twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. Nobody but a real princess could have such a delicate skin.
So the prince took her to be his wife, for now he was sure that he had found a real princess, and the pea was put into the Museum, where it may still be seen if no one has stolen it.
There, that is a true story.
Going back to my own childhood, my mother, who was basically a good-enough mother, was very different from me: pragmatic, somewhat concrete, and struggling to hold our family together psychologically while my father went through the Great Depression and his own ensuing depression. But in her book, being “sensitive” was just a kind of indulgence. I can’t tell you how often she would say to me, “Don’t take things so seriously.” “Why can’t you be more happy-go-lucky like Joyce” (my younger sister), and above all, “Don’t be so sensitive.”
So I somehow heard Andersen’s story as a rebuke. This princess was too, too sensitive, and she went around making trouble for people who had to haul in mattress after mattress because she could feel that darned pea no matter what.
It was only years later that I came to a different take on the story, thanks to the help of my warm and attuned analyst. After I explained that it was my favorite story and was, in fact, a cautionary tale about being too sensitive, my analyst said, “But that’s not the point of the story. The point is that exquisite sensitivity was the proof that she was indeed special and fit to be the princess the prince had been searching for.” So if anything the story is a celebration of sensitivity, which I could understand only after I stopped looking at it through my mother’s lens.