Fairytale therapy today

Positions existing in psychology in relation to modern fairytale therapy are analyzed while stating the insufficient development of the theoretical basis thereof. Based on F.E. Vasilyuk’s ideas on the need to develop a psychotechnical approach, the author believes that fairytale therapy has the features of a psychotechnical system. The article outlines all kinds of approaches to the understanding of the object, methods and essence of fairytale therapy as a special scientific and practical area.


Despite the fact that the term «fairytale therapy» has become firmly ingrained in the vocabulary of psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and even psychologically advanced ordinary people, the content of this term remains elusive. The range of its application is insomuch wide that there is a real threat of «devastation» of the fairytale therapy concept, since sometimes this word is used to describe absolutely any way of referring to a fairy tale. At the same time, many people sincerely believe that fairytale therapy is all about reading fairy tales (better more specifically selected) aloud to your child, and that all the methods thereof come down to that. The situation is aggravated by a considerable number of popular psychological books, which confuse the readers even more through an inappropriate use of the concept.

The present state of things is a consequence of the all-too-familiar paradox when practical application of the method is well ahead of the performance evaluation and scientific basis development for the newly-emerged area.

Without claiming to exhaustingly expand the fairytale therapy concept and to develop its methodological basis (this is a matter for the future), in this paper I would venture to outline the boundaries of the fairytale therapy framework, pointing out some aspects of a possible understanding of the essence thereof.

Approaches to the understanding of fairytale therapy

Leaving aside the childish idea of this method, established in the everyday awareness of non-psychologists, there can be outlined several approaches formed so far, relating to the origin, nature and specific features of the fairytale therapy.

The first position is maintained by T. D. Zinkevich-Evstigneeva, one of the most well-known expert fairytale therapists, Director of the Fairytale Therapy Institute in St. Petersburg. According to her, fairytale therapy should be understood as a set of ways of transferring knowledge about the soul’s spiritual journey and the human’s social realization, as an educational system conformable to the spiritual nature of a human being [1].

Expanding her conception, she writes that fairytale therapy is the «discovery of knowledge existing in the soul and currently being the psychotherapeutic one[1], and «the search for the implication, decryption of knowledge about the world and the system of relationships in it» [1], and «the process of establishing a link between fairytale events and behavior in real life» [1], and «the process of problem situations objectification» [1], and «the process of activation of personal resources and potential» [1], and «the process of the child’s environmental education and upbringing» [1] and «the environment therapy, therapy by special fairytale atmosphere, in which the human potential or something unfulfilled can manifest and a dream can come true» [1], and «the process of selection of special fairy tales for each client» [1].

T. D. Zinkevich-Evstigneeva believes that St. Petersburg is home to fairytale therapy, describing the folklore, collection and research on fairy tales and myths as the earlier stages of fairytale therapy development (C.G. Jung, M.-L. von Franz, B. Bettelheim, V. Ya. Propp, etc.) including the psychotechnical stage (the use of fairy tales as a reason for psycho-diagnostics, correction and development of the personality); the integrative stage associated with the «forming of the concept of complex fairytale therapy with a spiritual approach to fairy tales, with the understanding of fairytale therapy as a nature-conformable and human-perception-friendly educational system, well-tried by many generations of our ancestors» [1].

The second position has been documented in a number of papers devoted to the art therapy. Thus, according to L. D. Lebedeva, a well-known expert in this field [2], we can establish the following hierarchy of areas, based on art and creative work:

Type: art therapy. Class: creative work therapy (creative therapy).Subclass: expressive therapy.Family: therapy by creative self-expression; music therapy; play therapy; drama therapy; fairytale therapy; bibliotherapy; dance therapy; movement therapy; art therapy.

Thus, according to Lebedeva, it appears that the largest taxonomic unit (type) in this hierarchy is the art therapy. It links all the scientific and applied areas having a common basis: use of various forms of a person’s artistic activities, the results of his/her creative work, or the famous masterpieces in the «curative purposes». In such a case fairytale therapy is a component of art therapy.

The third position has begun to develop in recent years due to the appearance of information on narrative psychotherapy in our country, the acquaintance of the psychological community with people possessing this knowledge and those who established this approach, as well as the appearance of our national narrative psychotherapists. The narrative approach (Michael White and David Epston are considered to be its establishers) in psychotherapy is closely associated with postmodern thinking, and as a matter of practice it involves engaging a client into the process of creating his/her own living scenario, story, into the process of describing his/her own biography. When working with people, the narrative approach is based on the idea that people live their lives according to the stories they tell about themselves to other people and to themselves and according to the stories being told about them by other people [3]. Since metaphoric stories play a huge role in narrative practice including an active use of folk and author’s (artistic) tales, this fact has afforded grounds for a number of psychologists to qualify fairytale therapy as one of the methods of narrative psychotherapy.

According to the fourth position, fairytale therapy should absolutely be denied independent existence as a separate area, since it is only a generalized description for a group of techniques of working with fairytale images and plots applied by different psychotherapeutic schools: gestalt therapy, psychodrama, transactional analysis, hypnotherapy, etc.

Fairytale therapy: landscapes and boundaries

So what is modern fairytale therapy as an independent branch? At present it is still only a psychological practice that has a poorly developed scientific basis (this can be said about many psychological and psychotherapeutic areas). Fifteen years ago F.E. Vasilyuk pointed out a serious gap between psychological science and psychological practice, stating that they were living a parallel life as two subpersonalities of a dissociated personality. He called this situation a schism [4]. During those years the situation did not change much, and his words about the necessity to implement the psychotechnical approach were still relevant. F.E. Vasilyuk believes that psychotechnique is a general psychological methodology, not dictated from the outside, but genetically «planted» in national psychology. According to F.E. Vasilyuk, the essence of the psychotechnical approach lies in the fact that it «introduces psychological practice into psychological science, and science into practice» [5: p. 39], and the main methodological features of the psychotechnical system can be defined as follows:

Pragmatic and ethical values are incorporated into the «tissue» of theory;

Practical psychologist is the «user» thereof;

What becomes the object of this theory is not the psyche and consciousness but the work with consciousness;

Subject matter and method of the psychotechnical theory are in such a ratio that the practical method of exposure is at the same time an optimal empirical method of study of this subject matter.

Based on the ideas of F.E. Vasilyuk, M.A. Stepanova proves that the concept of P. Galperin has a definitely psychotechnical character, making a general conclusion about the importance of P. Galperin’s theory for the educational practice [6]. His development of the psychotechnical approach, according to M.A. Stepanova, determines the possibility of active use thereof in the educational practice by educational psychologists, since his theory is addressed to them and stands the test by practice (this refers to a few psychological theories only).

Current forming up the fairytale therapy theory allows suggesting the possible psychotechnical character for this area too. We believe that fairytale therapy can become one of the ways of implementing the psychotechnical approach, since general trends of the development thereof give evidence to the manifestation of its compliance with the basic features of the psychotechnical system. As for the first two methodological features among those described by F.E. Vasilyuk, by virtue of obviousness of their applicability to fairytale therapy, we will not enlarge upon them.

One of the most difficult issues is the question about the fairytale therapy object. If we consider fairytale therapy in terms of what is studied and affected thereby, it seems that fairytale images should be outlined as an object. In this case the term «fairytale images» can have two meanings: firstly, as something relatively «objective» and external in relation to the psyche, available in fairytale texts and possessing rather stable characteristics, and secondly, the subjective psychological unit, specific to each human being, associated with their individual perception of the fairytale, and the changeable one. However, such a «split» of the object leads to the division of fairytale therapy itself into two branches: the psychology of a fairy tale, in which, by analogy with the psychology of art, there is an «objective» study of the fairytale genre, its origin, psychosemantics and psycholinguistics undertaken, including peculiarities of perception, as well as symbolism of images; and practical fairytale therapy, where the emphasis is laid on the development of methods of rendering psychological assistance based on the fairy tale. In this case, it seems that one should outline two methods of analysis of the fairytale therapy object, and two methodological levels of the psychotechnical theory.

The second version of analysis of the fairytale therapy object can be associated with an approach to the understanding of practical psychology in general. Currently practical psychology can be seen not only as the scope of application of psychological knowledge, not only as psychological practice and a way of checking speculative psychological models, but also as a new rapidly developing branch of psychological science with its own subject matter of study and development. Principles, methods and forms of psychological help, psychological support and psychological assistance to human development act as such [7]. It seems that focusing on this position in simplistic terms the fairytale therapy object can be defined as a set of principles, methods and forms of psychological work, based on a fairy-tale metaphor. In this case it is necessary to specially underline that the most important tool and psychological means of fairytale therapy is a fairytale metaphor. This fact forms a specific feature of fairytale therapy as an independent scientific and practical area.

Analyzing the last feature of the psychotechnical system outlined by F.E. Vasilyuk, and correlating it with fairytale therapy, it should be noted that the latter has the unity of the practical method of exposure and the optimal empirical method of studying the subject matter clearly manifested. As C.-G. Jung considered theory more as an analyzing tool rather than a formalized system, so the work with the client’s fairytale in fairytale therapy turns out to be a process in which rendering psychological help and studying by the psychologist of essential subjective characteristics of a help-seeking person reflected in fairytale images, have assimilated, entwined and are almost inseparable from each other.


Fairy tales - the folk ones, the author’s (artistic) ones, the ones created «for a specific problem» by fairytale therapists including the ones written by the client himself/herself – resolve two major tasks in fairytale therapy. The first one can be metaphorically described as the «task of a mirror»: a fairy tale can help the client (child or adult) see themselves, meet with themselves, and thus develop self-awareness and provide an opportunity to harmonize their personal space. The second task can be described as the «task of the crystal»: a fairy tale offers a new way of seeing other people and the world around, and, therefore, building new, more constructive relationships with people and the world. Resolving the «task of the mirror» and «the task of a crystal», i.e. developing the human being’s self-awareness and revealing their capabilities in relationships with others, the fairy tale forms their ability to become a creator of their own inner and outer world. Namely this ability determines the human being’s subjectivity. Therefore, the development of subjectivity can be considered as the primary objective of fairytale therapy.

Within the framework of such understanding of fairytale therapy there can be applied the most various methods of psychological and psychotherapeutic use of fairy tales. All the mentioned above allows suggesting the following operational definition: fairytale therapy is such a scientific and practical area, which through the use of metaphoric resources of a fairy tale (including genres close to it), allows people to develop self-awareness and to build special levels of interaction with each other, thus creating the conditions for the formation of the subjectivity thereof [8].

Thus, it is possible to assume that during its further development, acquiring even more theoretical formedness, fairytale therapy will become a genuine psychotechnical system.

Igor V. Vachkov

Source: www.sciencedirect.com

Photo: content.choiz.me

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