When Fairy Tales Backfire
I’ve been thinking lately about how the way we present ourselves and our work can have enormous consequences for the way it is received. This has always been something I’ve had to think about–when interviewing for jobs, introducing myself at conferences–but it’s become all the more compelling now that I have a novel out.
My upbringing, in tandem with inborn personality traits, resulted in a habit of self-deprecation. Maybe it’s because it was instilled in me in religious classes that humility is a praiseworthy character trait and bragging is bad; or maybe it’s because when women speak up, the rewards are few, whereas there might be short-term rewards for self-deprecation–people might be nice and reach out to help you, for example. But the long-term effects, as I’ve been learning, are deeply damaging, and the reason is simple. When you put yourself down, people believe you.
This runs contrary to an unconscious fantasy that I’ve had, that has only recently become conscious. That fantasy is of people seeing through the self-deprecation to the person underneath. I’ve been trying to understand where such an illusion came from, and I think it might have roots in a fairy tale. Now, I am a huge proponent of fairy tales and they inspire my writing. But just as stories can illuminate, they can also create a smokescreen of destructive fantasies. (Last Song Before Night is, at least in part, about just this idea.) And I think Cinderella has worked like that on me. Cinderella is in rags, but a prince sees through to her value. Her worth shines through the grime. The idea that you can present someone with a facade of rags and they will still see through to your true worth is a powerful one.
But of course, if I’d known I was processing the story that way, I would have turned it around, examined it, and found the obvious problem with my interpretation. Cinderella doesn’t enchant the prince until she’s decked out in a ballgown that is not only fabulous, it is actually magic. If anything, it is a fairy tale that underscores the value of presenting oneself to one’s fullest advantage. But we can’t always control how a story is processed in the psyche, not until we become aware of its effect on us.
I’m probably never going to be someone who is great at trumpeting my accomplishments. That in itself is a self-deprecating remark, but it’s hard to see a lifelong impediment melting away in a flash of self-awareness! But I’ll keep reminding myself: If you wear rags, that’s what people see. If you array yourself in a fabulous ballgown–well, some will be resentful, but that’s a risk of moving through the world. The best part of putting on the ballgown is that its cut and color are your choice. You’re not waiting for someone else to discover you–you’ve already made that discovery for yourself.