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Blogs contained here emanate from questions or responses to themes that arose in psychological and spiritual settings – sessions, groups, training workshops, etc. Please note that blog entries 64-166 are drawn from Richard Harvey’s articles page. This retrospective series of blogs spanned over 25 years; please remember when reading them that some of Richard’s thought and practice have evolved since. We hope you enjoy this blog and that you will carry on submitting your psycho-spiritual questions for Richard’s response, either through the form on our Contact Us page or in the ongoing video blog series. Thank you.

Family Beliefs and Dynamics

by Richard Harvey on 02/15/19


Today I'll bake; tomorrow I'll brew.
Then I'll fetch the queen's new child.
It is good that no one knows
Rumpelstiltskin is my name.

(from "Rumpelstiltskin" the German folktale in Grimm's Fairy Tales 1812)

The extraordinary subject of family dominates and pervades our existence as individual and collective beings throughout our life. Who can see their family clearly and vividly? Who can name the qualities, the attributes of the individual members and the collective giant of family itself? Knowing yourself and others is not enough; there are also the relationships between each of the members. In a family of four, there are 48 basic relationships in play (relationship to self and the other three, relation to you from each of these plus the perceived and possibly erroneous relationships you project). Is it any wonder that family dynamics are so notoriously dense?

In myths and fairy tales from around the world we find the motif of the mysterious helper who strikes a bargain with the distressed heroine and is eventually disempowered when his name is discovered and spoken (see The Name of the Helper: Aarne-Thompson tale type 500). The German folktale Rumpelstiltskin is perhaps the one we are most familiar with. Briefly, a boastful father claims his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king incarcerates her in a tower and threatens to kill her unless she can perform the miraculous task. In her despair, a stranger appears and produces the gold in exchange for her necklace and ring. The king offers to marry or kill her on the third night unless she produces even more gold than before. This time the stranger produces the gold in exchange for her first-born child. She marries the king, has a baby boy, and the stranger appears to collect his reward. She offers all her riches, for she is now the queen, and eventually the stranger agrees to delaying taking possession of the child for three days, during which time if she can guess his name correctly he will relinquish his claim. 

Now here comes a highly significant variation. The queen discovers the stranger's real name. when he is found in the dead of night, dancing around a fire singing a rhyme. But in some versions it is the king who hears the stranger's song, in other's it is a traveling artisan or someone who works for the king, in others it is the girl's parents, and in still others it is the girl herself.

The name of course is Rumpelstiltskin -- a name you could never have guessed. But whether you, your parents or the king discover it and release you from the follies, the intrigues, and the hidden dynamics of your family belief system and prison is crucial.

Therapy is the pursuit in which we reveal our truth, our essence -- in which we discover our true name. The dwarf, the stranger, the trickster are merely versions of an animus that is attempting to thwart us from that discovery. When we are confident in our inner work we understand that the answer is within. Hence in a German version of the story "Kugerl," we read, "The girl was satisfied with this answer, and she went home."

The hungry ghosts, the imps, and those inner beings who seek to take from us manipulatively are overcome by speaking their names: Rumpelstiltskin, Hipche-Hipche, Doubleturk. The answer, of course, is found at home, or within.

"If my bride knew that my name is Doubleturk, she wouldn't take me!"

Within you -- and within each client you work with -- are the parental images you have taken in throughout your early years. Also there is the authoritarian voice or image, the part of you with a will to power in the name of protection, in the name of survival. And finally there is the essence, the kernel of yourself, your own soul or psyche which is the one that needs to rise to the challenge and free itself from the chains and oppression of the family matrix, outmoded, anachronistic, and irrelevant as it is now.

This idea of having power over something you can name has great relevance in family exploration in psychotherapy. As we work, as therapist or client, through the mazes and labyrinths of our family history, clarity arises from our acts of naming. As we get these words, notions, and descriptions "right" -- that is more true, more vivid, more real -- so family conditioning loosens its hold progressively over our lives. When finally we have the word for it (figuratively), our attachments dissolve.

Naming the stranger, the dwarf, the half person is by reflection naming ourselves. By naming what we reject, we recognize what we are prepared to accept. What your client aspires to, what motivates them, their intentionality and their attitude and resilience to overcome challenges and discover their true nature -- these are the qualities that determine the outcome of their personal process. Will they discover themselves or not? Will they take the complete course -- the one that only they can know, the one that is designated within them -- and learn to speak their own name?

Discovering the name of the trickster reveals to us our own truth, our own completeness, our wholeness and wholeness has been the goal of depth psychotherapy since the Upanishads, since counseling began.

Fairy tales are of childhood. The characters and the narratives are like family stories, symbolic of inner dynamics and reflective of the time when we are learning to make sense of the world, when everything appeared to be black and white.

Here I sit, carving gold,
My name is Holzrührlein Bonneführlein.
If the mother knew that,
She could keep her daughter.

("Dwarf Holzrührlein Bonneführlein" in Märchen und Sagen aus Hannover 1854)

Richard Harvey is a psycho-spiritual psychotherapist, spiritual teacher, and author. He is the founder of The Center for Human Awakening and has developed a form of depth-psychotherapy called Sacred Attention Therapy (SAT) that proposes a 3-stage model of human awakening. Richard can be reached at [email protected]

Blog entry #171

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