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This Jungian Life

Jun 1, 2023

We all understand the Ugly Duckling complex because we lived it at one time or another. Hans Christian Anderson’s famous tale paints a poignant picture of a child’s experience of rejection only because he’s born in the wrong nest. People who seem different or have not yet matured into their natural beauty endure a kind of scorn that can bring them to despair. The ugly duckling’s capacity to endure and find refuge once he is recognized by fellow swans can hearten us during the long winters of our lives. 

 As an individuation metaphor, the tale dramatizes how many of us feel essentially different than our playmates and family. The combination of alienation and desperation drives us to merge with others’ feelings and paradoxically escape into fantasies. When the Self finally activates, it drives us toward the reality principle—only through regarding ourselves accurately and meeting the eyes of others can we discover our true nature and feel welcomed. As Jung suggested, we need relationships to feel whole despite the fear of being hurt. The Ugly Duckling shows us the archetypal theme from misery to fulfillment.

Born into the crushing poverty of Odense, Denmark, Andersen, too, felt marked by his stark divergence from the norm. His father, a cobbler with an affection for literature, instilled the young Andersen with a zeal for reading, an enthusiasm not shared by most of his peers. His narrative of becoming was intertwined with his homoerotic identity, a fact that he could neither fully express nor openly explore in the conservative climate of the 19th century, which amplified his sense of estrangement. His unreciprocated affections, extended towards both men and women, nurtured a profound isolation that catalyzed his writings, infusing his narratives with empathy and personal experience. His genius resonated with every underdog and ostracized child who yearns to break the chains of circumstance and find a place of acceptance.

Like Hans Christian Anderson, we may find ourselves alien in our own homes. We may flee only to discover the world cannot understand us. Yet one day, perhaps in the nadir of despair, something greater will claim us from within. Then, quickened and set aright in the world, our true kin will recognize us, and in their embrace, we may understand our suffering as a process that eventually enabled us to fly.


 “I was eating at a restaurant with a familiar group of people, though many of them were just familiar dream people, not people I know in real life. I felt something on my foot and thought I had dropped a piece of food, so I looked down. It was a small frog jumping across my foot. I picked it up and recalled feeling repulsed by it. I started cutting it across its back and pulling its legs off, but it was dying; it remained alive and kept looking at me, almost as if it was begging me to stop. Suddenly, I thought, “Why am I doing this?” “Why didn’t I just take it outside and set it free?” then, I knew I couldn’t fully kill it, so I asked someone at the table to come outside with me, and I wanted them to ‘finish the job’ and kill the frog so it wouldn’t suffer anymore. The dream ended with the other person killing the frog and me crying uncontrollably at my callousness and gratuitous violence towards the frog.”

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