I read a few blog articles last year about the subconscious emotional stories we tell ourselves regarding money, which can affect our choices and finances in the present even though they generally come from long-ago childhood experiences. That made sense to me; but when I first thought about it, I couldn’t identify any such stories that might have gotten stuck in my head.
My finances seemed okay—both my husband and I had fairly good jobs, which we had been able to keep through the recession, and a nice house. The only issue was that we had spent a lot on our kids’ tuition, room and board, etc., while they were away at college, and before that we had sent them to Catholic schools. As a result, there never had seemed to be quite enough money left over for me to feel comfortable spending it on clothes or other fun shopping for myself.
So I asked myself, what kind of story from my childhood would fit that pattern? The houses where I lived as a child were all good places, with plenty of space for me to run around and play. My parents were divorced in the ’70s, and after that I lived with my mother and stepfather. I often wore hand-me-down clothes from a cousin when I was little, without thinking much about it at the time.
The internal narratives that we rely on to make sense of the world are drawn in large part from archetypes—that is, familiar characters representing various aspects of the culture. When I thought about what character might have taken up residence in my head, Cinderella came to mind. Although Cinderella lives in a nice house, she is a stepchild who doesn’t have much that she can call her own, and the money always gets spent on other family members.
Whether or not there had been any reasonable basis for such feelings when I was a child, they certainly didn’t need to be part of my life now, especially after my kids had graduated from college. So I decided to have a little chat with my inner Cinderella and explain a few things to her.
I found her playing with a rag doll family she had made to console herself for being left at home, with the village hag as the babysitter, while her stepsisters enjoyed a lavish trip to France. Sitting down on the rug in front of the fireplace with her, I said, “You know what, Cinderella, it’s time for you to grow up and find a place of your own.”
Dropping the dolls, she stared at me fearfully, no doubt imagining herself cast out to be eaten by the hungry wolves of the forest. After all, she wasn’t the Disney Princess version of the character, but instead came out of the old-fashioned books of fairy tales that I had read before modern revisions took out the gruesome and violent stuff.
“Don’t worry, I’ve found a good place for you to live,” I quickly reassured the poor frightened girl. “There is an abandoned village called Channelwood on an island that’s no longer inhabited. It has lots of pretty houses built high in the treetops, safe from wild animals; and you can gather fruit and vegetables from the village’s old overgrown gardens, catch fish and dig clams. All yours, with nobody around to take it from you or bully you, and a lovely ocean view to give you more perspective on the world. I’ll even send you off with a suitcase full of brand-new clothes for the trip. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
She gave me a hesitant half-smile. “But how…”
“Oh, it’s easy to get there!” I told her cheerfully. “I’ve already made arrangements with the captain of a cargo ship that sails past the island regularly. I know him well—he often carries away my shipments of emotional baggage and my consignments of mental clutter. You’ll be in good hands. And there’s no need to worry about getting lonely; I’ll send you a few nice playmates after a while, as soon as I discover where they have been playing hide-and-seek in my psyche.”
The fire crackled loudly, sending up bright sparks. Cinderella stood up, straightened her ankle-length skirts, and began putting on her big wooden shoes. She still looked just a bit worried as she asked, “Please, may I bring my pet mouse?”
“Yes, of course you may. I wouldn’t dream of leaving him behind.”