the ugly duckling

Canada Geese goslings

What’s your worst fear? For many, it’s being ridiculed or rejected – by their community, their family, or their loved ones. Do you remember the fairy tale The Ugly Duckling? A little creature emerges from an egg and finds himself in a nest of ducklings, but he looks… different. And the others pick on him. They kick him out of the duck family. So he wanders around, trying to find a place where he belongs. But everywhere he goes – the barnyard, the farmhouse, the woods – every group of animals he tries to join, they kick him out.

He’s strange. He doesn’t fit. Forlorn and alone, with winter fast approaching, he looks up at the sky one day and sees the most glorious creatures he can imagine, flying overhead. His heart leaps, and he wishes… oh, but that would be senseless. If he doesn’t belong with the ducks or the barnyard animals or in the farmhouse or in the woods, there’s no chance that these beautiful birds would have him.

So he mourns his lonely fate for an entire winter, hiding himself from those who would reject him, until the warmth of the spring melts the ice on the lake, and he goes swimming… and glances down at his reflection in the water. His heart stops. Those beautiful birds – the ones that made his heart leap? He is one of them. There is someplace he belongs, after all.

I was chatting recently with a friend, who was telling me how I was perceived by a certain group of people when I first joined this group. I was rocked to my core by what I heard, because I had been unaware of how I seemed to them. But like the Ugly Duckling, I have spent much of my life not fitting in. Since the conversation with my friend, I’ve been thinking a lot about this fairy tale, and a beautiful recorded telling of it by the Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

I believe stories have incredible power. I believe that they can cause serious – sometimes irreversible – damage… or they can be powerfully healing. Yesterday I talked about the potentially destructive power of the stories that we tell ourselves. Today I want to talk about a healing story.

In Jungian psychology, the symbols and metaphors of the soul’s journey can be embodied in folk tales, legends and fables. If you can see and understand how your life or your psyche is acting out certain story patterns, you can find the keys to overcome previously insurmountable obstacles, or make choices that lead to better outcomes.

If I compare my own life to the story of The Ugly Duckling, I can see how I have spent my whole life identifying with the outcast. I have moved unconsciously from group to group, looking for acceptance, hoping to belong. But because I didn’t know what or who I truly was, I chose groups (or had them chosen for me) where I was guaranteed to be misunderstood and rejected. And for much of my life, I then retreated into a bitterly cold and lonely existence where I was so afraid of being hurt that I didn’t even bother approaching new groups.

Another way of looking at archetypal story patterns is to understand all the characters and elements are part of your own psyche. And here is where the work gets more interesting… and more painful. Because when I ask myself questions like, “What is the part of me that rejects who I really am?” or “Which part of me believes that I belong nowhere?” it’s hard to hide from the bitter truth. I do reject myself. I do deny my own essence. I do hide my beauty from my own awareness.

Combined with The Work that I’m learning from Byron Katie's books (I purchased this one yesterday), I’m learning to pinpoint where my personal stories get derailed. It’s humbling to realize that for years I’ve been stuck believing I didn’t belong anywhere. Like the Ugly Duckling, I kept myself frozen and alone in a snowdrift. Is that true? Do I belong nowhere? How do I feel when I believe that story?

Well, I can tell you I feel a whole lot better when I drop that story, and choose a better one. I do belong. I am a beautiful creature like those ones I’ve seen flying across the sky. And secure in that knowledge, I can go back to the duck pond, or the barnyard, or the farmhouse, and not feel threatened when they tell me I’m not one of them. Because I finally know who I am.

Who are you? Where do you belong?

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The photograph at the beginning of this post isn’t of ducks or swans – it’s actually a family of Canada Geese goslings. Here are some other shots of the same family, that I took late this spring.