I was delighted to take my 12 year old daughter, Natalie, and her best friend Olivia to see this splendid movie. I had heard good things about it from a colleague who loves movies and was eager to see what I could mine for my blog on movies and relationships. Of course, Cinderella’s story is the ultimate romantic fairy tale and, as such, we are told that Cinderalla and Prince Charming live happily ever after…we never see what happens after their story book wedding…no fights over money, no bad breath, no tensions with the in-laws. But despite our desire to believe in happy ever after, we all know that love doesn’t always have a happy ending and marriage is alot of hard work.
Having said all that, there is something important to be learned from Cinderella. She is the epitome of a non-anxious presence. Before I explain what I mean, let’s recap the story line.
Ella, as she is known before her step-sisters rename her Cinderella, has a most happy childhood characterized by “close family ties” between her, her mother and father. They are affectionate and expressive with each other daily. When her mother gets sick and is on her death bed, she implores Ella to always have courage and show kindness to others.
Following a period of being single, Ella’s father marries Lady Tremaine, the widow of a family friend. Sadly, Ella’s father dies during a business trip. Shortly thereafter, Lady Tremaine, and her two daugthers, Drisella and Anastasia, begin to display an increasingly callous and cruel attitude toward Ella. They force her to do all the household chores and rename her Cinderella because of the soot on her face from sleeping on the floor, so close to the fire in her cramped and cold room. Her situation worsens as their cruely escalates until, of course, Cinderella meets Prince Charming who eventually finds her after the ball, fits her with the glass slipper and rescues her from her toxic environment.
Cinderella, as played by the luminescent Lily James, is somehow able to put her mother’s admonition to “have courage and be kind” into practice in her relationships with her step-family. Some of her ability to do so could be a function of her temperament and some could be a result of the secure family environment to which she was exposed as a child. None-the- less, not once does Cinderella respond to Lady Tremaine and her daughters’ taunts and put-downs with anger. She takes the high road.
Clearly, as we see in the film, Cinderella does get sad and lonely…but she is able to self-regulate her unpleasant emotions and maintain a steady, loving and “non-anxious” presence. In perhaps the emotional peak of the movie, she tells Lady Tremaine just before victoriously making her final exit with Prince Charming that she forgives her horrible cruelty. Given all that Lady Tremaine has done to her, Cinderella’s ability to forgive is truly remarkable.
So what can Cinderella really teach us about relationships? Perhaps it is how to bring our best selves to the fore in the most challenging of circumstances.
Even without vicious step-mothers and step-siblings, family life can be very hard. Parents are tired, the kids can be demanding, there is never enough money etc. etc. But individuals who are able to have a “non-anxious” presence, like Cinderella, are able to self-regulate and calm their feelings so they don’t take them out on others. This approach de-escalates tension. There is, in fact, research that shows that those who bring a calm stability to family strife are successful in improving the emotional climate in the family. It is a tall order but being a “non-anxious” presence can make a world of difference in the family.
But how to stay calm while those around you are having a meltdown? It takes work. The best practice for learning how to stay calm during times of chaos is what is called Mindfulness Meditation. The goal of Mindfulness Meditation is to have complete awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations in the moment without judgment. Witholding judgment is the key ingredient.
In the practice of meditation, an individual sits quietly, focuses on his or her breath and takes a non-judgmental stance toward wandering thoughts. 10 to 20 minutes a day of this practice, while not always easy, can go a long way toward making it possible to keep one’s cool in the midst of the maelstrom. Remember the trick is not to meditate during a family crisis but to have practiced it for weeks prior so that that sense of peace and calm can be more easily accessed when needed. The ultimate goal is to be able to respond rather than react to a stressful situation.
Another way to improve the capacity for self-soothing is to focus on the breath many times during each day. Perhaps every time you are at a stop-light, or waiting in line, or drifting off to sleep, you can take ten easy breaths…in and out, in and out…or do a four count breath in which you breathe in to a count of four, hold for four, breathe out for a count of four and hold again for four seconds. Breathing deeply during times of stress can by itself help considerably to reduce tension and what is called “diffuse physiological arousal.”
Using a cue in the environment is yet another way to increase your serenity and mindful awareness of the present moment…perhaps a favorite painting, or pet or lamp can remind you that things are OK and that you are safe and secure within your own skin. Utlizing your five senses is a way to “drop into” mindfulness. In any moment, pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells and textures around you. Paying attention to the world around us through our five senses brings us back to the present moment.
Finally, as a meditation teacher once taught me, all streets are equipped with their own cues for calming. What is that? The red stop sign! The S stands for stop, the T stands for take a breath, the O stands for observe and the P stands for proceed.
While I don’t know how Cinderella and Prince Charming deal with post-wedding stress, my hunch is that Cinderella continues to bring a calming presence to those around her. Well, OK, maybe she does have the occassional tantrum but I bet it would be far and few between. After all, she is an archetype and, in my mind at least, the epitome of a non-anxious presence!