The Little Match Girl, Trauma and Resilience.

Yesterday I pulled a Tarot card that answered my question as to how to proceed with my writing with dazzling clarity. The key point that I took from the description was this:

“…withdrawing from trauma to focus on emotional resilience.” 

This is the card


The first thing that I thought about when I saw the card was the story of The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Anderson, and it reminded me of some experiences I had last summer which relate to the theme of withdrawing from trauma to focus on emotional resilience.


After the trauma of giving birth to my son some three years ago, I was in a desperate state of permanent Anxiety and insomnia. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress, but given no treatment apart from medication. So I sought out an Art Therapist, and made contact with a wonderful, wise woman who changed my life forever.


She was a Jungian Art Therapist, who worked primarily via dream analysis. She would interpret my dreams through the lens of Jungian archetypal symbology, and then ask me to represent particular elements of my dreams either with oil pastels or with clay.


The first dream that I related to her involved me standing in a room lighting matches and watching them burn out, one by one. When I told her this, she said that it reminded her of the story of The Little Match Girl. I was highly sceptical. I had heard of Jungian ideas of a universal subconscious, and his theory of shared subconscious archetypes, but how could a Danish fairytale come under this category?


Many years ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a book. It is titled ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves,’ and is written by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It sat on my nightstand for years. I felt somehow drawn to it, but rather put off by the title. It sounded just a little bit TOO out there for me.



But somehow, I found myself flicking through the contents page soon after this conversation with my Art Therapist. She was of course convinced that the Universe moved me to do so… And I found a chapter entitled ‘The Little Match Girl.’ I was absolutely flabbergasted, and of course, I read the chapter…


The story of the little match girl can be summarised as follows:


” There was a little girlchild who had neither a Father nor a Mother, and she lived in a dark forest. There was a village at the edge of the forest, and she learned that she could buy matches for a half-penny there, and that she could sell them on the street for a full penny… The winter came and it was very cold…her feet were past the point of being blue, her feet were white; so were her fingers and the tip of her nose… So she sat down one evening saying, “I have matches. I can light a fire and I can warm myself.” But she had no kindling and no wood. She decided to light the matches anyway… As she did, it seemed that the cold and the snow disappeared altogether…. And out of nowhere her grandmother appeared, so warm and so kind…But the Grandmother began to fade. The child struck more and more matches to keep the Grandmother with her… and they began to rise up together into the sky where there was no cold and no hunger and no pain. And in the morning…the child was found still, and gone.”

Pinkola Estes (1992: 319-320).


Following Estes’ retelling of this heartbreaking story is an analysis, from her standpoint as a Feminist, Jungian psychotherapist. Estes is a post-trauma specialist. So much do I adore her, I took my pseudonym from her.


From Estes’ point of view, the story of the little match girl is the story of the woman who is ‘out in the cold,’ living on fantasies instead of action. When women are isolated and disenfranchised, they can find themselves anaesthetising themselves with fantasy. There are different types of fantasies according to Estes, and not all are dangerous, but when we find ourselves using fantasy as an escape from reality we may be in danger.


“Sometimes the fantasy is in a woman’s mind. Sometimes it comes to her through a liquor bottle…” (1992-222).


The Little Match girl is lonely and alone. She has no one, and has given up. This can happen, says Estes, when we lack NURTURE. Whether it comes from without or from within, no human soul can survive this life without it. There is a crucial difference, says Estes, between nurture and COMFORT. We could all imagine how we might comfort the poor little match girl. And we comfort each other and ourselves very naturally, as we should. But the difference between comfort and nurture is that nurture MOVES us, somehow, to a place, be it physically or psychically, in which we are better able to thrive. It is nurture that takes us from a place of trauma towards a place of emotional resilience.


This point is relevant  to our current preoccupation with the notion of self care. I have not done a great many things in the name of self care, not realising that I was giving myself comfort instead of nurture.


“We have to DO something that makes our situation different. Without a move, we are back on the streets selling matches again.” (1992:223)


As Estes says: “A frozen woman without nurture is inclined to turn to incessant “what if” daydreams. But even if she is in this frozen condition, especially if she is in this frozen condition, she must refuse the comforting fantasy.” (1992:223).


Reading these words was light staring a thousand blinding stars in the face. I was so excited!! And full of thrilled hope and inspiration. The next time I met with my Art Therapist I asked her, is there any vague chance you might have heard of ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves’? She immediately picked up her copy and showed it to me. ‘It’s my bible.’ She told me. ‘It informs everything that I do.’


I read the rest of the chapter and continued to be awestruck by the resonance of the words. It was like they were written just for me, whilst at the same time making me feel a connection to womankind across time and space. They say that the opposite to addiction is not sobriety, but connection. These words made me feel the connection I had been searching for, by burning my metaphorical matches and dreaming of another way of living.


Estes describes some of the ways that women can find themselves in what she calls ‘The Match Girl Condition.’ Times of risk in a woman’s life are times of transition. These can be the transition from childhood into adulthood, falling in love, or, very interestingly for me, giving birth. For a transition to be complete and successful, there is a necessary period of difficulty from which a woman emerges, and can commence “a refreshed and enwisened spiritual and creative life.” (1992:324). These transitions can go wrong, however, if there is “no one within our without to guide the psychic process.”


The matches are a significant symbol in the Match Girl story. They represent wisdom, consciousness and creative force. The little match girl is desperate, and her desperation causes her to exchange something of great value: fire, in return for less than she should accept: a penny. Whether this exchange happens for us as women in the world of concrete reality or on an emotional plane the result is the same:


“More loss of energy. Then a woman cannot respond to her own needs… When the match girl decides to burn the matches, she uses her resources to fantastise instead of act. She uses her energy in a momentary kind of way.” (1992:235)


We can all relate to this impulse. It is so painful to look our pain in the face. It is painful to sit with our pain, to allow ourselves to feel our feelings. And we find ourselves in societies where we are ever more isolated from one another and from our true nature. Social media promises connection. But it offers those of us who feel different, who feel like match girls, out in the cold, little more than the brief glow of a match stick. We sink into that fantasy as we numb out, gripped by the throat by the sweet seduction of the facebook newsfeed. We peer into other people’s lives and compare the emptiness we feel within with the false images of the warm worlds of other people’s ‘happiness.’ It offers a strange kind of comfort and is the antithesis of nurture.

So to go back to the message from the Tarot card I pulled, “withdrawing from trauma to focus on emotional resilience,”


I think the key is to focus on NURTURE, and be wary of COMFORT. For me that means using self care more as a self parenting tool, and less as an excuse to check out, and warm my fingers around the brief glow of a matchstick. As Estes says:


“It is far better to heal one’s addiction to fantasy that wait around wishing and hoping to be raised by the dead.” (1992:326)


Following her analysis of the story, Estes offers her perspective on the antidote, relating this to another beautiful, less well known fairytale. I will explore this next time. Thank you to my Tarot cards for showing me the path to walk for the time being!



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