Seven Ideas to Overcoming the Cinderella Syndrome   

By: Tim Elmore


 Seven Ideas to Overcoming the Cinderella Syndrome   

In 1989, I first heard the term Cinderella Syndrome. This complex refers to a psychological condition in which a woman fears true independence and secretly expects a “knight in shining armor” (or Prince Charming) to come along and take care of her. The term Cinderella complex was coined by Agatha Christie in a murder mystery novel, but the book by this title written by Colette Dowling gave the condition worldwide attention. While the term isn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, it has brought to light the people who feel abnormally dependent on others to make it.

  • They are expecting someone to come in and rescue them.
  • They are waiting for the white horse and rich resources.
  • They are fantasizing about the glass slipper fitting.

 I’d like to offer my own take on this idea.

The concept is not limited to romantic relationships nor is it limited to females. It is much larger than that. In fact, it’s relevant for millions of teens and young adults in Generation Z who’ve been given the expectation that life should be pleasant, rewarding, and even fun each day. And when it is not, someone should swoop in and make it better. Very often, parents accidentally relay this message, as they attempt to shield their children from the harsh realities of the world today. As parents, we attempt to shelter them from negativity. We’re careful about what content they watch or hear, and we take them to Disneyland or Walt Disney World on a regular basis. Perhaps we want to give them the childhood we never had. None of these gestures are wrong; in fact, they are quite noble for those who hope to prevent kids from becoming jaded as teens. The downside is we create unrealistic assumptions about life when they’re kids, and once they graduate into the adult world, they can feel like life has been terribly unfair because they’re not living “happily ever after.” We all know, those expectations are not sustainable.

Consider these statements to the contrary:

  • Even when we’re working in the area of our strengths, work can be hard.
  • Even when we’re in a loving family, relationships can be challenging.
  • Even when we’re making a good income, we may not get all we hope for. 
  • Even when we enjoy great friendships, life can be dissatisfying.
  • Even when we’ve found a complementary partner, there can be big conflicts.
  • Even when we choose the perfect spot for a vacation, it can turn out imperfect.
  • Even if we’re living a great life, it may not be happy or pleasing all of the time.

Fighting Disillusionment

I recently had a candid conversation with Emerson who is a high school senior. She confided in me that she was feeling helpless and even a little depressed. And she had good reason. Like millions of others like her, she wasn’t prepared for a pandemic right before graduation. She wasn’t ready for an economic downturn or the cancellation of her internship. Nothing seemed to be working out as she had planned. After empathizing with her, our conversation morphed into one about assumptions. Life always throws us curveballs, and Emerson felt no one had prepared her for this. Her parents had protected her from any adverse shock. Sadly, there were unintended consequences. Emerson is now abruptly facing this reality, which instead could have been given to her in small doses over time.

My friend David Drury coined a phrase that summarizes this well: “We cannot be disillusioned unless we are first illusioned.” By this, he means when someone becomes disillusioned about life or work or school or church, it’s often because they have an illusion that life’s supposed to be easy, nice, or fulfilling all of the time. Our illusions that it should be fair and fun can get us into trouble. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote one of my favorite books, The Road Less Traveled. He opens the book with, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult.”

We combat apathy and disillusionment with the truth, with accurate and honest disclosure as it becomes appropriate for our young. The next generation deserves this from us. One of the reasons the pandemic ambushed so many teens and young adults is we failed to do this well. When we communicate this truth in a gentle and caring way over time, harsh realities are not as likely to sneak up on us and take us by surprise.

My advice is not to suddenly throw the truth about the bitter realities of life on kids like a bucket of ice water. The message I’m communicating does not need to feel punitive, derogatory, or even harsh. I just believe we do our kids a favor as parents, teachers, guardians, coaches, youth workers, or employers by talking about the Cinderella Syndrome.  

Here are Seven Ideas We Can Take to Begin:

  1. Make sure you give kids a chance to lose or to fail, and talk about it.
  2. Expose them to your own struggles or failures as an adult.
  3. Model a calm demeanor when facing hardships; show kids these hardships are normal.
  4. Once a week, discuss a tough reality about life and how they can navigate through it.
  5. Teach them to be resourceful problem-solvers, not damsels in distress.
  6. Gradually ensure they experience both positive and not-so-positive realities.
  7. Communicate that life is not fun or fair much of the time.

One school posted a sign in its lobby: “Our students are deserving of everything. And entitled to nothing.” Wow. Perhaps that is the posture we as leaders must assume as we lead students. If we lead them well, they won’t need a Prince Charming or anyone else to swoop in and save the day. If someone does swoop in, it’s a bonus or a blessing, not an entitlement. They will be ready for the world that awaits them.

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 Seven Ideas to Overcoming the Cinderella Syndrome