THE NUTCRACKER – On Being A Soldier Through Life.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on January 16, 2012

During the recent holiday season, on my daily commute to the office, I walked by a poster of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, smiling at the familiar image of rosey-cheeked wooden soldiers and the memories that it elicited of my childhood. Until one morning as I walked by, it elicited something else, the image of a rigid soldier attempting to fight off potential danger. Hmm. Then I remembered that in my work I have often used the metaphor of being a soldier for the experience of having to be strong and take charge too early – for a response to the experience of developmental trauma and the need to survive it at all costs.

Truth be told, Nutcracker soldiers are sweet but a bit scary. The color in their cheeks a tad too red, their expression hard and their body posture downright rigid. The Nutcracker ballet itself is not all sugar plum fairies, it is full of frightening battles, even when they are danced. Interesting that all of this came to mind suddenly, as I looked, really looked at the images of nutcrackers on the poster. Soldiers indeed, although dressed and colored as toys to be played with. In the ballet, the Nutcracker is given as a gift to Clara, the little girl, but is swiftly taken from her by her brother and his friends who manage to break him in their rough play. Clara’s godfather, the toymaker who made the nutcracker for her, bandages the wooden soldier and provides a bed for him to rest on under the christmas tree. Clara stays with him and is awakened by a battle between the toy soldiers and an army of mice, led by their king, which her nutcracker wins (with Clara’s help) despite his injury. In the end, the nutcracker turns into a prince. I love fairy tales, and I love this ballet, but it was not until one December morning that I realized why I still love it so.

A soldier is someone who has to be armed and prepared for anything – fighting for survival in an attempt to insure that no more damage will be done. A soldier is called into duty when there is a threat to safety. How like the experience of developmental trauma and the response to it. A soldier has to be skilled in weaponry, and wear armor to protect him or her from potential danger. A soldier has to carry on in the midst of ongoing, potentially traumatic events. Soldiering through insures survival. And survival is what it is all about when it comes to trauma. Particularly developmental trauma – the kind that happens when we are young, the kind that happens within the family and at the hands of those we love. We are wired to survive and so we do, and some do by soldiering on – even when there is no longer a war to be fought. In such cases being a soldier becomes part of our character structure, part of who we experience ourselves to be. This can take many forms. We may experience ourselves as strong, capable, logical within our soldier self, and fear being weak, vulnerable and needy. Yet we are likely all of the above. The soldier-self protecting what may be most princely about us – our humanity.

I have written a number of blog posts regarding the experience of trauma (see/click  and ), what I am attempting to describe here is a state of mind, a way of being in the world that seeks to protect a wound that continues to resonate  (often unconsciously) into adulthood and threaten the individual. A soldier self-state is necessarily brittle and rigid, much like my description of the nutcracker – a bit too much. It does not allow for the experience of vulnerability, or real connection with another, or the experiencing of deep emotions because to do so brings on potential threat to the unity of the self, and survival trumps all. The traumatized psyche exercises an eternal hyper-vigilance on itself, destroying the ability to live creatively and spontaneously because it has lost the ability to move fluidly within itself. Thus, a psychic army of one is called forth to manage threats and restore safety. A personal nutcracker if you will, complete with costume and make up.

So I return to the story of the Nutcracker, where it is Clara’s intervention, when she throws her slipper at the Mouse King as he is overtaking her wounded nutcracker, which saves the day. It allows the nutcracker to  win the battle and turn into a prince, to become human. It is through our shared humanity, and our ability to connect and rely on others, to use our relationships fully that healing takes place. In psychotherapy this constitutes the bedrock of the patient-analyst relationship.


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