UGLY DUCKLING COMPLEX: the painful path of transformation

Jun 1, 2023

A close up of a baby swan, or ugly duckling, swimming in a sunny pond.
Photo Credit: Ken Goulding via Unsplash

We all understand the Ugly Duckling complex because we’ve lived it at one time or another. Hans Christian Anderson’s famous tale paints a poignant picture of a child’s rejection only because he was born in the wrong nest. People who seem different or have not yet matured into their natural beauty endure scorn that can bring them to despair. The ugly duckling’s capacity to endure and find refuge in his fellow swans can hearten us during the long winters of our lives.

As an individuation metaphor, the tale dramatizes how many of us feel essentially different than our playmates and family. The combination of alienation and desperation drives us to merge with others’ feelings and paradoxically escape into fantasies. When the Self finally activates, it drives us toward reality—only through regarding ourselves accurately and meeting the eyes of others can we discover our true nature. Just as Jung suggested, we need relationships to feel whole even though we are afraid of being hurt. The Ugly Duckling tale captures the archetypal theme of journeying from misery to fulfillment.

The story begins as the mother hen suspects something is off with her one oddly large egg and normalizes the duckling’s uncanny size when he’s born. Seeing he can at least swim, she gives him a chance to belong. But, one by one, the barnyard creatures assess him and announce he is deficient. Ridiculed, chased, insulted, and kicked, even the mother abandons her goodwill and wishes him gone. In horror and despair, the ugly duckling runs away. Hans Christian Anderson wrote so poignantly about this because he lived it.

Born into the crushing poverty of Odense, Denmark, Andersen felt marked by his stark divergence from the norm. His father, a cobbler with love for literature, instilled the young Andersen with a zeal for reading, an enthusiasm not shared by his peers. This distinctiveness set him apart, foreshadowing the artistic blossoming that was to come. His transition from the confines of his provincial town to the majesty of Copenhagen, where he found his footing in the Royal Danish Theatre, mirrored the unexpected transformation of the Ugly Duckling. Yet, his journey of becoming was intertwined with another layer of complexity — Andersen’s homoeroticism. His sexual identity, a fact he could neither fully express nor openly explore in the conservative climate of the 19th century, amplified his sense of estrangement. His unreciprocated affections, extended towards both men and women, nurtured a profound isolation that catalyzed his writings, infusing his narratives with deep empathy and personal experience. In one sense, Andersen transcended the narrow prejudices of his society to secure a place in the annals of world literature. Anderson’s genius is evident in his ability to transform personal suffering through art. His stories resonate with every unacknowledged child who yearns to break the chains of circumstance and find a place of acceptance.

The motif of the uncanny and frightening child runs through many fairytales. Marie Louise von Franz described that children who have a relationship with the unconscious are often characterized as magicians or terrifying in one way or another. She and Jung lamented how people fear anything unusual, leading to a suppression of children’s unique gifts. Many of us ‘odd ducks’ who did not meet cultural expectations are drawn to Jung’s work. The quantitative measurements in modern schools can’t assess our depth of feeling or inexplicable intuition and undervalue our relational skills.

Frightened by repeated accusations of inferiority, we are vulnerable to believing we’re broken and rush to do things more perfectly. Disfigured by school, family, and religion, we try to please by abandoning ourselves and aping what we’re instructed to do. Cycling through self-hatred, desperation, and depression, we may feel that running away is the only choice. This often initiates a different kind of hero’s journey. Not fueled by glorious visions but motivated by desperate hope to escape pain, the Ugly Duckling bolts into the world. From nest to barnyard, to moor, then wintry pond, we also flee from home to college, then job to job, fleeing phantom pain as we learn about life. For a time, we may lose ourselves in a career, only later realizing we need peace above all else.

Like the duckling overlooked by the snarling dog, we discover the protective value of hiding in plain sight. We wonder if our ‘ugliness’ is a boon. Secretly relieved to slip by unseen, we realize we’re free to pursue our natural personality and hunt for our instincts. It’s an interesting thing to glimpse the Self. Its influence compels us toward new places and creates a corrective orbit, repelling certain people and drawing others close. This happens to the duckling, who glimpses a strange flock of huge white birds mounting the sky, leaving him breathless. When we catch a glimpse of who we might become, our golden-shadow surges with life and our soul rumbles.

A glimpse of who we could be steels us against adversity. The duckling survives a harsh winter even though his feet get locked in ice. Jung mentions this phenomenon in his alchemical analysis; he notes the description of a mystical creature who swims from the ocean floor, attaches to the bottom of a swift ship, and traps it in place. He equates this with being reclaimed by the Self. Much like being frozen in ice, we must be held in suspension to restore the ego-self axis.

Enduring a winter on the moors is an uncertain battle for the duckling. A peasant finally takes pity and frees him, offering humble shelter. Helpless, awkward, and listless, the duckling accepts help. If we, too, are lucky, a kind soul will notice our agony as we submit to the Self and offer safety and warmth. Like a Jungian analyst’s office, the peasant’s home is liminal; there is fire and acceptance, but only the inherent maturational process can affect the necessary changes.

Spring finally comes, and as the sun warms his body, the duckling surges into the sky. Eventually, we also feel the Self’s touch. The unobstructed archetypal energies vitalize us; finally, we sense we can choose our own direction. No longer hobbled by memories of traumatic rejection, our vitality is restored. Like the duckling, we are synchronistically guided to fateful encounters with our own kind. At first, we cannot recognize the beauty we share and brace for being rejected once more. Like the duckling, we may bow our heads and whisper, just kill me already. But our soul-kin understand how to touch us gently and coax us to see who we truly are. The swans croon and stroke his elegant neck; in disbelief, he finally feels happy.

Like Hans Christian Anderson, we may find ourselves alien in our own homes. We may flee only to discover the world cannot understand us. Yet one day, perhaps at the nadir of despair, something greater will claim us from within. Then, quickened and set aright in the world, our true kin will recognize us, and in their embrace, we may understand our suffering as a process that eventually enabled us to fly.

~ Joseph R. Lee


“I was eating at a restaurant with a familiar group of people, though many of them were just familiar dream people, not people I know in real life. I felt something on my foot and thought I had dropped a piece of food, so I looked down. It was a small frog jumping across my foot. I picked it up and recalled feeling repulsed by it. I started cutting it across its back and pulling its legs off, but it was dying; it remained alive and kept looking at me, almost as if it was begging me to stop. Suddenly, I thought, “Why am I doing this?” “Why didn’t I just take it outside and set it free?” then, I knew I couldn’t fully kill it, so I asked someone at the table to come outside with me, and I wanted them to ‘finish the job’ and kill the frog so it wouldn’t suffer anymore. The dream ended with the other person killing the frog and me crying uncontrollably at my callousness and gratuitous violence towards the frog.”

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  1. Deborah Tallarico

    Thank you Joseph Lee for your beautiful interpretation of the ugly duckling. It has me crying in empathic understanding and feels like hopeful soulful guidance.

  2. Simcha

    This was an amazing podcast. Many new ideas and insights. Thank you.

  3. Graham Morgan

    Thank you Joseph and Deborah. Very thought provoking.


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