Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Theme Pack 4: Early Recollections

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Significance of Earliest Recollections1

By Alfred Adler [1937]

Chapter XXVI in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 7

The discovery of the significance of early recollections is one of the most important findings of Individual Psychology. It has demonstrated the purposiveness in the choice of what is remembered longest, though the memory itself is quite conscious or the recollection is easily elicited upon inquiry. Correctly understood, these conscious memories give us glimpses of depths just as profound as those more or less suddenly recalled during treatment.

Of course, we do not believe that all early recollections are accurate records of actual facts. Many are even imagined; perhaps most are changed to a time later than that in which the events are supposed to have occurred; but this does not diminish their significance. What is altered or imagined also expresses the patient’s goal, and although the effect of fantasy and memory differs, we can relate both to the total style of life of the individual, and recognize their unity with his main line of striving toward a goal of superiority.

In recollections from the first four or five years of life, we find primarily fragments of the prototype of the individual’s life-style, or useful hints as to why his life-plan was elaborated into its own particular form. Here we may also gather the surest indications of self-training to overcome the organic difficulties or deficiencies felt in the early environment. In many cases, the early recollections reveal signs of the person’s degree of activity, courage, and social feeling. Because of the great number of spoiled children who seek treatment, we find the mother rarely absent from the earliest remembrance; indeed, if the life-style is one of a pampered child, the guess that the patient will recall something about his mother is usually correct. If the mother does not appear in his early recollections, that may also have a certain significance; it may indicate his feeling of having been neglected by her. However, he has never understood the meaning of his early remembrances. In answer to my question, he may simply say, “I was sitting in a room playing with a toy, and my mother was sitting close to me.” He regards a recollection as a thing by itself with no significance; he never thinks of its coherence in the whole structure of his psychic life. Unfortunately, many psychologists do the same.

To estimate its meaning, we have to relate the early pattern of perception to all we can discover of the individual’s present attitude, until we find how one clearly mirrors the other. In the example just given, we begin to see this

1 Published in English in the Int. J. Indiv. Psychol., No. 3, pages 283-287, 1937.

correlation when we learn that the patient suffers from anxiety when alone. The interest in being connected with the mother may appear even in the form of fictitious remembrances, as in the case of the patient who said to me, “You will not believe me, but I can remember being born, and my mother holding me in her arms.”

Very often the earliest memory of a spoiled child refers to its dispossession by the birth of a younger brother or sister. These recollections of feeling dispossessed vary from slight and innocent reminiscences, such as, “I recollect when my younger sister was born,” to instances highly indicative of the particular attitude of the patient. A woman once told me, “I remember having to watch my younger sister, who was lying on a table. She was restless and threw off the coverlets. I wanted to adjust them and I pulled them away from her, whereupon she fell and was hurt.” This woman was forty-five when she came to me; at school, in marriage, and throughout life she had felt disregarded, just as in childhood when she had felt dethroned. A similar attitude, even more expressive of suspicion and mistrust, was expressed by a man who said, “I was going to market with my mother and little brother. Suddenly it began to rain, and my mother took me up in her arms, and then remembering that I was the elder, she put me down and took up my younger brother.” Successful as he was in his life, this man distrusted everybody, especially women.

A student thirty years of age came to me in trouble because he could not face his examinations. He was in such a state of strain that he could neither sleep nor concentrate. The symptoms indicated his lack of preparation and courage, and his age showed the distance at which he stood from the solution of the problem of occupation. Because of his lack of social adjustment, he had no friends and had never fallen in love. He expressed his sexuality in masturbation and nocturnal emissions. His earliest memory was of lying in a cot, looking at the wallpaper and curtains. This recollection reflects the isolation of his later life, and also his interest in visual activity. Astigmatic, he was striving to compensate for this organic deficiency. We must remember, however, that any strongly developed function related to a strong degree of social interest may disturb the harmony of life. For instance, to watch is worthwhile, but when the patient barricades himself against all other activities and wants merely to gratify his eyes all day, watching may become a compulsion-neurosis. Some people are interested primarily in seeing. But few positions merely require an interest in seeing. Even those positions cannot be found by a person who is socially maladjusted. As we have seen, this patient had not been a real fellow man to anyone, so he found no practical use for his peculiar interest.

Earliest remembrances frequently reveal an interest in movement, such as: traveling, running, motoring, or jumping. This movement is often characteristic of individuals who encounter difficulties when they are required to work in sedentary occupations. For example, a man of twenty-five, the oldest son of a very religious family, was brought to me because of misbehavior. Disobedient, idle, and deceitful, he had accumulated debts and stolen. His sister, three years younger, was a familiar type: striving, capable, and well-educated, an easy winner in the race with him. His misconduct began in his adolescence, which many psychologists would ascribe to an emotional “flare-up” caused by the growth of the sexual glands, a theory which might seem all the more plausible in this case because of premature and mischievous sexual relations, often found in similar cases. But we ask: Why should the perfectly natural period of puberty cause a crisis and moral disaster in this case but not in another; not in the sister’s case, for example? We answer: Because the sister was in a more favorable position. From the experience of many cases, we know the brother’s situation to be one of special danger. Furthermore, when we go more deeply into his history, we find that he wanted to be first in every situation; adolescence did not change this young man’s style of life. Before that time the boy had gradually been losing hope of being “first” in a life of social usefulness, and the more hopeless that direction appeared, the more he wandered into the easier path of useless compensation.

This young man’s earliest remembrance gives a clear hint of his great interest in motor activity and movement in general. It was: “I was running round the whole day in a kiddy car.” After treatment, when he improved, he was taken back into his father’s office, but he did not like the sedentary routine there. He finally adapted himself to life as a traveling salesman.

Many first remembrances concern dangerous situations, and they are usually told by persons with whom the use of fear is an important factor in the style of life. A married woman once came to ask me why she was terrified whenever she passed a pharmacy. Some years previously she had spent a long time in a sanatorium undergoing treatment for tuberculosis, and a few months before I say her a specialist had pronounced her cured, entirely healthy, and fit to have children. Shortly after this complete absolution by the doctor, she began to suffer from her obsession. The connection is obvious. The pharmacy was a warning reminder of her illness, an employment of the past in order to make the future seem ominous. She was connecting the possibility of having a child with danger to her health. Though she and her husband had agreed that they wanted a child, her behavior clearly showed her secret opposition. Her secret objection was stronger than any reasonable and common sense logic which said that for her bearing children was no longer dangerous. As a medical expert, the doctor could minimize the danger to her health, but he could not remove the symptom of fear. In this as in many similar cases, we know in advance that the real reasons for the symptoms are deeply rooted, and can be found only if we discover the main line of striving in the style of life.

Resistance to having children is seldom based on objective fears of childbirth or illness. In this case, the woman had been a pampered child who wanted to be in the center of the stage. Such women do not wish to bring a little rival onto the scene, so they argue against it with every variety of reason and unreason. This woman had trained herself perfectly to be on the lookout for danger, and to perceive opportunities for taking the center of attention. Asked for her earliest recollections, she said, “I was playing before our little house on the outskirts of the town, and my mother was terrified when she saw me jumping on the boards that covered the well.”

A student of philosophy came to consult me about his fear of blushing. From earliest childhood, he had been teased because he blushed so easily, and for the past two months this had increased so much that he was afraid to go to a restaurant, attend lectures, or even leave his room. I found that he was about to take an examination. Faint-hearted, timid, and bashful, whether he was visiting in society, working, or with a girl, in all situations he suffered from feelings of tension. Because his blushing had recently worried him more, he began to use it as a pretext for retreating from life. From childhood, this man had had a strong antipathy toward his mother, who he felt was partial to his younger brother. Living in the greatest competition with his brother, he now no longer believed that he could achieve any success. Here is the earliest remembrance: “When I was five years old, I went out with my three-year-old brother. My parents were very excited when they found we had left the house, because there was a lake nearby, and they were afraid that we had fallen into it. When we returned, I was slapped.” I understood this to mean that he did not like his home, where he felt that he was slighted, and my opinion was corroborated when he added, “I was slapped, but not my brother.” But the discovery that he had been in a dangerous situation had still impressed him, as reflected in his present behavior, which was dominated by his guiding idea: not to go out, not to venture too far. Such persons often feel as though life were a trap.

We can easily imagine this patient’s painful experience in the company of a girl. We can understand how he put his blushing between himself and women, thus preventing a relationship with any of them. In this way, he avoided the risk of losing out to another man. He always feared other men would be preferred to him, as he felt his mother had preferred his brother.

When correctly understood in relation to the rest of an individual’s life, early recollections contain the central interests of that person. They give us valuable hints and clues in finding the direction of a person’s striving. They help reveal values to be aimed for and dangers to be avoided. They help us see the kind of world a particular person feels he lives in, and the early ways he found of dealing with that world. They illuminate the origins of the style of life. The basic attitudes guiding an individual since childhood and in his present situation are reflected in those fragments he selects to epitomize his feeling about life, and to cherish in his memory as reminders. He has preserved these as his early recollections.

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