What story does your earliest memory tell?

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Earliest memory - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. therapist in Sacramento

Memories of early childhood are inherently unreliable. Young children have limited perspective on events. They tend to place exaggerated focus on certain aspects (such as the presence of a toy or other item of interest) while completely ignoring other aspects (such as what was happening around them, who was present and why, etc.). Memories of even very significant childhood events are often incomplete and vague. As we grow into adulthood, we tend to fill in the gaps in these memories using our more grown-up understanding of the world. We make inferences to help explain the missing pieces. Interestingly, these later additions to early memories can tell us a lot about ourselves.

The idea that early memories can reveal aspects of personality goes all the way back to Freud. He wrote that,

(early memories) …are not fixed at the moment of being experienced and afterwards repeated, but are elicited at a later age when childhood is already past. In the process they are altered and falsified, and are put into the service of later trends so that, generally speaking, they cannot be sharply distinguished from fantasies….(1910)

He went on to compare early memories to the embellished histories that nations write about their origins. The story of George Washington and the cherry tree is one such example from the United States. As they are retold, such stories turn into facts that tell us something about where we come from, who we are, and what we value. Early memories are no different.

Are we lying to ourselves?

Not really. Early memories often come to represent our own personal mythologies. The themes that are present in a person’s earliest memories are often highly relevant to the struggles, fears, fantasies, and relationship dynamics that are present in his or her adult life. Alfred Adler, a famous theorist, explained it like this:

…all memories have an unconscious purpose within themselves…(they) speak clearly the language of encouragement and warning….We remember those events whose recollection is important for a specific psychic tendency, because these recollections further an important underlying movement.(1927, pp. 48-49)

The ideas of Freud and Adler were further elaborated by Martin Mayman (1968), who wrote that early memories aren’t “autobiographical truths, or even memories in the strictest sense, but largely retrospective inventions developed to express psychic truths” (p. 304). As we grow, we rewrite our earliest memories so that they conform with, and confirm, unconscious ideas about the self and others.

Exploring Your Earliest Memories

You can explore your own personal fables by examining your early memories. Perhaps you have aGeorge Washington and the Cherry Tree story about yourself that holds important information about your origins, hopes, fears, and values.

Try This:
1) Bring to mind your earliest memory. If you can’t tell which is the earliest, just use whatever significant memory comes to mind from early childhood.

First, are you witnessing this event from a first-person perspective (through your own eyes), or are you watching yourself from a third-person perspective? If it’s the second one, then you have solid proof that there are fictional aspects to this memory.

*Real memories are encoded from a first-person perspective. Sometimes, we invent memories based on things we’ve heard from parents and other loved ones who knew us when we were very young. Memories that occur from the third-person perspective are more likely to fall into this category.

If you are witnessing this memory through your own eyes, then it is more likely that the remembered event actually happened. But it does not mean that the memory is 100% accurate. As adults, we can’t help but add context and layers of meaning to our early memories.

2) Think about what you are doing in this memory. Where are you? What is happening around you? Are you alone or with another person? Are you solving a problem or being cared for? Perhaps most importantly, how do you feel in this memory?

Try to analyze this memory as though it were a film in which every shot was carefully constructed to convey an idea. Look at the relationships present in the memory. How are people relating to one another? What themes are present? Do you need something? Do you want something you can’t have? Are you satisfied? Are you independent? Etc. What objects are present? Are you at home, or somewhere else? Each of these pieces is potentially important. Like a well-crafted movie, each of these elements may contain meaning. You are watching your own private Citizen Kane.

3) If you want, try telling this memory to someone you trust to get their opinion. Look at each other’s memories together, and apply what you know about each other to the memory to see if there are important themes.

It’s easy to forget that our minds are incredibly creative. We tend to take our memories for granted, all the while using them both to provide context for the present moment and to shape our expectations about the future. We can learn a lot by simply tuning into the meaning that these personal stories hold.

Works Cited

Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenberg.

Freud, S. (1910). Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI (1910): Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works, 57-138.

Mayman, M. (1968). Early memories and character structure. Journal of Projective Techniques and Personality Assessment, 32, 303-316.

For more recent writing on this subject, see

Fowler, J.C., Hilsenroth, M.J., & Handler, L. (2000). Martin Mayman’s early memories technique: Bridging the gap between personality assessment and psychotherapy. Journal of Personality Assessment, 75(1), 18-32.

Last, J.M. (1997). The clinical utilization of early memories. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 51(3), 376-378.

The functions of memory and evaluation are dominated by the necessity for adaptation.”

― Alfred Adler

1 Comment

  1. Sherrell Brann
    July 31, 2013

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