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Adler

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Chapter 17:Sample Lifestyle Interview: Sharon

            The first goal of psychotherapy in Individual Psychology is to uncover the client’s lifestyle. Modern Adlerian practitioners, however, have not, until now, had the benefit of knowing Adler's own method for lifestyle interpretation, as he never published that method.
            The purposes of this book are to explain Adler's elegant and simple technique and, moreover, to extend lifestyle interpretation beyond the realm of the therapist/client relationship in order to teach everyday people how to interpret early memories – for personal enjoyment, to deepen self-understanding, or for self-improvement if a person so desires.

The interview in this chapter utilizes Adler’s own unpublished method of lifestyle interpretation as demonstrated to me by his possibly last surviving student.

            Below is an example of a typical lifestyle interview that might be conducted at an initial Individual Psychology therapy session. This interview utilizes Adler’s own unpublished method of lifestyle interpretation as demonstrated to me by his possibly last surviving student.
           This transcript is presented for you to better familiarize yourself with some of the questions and techniques that may be used to try to draw the graph of life. As with Arthur’s interview, the aim of this interview is to find parallels between the woman's, Sharon’s, early memories and her attitudes and behaviors in her adult life. Further, the interview seeks a confirmation from Sharon herself that the pattern that is uncovered truly describes her life.

The lifestyle interview does not need to be lengthy or complex. It does not need to proceed in a rigid order or follow a standard set of questions.

            Lifestyle interpretation does not have to be lengthy or involved; the early memories speak the truth and it is only necessary to seek a pattern in later life that reflects the memories. Adler provides the following advice for uncovering the lifestyle:

There are two important points to remember. First, we can start wherever we like: Every expression will lead us in the same direction – toward the one motive, the one theme around which her personality is built. Second, a vast store of material is provided for us. Every word, thought, feeling, or gesture contributes to our understanding. Any mistake we might make in evaluating too hastily one facet or expression of her personality can be checked and corrected by reference to a thousand others.[1]

Thus, the interview does not have to be complex, it does not need to proceed in a set order, and it does not need to include any standard set of questions. We need only concentrate on eliciting four factors:

1) Childhood circumstances that may have influenced the lifestyle.
2) A pattern in the memories.
3) A pattern repeated in later life.
4) A confirmation from the person being interviewed that he recognizes and accepts the pattern.

            In the interview below, Sharon volunteered to participate for the purpose of this book. She is a woman in her early fifties, happily married and gainfully employed, not experiencing any major health problems, and not undergoing psychotherapy. The interview lasted approximately forty-five minutes. To help you follow some of my strategies in conducting this interview, I have interspersed my own comments, in parentheses, with the transcript.

Transcript: Sharon’s Interview

Q. Tell me a little a bit about your health growing up as a kid; did you have any health problems?
A. Outside of the normal stuff, the occasional cold, I think I had the mumps once. I may have had them twice. I don’t know if you can get the mumps twice, but I know I had them at least once.
           (Here, I am looking for serious illnesses or injuries that may have had a formative effect on Sharon’s character. I find none. I have also started with an innocuous question until Sharon is more comfortable with the interview and more likely to disclose more personal information.)

Q. Did you have any major illnesses or major injuries?
A. No… no.

Q. What about as an adult? Has your health been okay as an adult?
A. With the exception of migraines. I have had migraines since the birth of my first son.

Q. So that just started at that point when you were an adult?
A. Yes, when my mother had her first child is when her migraines started, and then when I had my first child apparently that’s when I started with my migraines.

Q. So it is something that runs in the family then.
A. Apparently, yes.

Q. Do they interfere with your life?
A. Very occasionally I will take a day off from work.
           (Since Sharon experiences only occasional migraines that do not interfere with her ability to lead her life, I do not pursue this line of questioning any further.)

Q. How many kids were in your family?
A. Siblings? I have an older sister and a younger brother. My older sister is four years older, and my younger brother is 18 months younger.

Q. How did you get along when you were growing up?
A. A lot of rivalry between my older sister and I, and average stuff between my younger brother and I.
           (Because Sharon mentions “a lot of rivalry” but does not go into further detail, I ask a follow-up question to try and get a better sense of her relationship with her older sister:)

Q. And as adults how do you get along?
A. My sister and I had a lot of basic differences. She was very academically advanced and also our basic belief structure is hugely different. So, we had a lot of overcoming... But, it took us about four years to bridge that gap, and in the past five years after that, we realized that we do very well at having a great relationship so long as it’s distant. If we were to have a close proximity relationship it would not be good.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your parents when you were growing up. What were they like?
A. My memory of my parents are a little bit muddled because, as I remember it overall, it wasn’t so bad, but my individual, specific memories were pretty bad. Their overall treatment of me was I had a very nice childhood, but that’s because I was a very docile child. But, their individual – there were specific treatments of me that was not very nice.
           (Recall that Adler writes about the pampered child. A pampered or spoiled person is likely to report that his parents treated him badly, but when pressed for details will only provide reasonable examples of parental behavior – such as being disciplined in an appropriate way. When an individual reports that his childhood was not good, it is important to find concrete examples to verify how objective this judgment is.)

Q. Is there any example you’d be comfortable with giving?
A. Certainly. My mother, although very affectionate, taught me how to lie. For the sake of the family, it was easier to lie to her husband to protect the children. Well, I learned that very well. My father was a very loud, domineering man and felt like he should control – he wanted it to be a patriarchal family. And, so I just fell in line with that and I actually was very much afraid of my father, for the most part of him, but there were many affectionate moments, but overall I was actually scared of him.
           (Here, Sharon reports being “very much afraid” of her father, and of her mother lying to protect the children from the father, which suggests that his temper was genuinely excessive.)

Q. What was it that was frightening about him?
A. He had a very loud large temper. He was never physically or sexually abusive.

Q. Like he would say cruel things?
A. Yes.

Q. What kind of things would your mother tell lies about?
If the favorite vase was broken by one of the children, as happens in every home across every, in every area, some child knocks over something. So that my father would not get mad, she would say that she did it and would take the brunt of his anger so that the children would not have to deal with it. Because he would have been mad because somebody was running through the home.
            (Here, I assume that Sharon’s mother did not literally teach her to lie but, rather, that Sharon learned by example.)

A. What’s the earliest thing you remember from childhood?
A. I’m thinking... I don’t think I have a very specific… my own memory. I don’t think I have my own memory, but there is a memory of being four in California where I’m from, but I don’t think it’s my own memory.

Q. Well, what are the things that you remember?
           (Memories furnished by other people and from family lore are not useful. I prompt Sharon for an event that she personally remembers.)
A. I remember being around five or six with my grandmother. I remember eating a… and to this day I eat a carrot the same way. Even the little tiny mini ones. I eat the outside of the carrot first and I save the heart for last. Unless someone is watching, I will still eat the carrot that way, and if they are close family and friends, I will eat the carrot the same way.

Q. So what takes place in the memory?
A. My grandmother gave me a lot of carrots, I think. I just remember eating carrots on the couch at my grandmother’s apartment and wondering why I liked to eat carrots this way. She told me the hearts were the sweetest part of a carrot, so I always saved them for last.
           (This memory seems to conflate a series of similar incidents and is hard to work with. I prompt Sharon again for a memory of a particular event.)

Q. What else do you remember? Are there any incidents or events that stand out?
A. I think I was around nine years old and I had a poncho, and my mother told me that I didn’t have to wear anything underneath it because it was a poncho. And, I don’t think I particularly found that odd, but looking back on it in my mid-twenties I thought that was very strange. How could I go walking around with simply a poncho on and no clothing underneath at the age of nine? I did develop early. How can a nine year old walk around with a little thin – just a poncho and not need a little t-shirt underneath or a blouse underneath? But my mom said it was fine, no big deal, I didn’t need to worry about it, so I didn’t.
           (At this point, I notice that in both memories, Sharon recalls adult authority figures. In the first, the relationship seems warm. In the second, Sharon is clearly questioning her mother’s judgment. Change over time may also be important in this second memory; Sharon accepts her mother’s decision at the time of the incident, but questions her mother’s judgment later in life.)

Q. Any other memories?
A. When I was I want to say five or six, my grandfather was an amazing swimmer. He used to swim the beach, the ocean water, and he lived in Delaware and I used to spend summers with him. And, I was his favorite, and my grandmother’s favorite grandchild. And, one day we went out to the pool and he threw me in the deep end of the pool because I didn’t know how to swim. And, he threw me in and he jumped in after me and that’s how I learned how to swim.
           (Again, another memory with an authority figure.)

Q. What are your emotions in that memory when you look back on it?
A. I don’t think I felt scared because it was my grandfather, and in my heart of hearts my grandfather would never do anything to jeopardize me, to put me in a situation where I would be hurt. So, kind of a like a child would have that exhilaration as they are being thrown about in the swimming pool. But I don’t think I would have felt fear, because it was my grandfather and he would have never let anything hurt me.
           (Here, it is important to focus on the affect in the memory. Does Sharon find herself thrown into frightening situations by authority figures? Not according to this memory, at least. She remembers trusting her grandfather and that it was “exhilarating,” and that she successfully learned to swim.)

Q. Any other memories?
A. My grandmother lived in New York, in an apartment, and there again I think I was relatively young. This must have been around the same age of five or six. She lived in the apartment in New York, and she had to pluck a chicken, which is common for Jewish women to do at that time. And, she kept calling me to come upstairs, and I remember the hallway being a very dark and very scary place, and I was downstairs playing with other girls and I wouldn’t go upstairs because I was really scared of that dark hallway. And, after calling me several times she came downstairs and grabbed me and pulled me up the stair, fussing at me the whole way up.
           (Here again, I see the authority figure theme. “Other girls” are mentioned, but they are almost incidental to the story line.)

Q. And how did you feel when she did that?
A. I think a little ashamed that I was scared to go up the steps. I don’t think I was mad at her for coming to get me, but I was ashamed that I had that much fear that I couldn’t go up the steps.

Q. At the end of the memory, when you reach the top of the steps, how do you feel then?
A. Everything is fine because I was in my grandparents’ apartment and I was back to doing whatever I was supposed to be doing to begin with.

Q. I might go back to these in a little while, but let me just ask you a few other questions now….
           (At this point, I have already formed a theory: Sharon moves through life according to the promptings she receives from authority figures. I will now look for more information to confirm or alter this interpretation.)

Q. If you were to just go through your life and pick the three most important decisions in your life what would they be?
A. Most important decisions I personally have made?
           (Sharon’s question is very telling and points to the authority figure theory. Many people will simply assume the question refers to decisions that they themselves have made. Fewer people tend to report decisions made by others.)

Q. It could be you or someone else, but the most important decisions in your life.
A. Oh boy. I don’t think those would be very hard, truthfully. The most important decisions in my life have been to have accepted Christ, married my husband, and had children.
           (I suspect that authority figures played strong roles in each of these decisions, and I will try to verify this theory with follow-up questions.)

Q. How did you make these decisions?
A. My husband had come to Christ first. And, kind of through him, through seeing the changes that he had gone through.
                       (Bingo.)

Q. What about your marriage?
A. We had been actually living together for about nine months or a year, and it was a next step. Do we marry and stay together or do we separate and move on? But to stagnate was not a choice, and so I don’t believe that we were really in love with each other. We were in lust with each other, but about two or three years later we did start to love each other very much.
           (Sharon does not provide any confirmation of my theory about authority figures here, but I will return to this point later in the interview.)

Q. Children – how did you make that decision?
A. Well, they say fifty percent of the children that are born are by choice, and that was certainly true with us. My first child was not planned, and he’s an amazing young man. My second child was planned, and he’s equally as wonderful. They have totally enhanced my life and I could not imagine being anything but a mother to them.

Q. Is that your most important role in life, being a mother?
A. I think so. Yes.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your work life. What kinds of work have you done in your life?
A. I’ve worked daycare. I’ve worked in different aspects of banking. I have worked as a cashier. I’m trying to think. Boy, it’s been a long time. I am currently in transition.

Q. Transition from what to what?
A. Transitioning right now from the job I had for thirteen years into a new position. So, letting go of the old and starting new.

Q. Thirteen years is a long time. It sounds like you must have been good at that job or you must have liked it.
A. Yes. I was very good at that job and I liked it very much.

Q. What did you do?
A. I was a collector for a bank.

Q. How are you good at that?
A. Well, I never looked at it as taking money or demanding people to pay. Overall, there is a point that you have to do that, but it was more helping people understand that these are responsibilities they’ve incurred, and how could I help them be successful at paying their bills. So, it was more an ability to help them, not take from them.
           (Often, career choices can reveal important aspects of people’s characters; competitive people will seek out competitive work. In this case, Sharon seems to be mirroring the authority figures in her memories. She is 'helping people understand' the right way to go.)

Q. Tell me about your spouse. What do you like best about him.
A. Oh, what do I like best about him… He’s certainly charming. He is very generous and kind hearted. I think one of my favorite things is he has a very dry sense of humor, and he can be very funny both knowingly and unknowingly. He’s an amazing father. He can be very quiet and he cares mostly about other people. More than he does for himself.

Q. OK, what do you like least about him?
He does have certain “charms” about him. He is finicky in some ways with his foods that makes me crazy.

A. Why does it bother you when he’s finicky about his foods?
Because he will say that it doesn’t matter to him, so I’ll prepare things, and then it ends up mattering to him and that makes me nuts.
           (With this question and the next one, I am looking for a factor in other people’s decision-making for Sharon that she might find annoying; I’m looking for the feelings she considers the most negative. In this case, how might a strong reliance on authority figures affect her?)

Q. Tell me something recently that happened in your life that was annoying.
A. I was very annoyed with my supervisor, because he is a letter of the law person, and I tend not to be. I tend towards “close enough is good enough and let’s make it work,” and he is not that way. He tends to be, “You have to dot every I and cross every T.” I wanted to do something a little early and he wanted it done a little later. But if I did it, I did it, who cares if I did it early or late?
           (Sometimes, as we will discuss in the following chapter, this question can be quite revealing. In this case, I did not learn anything particularly useful, except to emphasize Sharon’s focus on relationships with authority figures, so I continue with the interview.)

Q. Let’s go back to the memories. Adler said that every memory is a chosen reminder, that we actually pick our memories. You know, hundreds of things happen in our early childhood, but we only remember a few of them, because we think “that’s really the way life works.” And, so what we’re looking for in this process, this interview, is what is “the way life works” for you: What is your philosophy about life?
            I think it’s interesting that all of these memories really focus on people who are older than you, people who are caretakers, authority figures in a way.
           (Some people bridle at the Adlerian term “authority figure.” It is good to mix terminology and also to use other terms such as “caretakers,” or “people who are older.” Mixing terminology also helps to eventually hit upon the language used by the person who is being interviewed.)
            In one memory your grandmother is upstairs and you are downstairs playing with other girls, but you actually mentioned the other girls as a afterthought. The main focus of the memory was your interaction with your grandmother.
            So, it seems like there’s your grandfather, and he teaches you how to swim. There’s your grandmother, and she pulls you upstairs. There’s your mother who tells you how to wear a poncho, and it seems like there’s a focus in all of these memories of someone you look to as an authority figure.
            In one of the memories, you question the authority figure, although not at the time. With the mother and the poncho, you don’t question it at the time, but later as an adult you think, “Was that really an appropriate thing to do?”
            In another memory, you said that you felt completely safe, you knew your grandfather would never hurt you, and there was even a feeling of exhilaration. With the grandmother, there was a feeling of being frightened…. was that the feeling?
A. It was a feeling of being ashamed of being scared of going up the steps. I remember looking up the steps, and that part is a clear memory; I remember looking up the steps in the darkness and knowing that my grandmother was at the top of the steps waiting for me, and I was too scared to go up them by myself.

Q. It seems like there’s a tension between what I do on my own, and what I do with other people. When I’m on my own, I’m afraid to go up those stairs, and I need my grandmother to come and take me up there.
            I was thinking that in your decision to accept Christ, you are really turning to an ultimate authority figure. I am looking for different strands here, and this is what you and I need to do together. To find a pattern.
           (At this point in the interpretation, the process becomes a dialogue, rather than an interview. The memories are revisited and reiterated, and interpreter and interviewee attempt to draw out a pattern.)
A. Now, is there any connection that they are all family members in my memories?

Q. Well, there might be, if it’s relevant to you. You definitely don’t have memories of the grocer, the baker, the candlestick maker. Is this saying that the most important authority figures in your life are the people in your family?
A. I think they are the most significant.

Q. It definitely seems like you’re saying that the most important relationships are with people that you look up to. Again, the one memory where you are playing with other girls is almost incidental. You’re not focusing on relationships with colleagues and peers. You’re looking to people that you see in some way as being older or wiser or more knowledgeable – authorities in some way.
A. I think those are the most relevant relationships in my life.

Q. Let’s go back to the carrot memory with your grandmother. It’s more whimsical than the others, but you are also following her lead.
A. I ate it that way because she told me, “The heart is the sweetest part.” I remember those words, “The heart is the sweetest part.”

Q. It would be nice to find a way to boil all of these different ideas down to just one sentence.
           (When the person you are analyzing can affirm her lifestyle in a sentence, you have clearly succeeded.)
            It seems like the people in your life help you to learn or to move forward. They can teach you to eat carrots and save the sweetest part for last. They can throw you in a pool and it’s exhilarating. They can call you upstairs and it’s too frightening and they have to come get you. You can also question them sometimes – like with the poncho you accepted that it was okay to wear it, but later you had doubts. But mostly, you are following these family members’ leads.
            I like the analogy in your first memory – the core is the sweetest part. Is there a core of life for you, inhabited by your family members, that’s the sweetest, most important part of your life?
A. Well, my core of life right now, and actually has been for many years, is my husband, my children, my faith, and now my grandchildren. And, that core is expanding to other loved ones that are coming into my family and are being invited in. My core is my home and those that are welcome in it.

Q. You do make certain distinctions in your memories: What my grandfather did is perfectly okay; what my grandmother did maybe shamed me, but then everything went right at the end; and what my mother told me to do I went ahead and did, but later I thought maybe that wasn’t appropriate at all. So, you do distinguish between the good authority figure and the more questionable authority figure.
A. No, I don’t agree with what the mother did. And, my mother is also the one who taught me how to lie to my spouse.

Q. Is it a pattern for you that you follow someone’s guidance and then you wish you hadn’t?
A. Recently, I don’t think so, because I have been learning how to make my own decisions and my own choices and living by my own consequences. Whether they be good or bad.
           (Here, Sharon has moved closer to voicing for herself her tendency to let other people make decisions for her. At the same time, we see some more colors to the memories; Sharon has different emotional reactions to different types of authority figures.)

Q. So, in all three of the memories – the grandfather pushing you in, the mother instructing you to wear the poncho, the grandmother pulling you up the stairs – those are not decisions that you made. Those are all instances where you were told or even forced to do something.
A. Right.

Q. So, maybe it’s a case of, “Other people are making decisions for me. Later in life, I evaluate them.” Is that a theme in your life? Of other people making decisions for you, and sometimes they’re good decisions, and sometimes they’re inappropriate.
A. Actually, if you want the whole truth, my husband has made me make decisions.
                       (Aha.)

Q. So, you’re learning to make decisions, but you have a spouse who’s…
A. Who’s forcing me to make decisions.

Q. Who’s deciding that you will learn how to decide.
A. I do have a life-long memory, not a thing that happened, but a way I always remember feeling, of wanting to be a mom. I also always wanted to take over my Dad’s business, but I was never given the opportunity because he thought I was too stupid to do so. So he just decided no and he never even gave me an opportunity.
           (Here, we see that Sharon is starting to see a pattern. She’s bringing up instances of other people making decisions for her.)

Q. When you got married? Who was the driving factor?
A. I don’t know. Maybe I should talk to Martin about that, because I don’t remember at all.
           (Later, Sharon did speak to her husband, Martin, about how they decided to marry. He reminded her that he had come home early one day to find her with her bags packed and carrying a one-way ticket (sent to her by her father) to return home and visit her family. At the time, Martin told her he didn’t like Sharon sneaking away with a one-way ticket. If she wanted to leave, he said, she should just not come back. If she wanted to marry him, she should come back within the week and they would get married. So, Sharon, forced to make a decision, returned in three days and they soon married.)

Q. It seems to me that there’s definitely a pattern here of other people make decisions, but you’ve done a smart thing and you’ve aligned yourself with someone, your husband, who makes good decisions. So, you’ve allowed him to take more of a leadership role in the relationship. Even in your choice to convert to a different religion you were following his example…
A. Uh huh. Yes.

Q. …. because he accepted Christ first.
A. Uh huh. Yep. And, I benefited anyway.

Q. It’s almost as if the grandfather in your memory – that role of the loving man who teaches you is being played now by your husband.
A. Uh huh. Yes.
           (When the person you are interpreting. starts agreeing repeatedly, you know you have hit on the pattern. Still, it is always possible to look deeper:)

Q. He throws you into the pool with him metaphorically, and you trust him completely, and it’s worked well for you because you’ve learned as you’ve gone through life – just as you learned how to swim.
            There’s a strong element of learning. You learned how to eat the carrots. You learned to swim. You later reflected on the fact, and learned, that the poncho wasn’t appropriate. What about in the memory of going upstairs? Was there an element of learning in that?
A. With that I’m still, I haven’t learned how to overcome my fears on some things, but I think I’ve learned how to do things like skydiving, get tattoos, ride motorcycles. Because I thought about those things for many years, and if you don’t do them, then you’re afraid of them.
            (We shouldn't be surprised that Sharon can enjoy facing her fears and enjoys motorcycles, tatoos and skydiving. Her memory of the pool has already told us that she has a sense of adventure.)

Q. And, who told you to do those things, finally? Your husband, right?
            (Now that I have hit on the lifestyle, it is possible to make predictions.)
A. “Shut up or do it,” he said, and so I did it.

Q. What are your other fears that you mentioned?
A. Well, I have phobias of spiders and frogs and snakes. And, I know I’m not going to get over those, but I also know it doesn’t matter. I am mortified by those.
           (As she was mortified by being afraid to walk up the stairs.)
But, it does not hugely impact my life. Because, truthfully, I have a protector.
           (Her husband is like the grandmother who ushers her through the dark staircase.)
            The way I’m living my life doesn’t hurt me. I do align myself with people that I trust.
            I also find myself… I have a lot of girlfriends that are considerably younger. And, partly this is because they have young children and I love young children, and because my children are grown now, my friends feel like I have all this wisdom, and that makes me feel like I have value. So, they come to me for advice, or affirmation that what they are doing is right.
            (Sometimes, in the lifestyle, we see the individual maturing and assuming the role of the authority figures in her early memories. The individual’s lesson from the memory is, “This is how an authority figure behaves,” or “This is how I, as an authority figure, should behave.” Here, Sharon shows that she has likely matured over time in her lifestyle.)

Q. So, you’re becoming the authority figure in these memories.
A. Yes. Definitely.

Q. You’re becoming the person who teaches others how to swim or who guides people up the stairs.
A. Yes.
           (Adlerian psychotherapy is based upon the premise of encouragement. Clients are encouraged to feel stronger, to believe that they can face life’s responsibilities, to recognize that they have grown as human beings. Whenever I notice a pattern of maturation in a lifestyle, I try to emphasize it.)
Because of the people that were around me, and because of the things I’ve learned coming up to the age where I am now, I have a very… My husband is very strong in character, and he guides me through life, and he pushes me in the directions I need to go. And, yes, I know he is pushing me. And, he tells me when I have to make my own choices and when we have to collaborate as a husband and wife. What that does for me is it kind of takes the guesswork out so that I can focus on making my own decisions.

Q. So, do you feel that you’ve gotten an answer in terms of what your pattern is?
A. Uh huh. Yes.

Q. So, how would you describe it in your own words?
A. I trust authority figures to lead my life, I think. But, the people that are in my life I truly do trust. I’ve put smart people in my life.
           (A session hasn’t reached a successful conclusion until the person being interviewed has embraced the interpretation of the lifestyle.)

Q. Cool, well is there anything else, or are we done?
A. I think that’s it, unless there’s anything more we need to do.

Q. No, I think we’ve accomplished a lot.

Notes
1. What Life Could Mean to You, 57.

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(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)