Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 3


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Chapter 2: You Are a Unity

I sing the song of myself. – Walt Whitman

Human beings are inherently consistent; our underlying beliefs about life determine our opinions, behaviors, habits, and attitudes.

            When you think back to your earliest memories they may seem quite banal – fleeting recollections of sitting on your grandmother’s lap, playing with a favorite toy, or quarreling with a sibling. It is hard to believe that there might be any deeper meaning to these trivial events.
            Yet, when he was founding Individual Psychology, Alfred Adler reached a different conclusion concerning early memories. Autobiographical recollections of events, he said, reveal a person’s innermost beliefs about life. In his writings, Adler observes that “Among all psychic expressions, some of the most revealing are the individual’s memories.” [1]  Memories are never incidental or trivial; rather, they are “chosen reminders”:

(A person’s) memories are the reminders she carries about with her of her limitations and of the meanings of events. There are no “chance” memories. Out of the incalculable number of impressions that an individual receives, she chooses to remember only those which she considers, however dimly, to have a bearing on her problems.[2]

In other words, your early memories, however trivial or capricious they may seem to you before working through this book, are actually highly significant. Tens of thousands of events – years of events – took place during your early childhood. Yet, if you are like most people, you remember only a few specific incidents, and the incidents that you remember are particularly relevant. They serve, quite literally, as metaphors for your life. They reflect your innermost opinions about what you believe your life is like. They are your way of confirming and recording, “Such is life!” [3]

One person’s early memories may tell us, “I overcome challenges.” Another person’s early memories may say, “Life is a series of disasters.”

            Sigmund Freud describes man as a brewing complexity of conflicting urges: the id, which is murderously aggressive and highly sexual; the ego, which struggles under the influences of the unconscious; the super-ego, which demands that we be even better than we really are; the death force; the life force; and the conflicts that arise within us at different stages of psychosexual development. [4]
            Other schools of therapy, as well, view human beings as intrinsically ambivalent. The notion of the unconscious is a staple in modern psychotherapy, and it is often held to be at odds with the conscious. According to Carl Gustav Jung, within each of us dwell archetypes of the shadow, a dark and sinister facet to our character, and the hero, a force for good that is righteous and selfless beyond reproach. [5] In transactional analysis, we are divided among our parent, our adult and our child. [6]
            Adler, on the other hand, sees human beings as innately unified and holistic:

If we closed our ears to words and concentrated on observing actions, we would find that each person has formulated his own individual “meaning of life,” and that all his opinions, attitudes, movements, expressions, mannerisms, ambitions, habits, and character traits are in accordance with this meaning.[7]

           Every person, according to Adler, has an opinion or a philosophy about life. This belief about life characterizes every aspect of his personality: his approach to work; his approach to love; his dreams; and his likes and dislikes. This core belief about life and the subsequent attitudes, thoughts and behaviors that it evinces, Adler called the “lifestyle.” The term, lifestyle, has gained such popularity in modern times that it is important to focus on its Adlerian origins: Our lifestyles are the reflections – in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors – of our personal beliefs about life. And, for each of us, our most fundamental beliefs about life -- our "dominant behavior pattern" -- can be articulated in a few brief sentences.
            Thus, when interpreting early memories, we are seeking to uncover a person’s lifestyle. The early memory provides us with us with a metaphor for the meaning that a person ascribes to himself and to life. When we correctly interpret the metaphor, we have correctly interpreted the philosophy of life: We understand the guiding notion that colors all of a person’s perceptions about life, and therefore his beliefs, feelings, attitudes and behaviors. Through the memory, we can find the “song of myself.”
            Although he never published an entire case study, Adler provides tantalizing hints of how he interpreted early memories. Working in Vienna’s grammar schools, he would often ask all of the children in a classroom to write down for him their earliest recollections. These he would analyze, as in the case of a third-grade girl who remembered learning how to draw:

When I was four years old, I couldn’t draw well. Often I wanted to draw a man. My mother would say: “You make the nose look like a cucumber.” I did not let this disturb me and I went on drawing. When it was all finished, I showed it to my mother. She said: “Now you don’t make the nose like a cucumber any more.” From that time on I was able to draw pretty men. I always remember that.[8]

           Like most childhood recollections, this memory may, at first appearance, seem insignificant. Yet, when we begin to explore it more deeply, we can glean a great deal about the character of this young girl.
            Adler cites this recollection of learning to draw as the memory of a particularly well-adjusted person. The memory, according to Adler, tells us, “she struggled and won.” We can expect her to grow into an adult who successfully faces life’s problems and keeps working (metaphorically, keeps drawing and redrawing) until she has solved her problems. Just as she behaves in her memory, so, too, will she behave in adult life. She will be persistent and steadfast. Life, for this girl, is a matter of encountering challenges and overcoming those challenges; this, for her, is the meaning of life.
            By contrast, let us look at some of the memories that Adler offers of individuals with unhealthy or neurotic lifestyles. One person recalled, “The coffee pot fell off the table and scalded me.” Of this, Adler concludes:

Such is life! We ought not to be surprised to find that the woman whose autobiography began in this way was pursued by a feeling of helplessness, and she overstated the dangers and difficulties of life. Neither should we be surprised if, in her heart, she reproached other people for not taking sufficient care of her. [9]

            Another illustration shows how early memories, dreams and fears are all interrelated in the lifestyle:

A similar picture of the world is reported in another first memory: “I remember falling out of a pram when I was three years old.” With this first memory went a recurrent dream: “The world is coming to an end, and I wake up in the middle of the night to find the sky bright red with fire. The stars all fall, and we collide with another planet. But just before the crash I wake up.” When this patient, a student, was asked if he was afraid of anything, he answered, “I’m afraid that I won’t make a success of life,” and it is clear that his first memory and his recurrent dream act as discouragement and confirm his fear of failure and catastrophe.[10]

            With this memory of falling out of a pram, the man is saying, “Life, in my opinion, is a disaster.” He dreams of catastrophes and he fears that he will fail in his future. Without changing his deep underlying pessimism – his fundamental belief, that he is unable to control his own fate – he is unlikely to lead a successful and fulfilling life.

Early memories are not of formative events: One small incident alone is not sufficient to shape the personality.

            It is important to note that none of the events in these early memories are considered formative; that is, Adler does not believe that because the girl learned to draw an attractive nose she then learned to overcome life’s problems, or that because the man fell out of his pram he then became afraid of disasters. When patients suggested to Adler that an early childhood event led them to behave a certain way as an adult, he would wryly reflect, “One small incident is again made the reason for a whole attitude toward life. If we look at it in a matter-of-fact way, it [the single incident] does not appear sufficiently important to lead to such a far reaching conclusion.” [11]
            Adler actually draws a very different conclusion about early memories in relation to the adult life; that we remember particular events from our childhood because we are who we are as adults:

It is of no importance for the purposes of psychology whether the memory an individual considers the earliest is really the first event that he can remember – or even whether it is a memory of a real event. Memories are important only for what they represent, for their interpretation of life and their bearing on the present and future.[12]

            Minor events in life are not enough to make a lasting impact on the adult personality. (Later in this book, we will discuss those larger forces which Adler did consider significant in shaping personality – forces such as parents’ approaches to child-rearing.) Rather, a memory, in the Adlerian school, serves purely as a reflection of the adult character. The adult remembers the incident from childhood because it reflects her beliefs, as an adult, about life. Adler explains: "Memory is an activity. It is based on the life style, which here steps in by selecting from old impressions a single one. This leads us to the question, why this single one? In it the entire life style resonates." [13]
            Thus, an early memory can provide insight into the personality just as a subjective interpretation of an inkblot can provide insight into the personality.

It does not matter if memories are even of real events; recollections are significant because they reveal what the adult believes about life.

            We have just moved quickly through a great deal of theory. The remainder of this book will help you to develop a more detailed and nuanced understanding of Adlerian theory while also learning the techniques of early memory and lifestyle interpretation. When learning to interpret early memories, you will be learning how to guess; you will be forming a hypothesis about what the memory might mean. Once you have learned to make good guesses, you will then move on to gathering information about the adult character in order to uncover the lifestyle.
            Before we move forward with learning how to interpret early memories and, ultimately, to uncover lifestyles, let us look at a concrete example of a lifestyle interpretation in order to review the theory that we have covered thus far: The next chapter presents a lifestyle interview that I conducted with an entrepreneur and politician, Arthur. The interview will give you the opportunity to see how Arthur’s earliest memories and his lifestyle – his inner beliefs about life and his ensuing, feelings, attitudes and behaviors – coincide.


1. Adler, Alfred. What Life Could Mean to You. © 1998 by Hazelden Foundation. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden. 58.
2. What Life Could Mean to You, 58-59.
3. What Life Could Mean to You, 15.
4. Ellenberger, Henri. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. © 1970 Henri Ellenberger. USA: Basic Books. 477-518.
5. Ellenberger, 705-707.
6. Berne, Eric. Games People Play: The Basic Hand Book of Transactional Analysis. 1964. New York: Ballantine Books.
7. What Life Could Mean to You, 1-2.
8. From The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation from His Writings by Heinz and Rowena Ansbacher, copyright © 1956. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group. 356-357.
9. What Life Could Mean to You, 15.
10. What Life Could Mean to You, 15.
11. What Life Could Mean to You, 68.
12. What Life Could Mean to You, 15. (My emphasis.)
13. Adler, Alfred. Superiority and Social Interest. Edited by Heinz Ansbacher and Rowena Ansbacher. © 1979 W.W. Norton & Company. New York.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)