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Adler

Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

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Chapter 4: Approaches to Problem Solving: The Lost Teddy Bear

(My gratitude goes to Conrad Kaplan who developed this exercise.)

            As you progress through this book, you will have the opportunity to build your understanding of Adlerian theory and of lifestyle interpretation in progressive steps. I will present you with exercises to practice early memory interpretation, and then I will introduce you to different aspects of Adler’s theory that can enhance your understanding of early memories. As you work your way through the first half of this book, you will learn about the following significant features of early memories:


1) What they may say about problem solving.
2) What they may say about relationships with other people.
3) How the thoughts and feelings attached to early memories can change their meanings.
4) The possible significance of motion and activity level in memories.


            As you have observed in the examples you have already encountered in this book, all the early memories we have explored have been of simple, brief vignettes. While adults will also remember additional information from their childhood – such as the color of their room or the smell of their grandmother’s perfume – this type of “background” information is not particularly useful for lifestyle interpretation. In this chapter and in the rest of this book, we will focus on interpreting specific vignettes. We will interpret brief autobiographical incidents that tell a story – memories of something that actually happened.
            Very often, these memories of events may revolve around some sort of problem that a child has encountered. For example, in one early memory, a man recalled waking up as a very small child and being entangled in his blanket. The blanket was over his head, he could hardly breathe, and he called out for help. He remembered struggling and struggling until he finally freed himself of the blanket. In adult life, this man was a high achiever in his career. He had reached the top levels of a large corporation. An extremely anxious person, he viewed virtually every problem as highly threatening – on the order of being symbolically suffocated by a blanket. Whenever there was a problem, he did not hesitate to bring in as many people as possible to help find a solution (akin to calling for help in his memory). He worked fervently until each problem in his life was solved.
            Without knowing about the man’s adult life, it would not possible for us to conclusively say that he moves through life by constantly focusing on solving problems. But, we can guess from his early memory that probably he does, and then as we learn about his adult life we can confirm or reject our hypothesis. Adler often points out that diagnosis is rooted in guess-work and he notes that practice is good “for sharpening our ability to guess.”[1] In interpreting early memories, you will be guessing what a person’s approach to life might be. Later, in the second half of this book, you will interview live people and use that opportunity to confirm whether or not your guesses about their early memories are correct.
            For the time being, let us focus on sharpening your ability to guess. Consider the ten following fictitious examples of a child faced with a problem, and hypothesize what such a memory could say about an adult’s approach to problem solving. Take the time to write down your impressions. After you have tried your hand at interpreting these examples, we will go into an analysis of each sample memory at the end of this chapter.

The Lost Teddy Bear: Sample Memories

1) I lost my teddy bear. I kept looking and looking until I found it again.

2) I lost my teddy bear. My mother and I looked for it together until we found it.

3) I lost my teddy bear. My father and I looked for it together until we found it.

4) I lost my teddy bear. I couldn’t find it, but my mother made me a nice chocolate milk instead.

5) I lost my teddy bear. I was so angry I tried to take my sister’s teddy bear.

6) I lost my teddy bear, and I knew for a fact that my big brother must have hidden it. I went to him and made him give it back to me.

7) I lost my teddy bear. While I was looking for it I found my rag doll, so I played with my doll instead.

8) I lost my teddy bear and I never found it again. I remember that from then on, I was much more careful with my toys.

9) I remember I saw my little sister leave her teddy bear in the backyard. I told her not to forget it, because I had lost my own teddy bear sometime earlier.

10) I lost my teddy bear and I was inconsolable. I remember I cried about it for days. My aunt bought me a new teddy bear, but it wasn’t the same.

The Lost Teddy Bear: Interpretations


1) I lost my teddy bear. I kept looking and looking until I found it again.
This could well be the early memory of a healthy, proactive adult. The child faces adversity, the loss of the teddy bear, and perseveres until the problem is positively resolved. An adult with this early memory might believe, “Life has problems, but I am able to face and solve these problems.”

2) I lost my teddy bear. My mother and I looked for it together until we found it.
This could also be a healthy early memory. The child faces a problem and the problem is solved. In this case, this individual works together with someone else to solve the problem. This could be a positive tendency in the adult – a willingness to ask for help – but it could also be a negative tendency, if the person is not able to solve problems by herself.

3) I lost my teddy bear. My father and I looked for it together until we found it.
When Alfred Adler was a practicing therapist nearly a century ago, he believed that an early memory featuring a father rather than a mother suggested that a child felt distanced from his mother. In that time period, it is important to remember that mothers were primary caretakers. In today’s world, where fathers may be primary caretakers or co-caretakers, recalling a father in an early memory may have less significance. Nevertheless, if someone reports early memories almost exclusively of his father, it is worth exploring what type of a relationship that individual shares with his mother.

4) I lost my teddy bear. I couldn’t find it, but my mother made me a nice chocolate milk instead.
In the memory, this person has apparently forgotten about the problem at hand and is, instead, enjoying a nice drink. Particularly with its elements of escapism, passivity, and an “enabler,” (the mother), this could well be the early memory of an alcoholic.

5) I lost my teddy bear. I was so angry I tried to take my sister’s teddy bear.
Here, we might have a person who foists his problems on other people. When his life is difficult, he looks for someone else to bully or blame.

6) I lost my teddy bear, and I knew for a fact that my big brother must have hidden it. I went to him and told him to give it back to me.
This person confronts the problem of the lost teddy bear in a forthright manner. We do not know whether or not she is intimidated by her big brother. If so, then this memory strongly indicates bravery. If she is not frightened by her brother, then the memory nonetheless suggests that she is a direct and honest problem solver not afraid of confrontation.

7) I lost my teddy bear. While I was looking for it I found my rag doll, so I played with my doll instead.
This memory can be interpreted in more than one way, and further information would be needed to know which theory is correct. Perhaps this is a person who is easily distracted; rather than solving the problem at hand and finding the teddy bear, she simply turns to another form of entertainment. Like the possible alcoholic in Example 4, she could be an escapist. On the other hand, this might be a person who “makes lemonade”; the teddy bear is gone and can’t be replaced, so she will find enjoyment in other ways. When you interview a live person, you will be able to ask questions to narrow your hypotheses down to an obvious choice.

8) I lost my teddy bear and I never found it again. I remember that from then on, I was much more careful with my toys.
This person may feel that life is full of irrevocable actions and lessons learned. He makes a mistake, he cannot correct the mistake, but he can avoid similar mistakes in the future.

9) I remember I saw my little sister leave her teddy bear in the backyard. I told her not to forget it, because I had lost my own teddy bear sometime earlier.
In the memory, this person shows a strong concern for the wellbeing of others. She may make mistakes, but shows a tendency to prevent other people from making similar mistakes. It is possible that she also goes too far and is a mother hen.

10) I lost my teddy bear and I was inconsolable. I remember I cried about it for days. My aunt bought me a new teddy bear, but it wasn’t the same.
This person very likely experiences severe depression. He cannot overcome life’s setbacks. Even when someone tries to console him, he is not mollified.

Neurosis and Healthy Versus Unhealthy Lifestyles


            You may have noticed in the above interpretations that some of the teddy bear memories are described as “healthy” while others are described as “unhealthy.” This brings us to an important point in Individual Psychology: When examining the early recollections that Adler shares in his own writings, it is possible to separate lifestyles into three different categories that correspond to different degrees of mental health: those of people who solve problems; those of people who look to others to solve problems; and those of people who enjoy creating problems for other people. In Individual Psychology, the more a person is able to solve her own problems, the healthier her lifestyle.
            In the previous chapter, we read about the girl who initially drew noses that looked like cucumbers but who then learned to draw attractive noses. With this recollection, Adler presents a case of person showing “good adjustment;” she faces a problem – not being able to draw well – and she solves it. Now consider the following additional example from Adler’s writings:
            “When I was about four years old I sat at the window and watched some workmen building a house on the opposite side of the street, while my mother knitted some stockings.” This man was, in fact, one of Adler’s patients. As a young man, he had often had to stay home from school, claiming to be too “tired and exhausted.” As an adult, he experienced a neurosis, and every time he started a job he lost it again due to anxiety attacks. This, according to Adler, is a memory of someone who avoids solving problems. He is content to do nothing, and he sits passively watching while other people – his mother, the men across the street – work. Here, we have a person whose mistaken philosophy of life: His belief that other people work while he does not have to do so has led him down the path of neurosis. According to Adlerian theory, he exhibits an unhealthy lifestyle.[2]

Neuroses, according to Adler, stem from an inability to cooperate with other human beings.

Adler also discusses those who see life as an opportunity to cause problems for others. Here is one example he provides of such an individual: “Mother thought I was lost, and ran into the street shouting for me, and was very frightened. All the time I was hiding in the cupboard in the house.” Adler interprets this memory to mean, “Life means getting attention by causing trouble. The way to gain security is through deceitfulness. I am overlooked, but I can fool others.”[3]
            Thus, the recollection of learning to draw is the healthiest; it shows a girl who has mastered the art of solving problems. The next recollection, of the man who passively allows those around him to work is unhealthy; the man cannot solve his own problems, and, in fact, is incapable of making a living. Finally, the recollection of the man who hides himself in the cupboard shows hostility; he creates a problem and allows his mother to be frightened for his own enjoyment. Adler, in fact, ties mental health to a genuine interest in other people; neurosis, he believes, stems from an inability to cooperate with other human beings.[4] We will discuss this point in more detail in the following chapter.
            As you later turn to analyzing the early memories of friends, relatives and acquaintances, you may sometimes notice “mistakes” in their lifestyles. It is important to point these out to your friends only in respectful and non-threatening ways. Later parts of this book, including Chapter 20, will provide guidelines on how to communicate a lifestyle interpretation to another person.
            Let us now look more closely into the moral dimensions of individual psychology.


Notes

1. Individual Psychology, 355.
2. Individual Psychology, 355-356.
3. What Life Could Mean to You, 15-16.
4. What Life Could Mean to You, 151.

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(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)