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Adler

Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 8

Chapter 10

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Chapter 9: Teasing Out the Feelings: Spilled Milk

             One woman had the following early memory: It was Halloween and someone came knocking on the front door. The person, an adult, was dressed as a witch and she cackled and she threatened to cook all the children in the house into gingerbread and eat them. The woman recalling this memory believed that she was supposed to have been frightened as a child, but recalled that she was not afraid at all. She went up to the woman dressed as a witch and tried to pull off her mask. She said, “You aren’t the wicked witch. You’re my Aunt Sally!”

The feelings attached to a memory will completely color the memory’s meaning.

            This is the memory of a highly successful person who worked in a competitive bureaucracy. She succeeded in her career due to her willingness to communicate directly with people in cases where many others simply preferred to avoid confrontation. The feelings in this memory are of safety and confidence.
            Just like with thoughts, the feelings attached to an early recollection can completely color the memory’s meaning. Consider the following early memory: “I remember I was sitting in a high chair. I was strapped in and couldn’t get down. There was no one else around and I felt entirely abandoned.” This is the memory of a woman who went through a long series of failed love affairs and felt, again and again, abandoned by her partner.
            Yet, it would be possible to remember the exact same event with different feelings attached to it. How different would be the lifestyle of the person who remembers, “I was sitting in a high chair. I was strapped in, so I was safe. There was no one else around, and I felt like I was on the top of the world looking at everything around me.” Here is the memory of a person who feels comfortable and confident in times of solitude.
            Using these two examples, now apply your own powers of interpretation to determine what the following fictitious memories – with feelings – might say about their subjects:

The Spilled Milk: Memories

1) I spilled some milk. I was curious what would happen when my mother found out.

2) I spilled some milk. I was worried my mother would be angry with me.

3) I spilled some milk. I was afraid that my mother might be angry with me.

4) I spilled some milk. I was certain my mother would pour some more for me.

5) I spilled some milk. I was happy because I didn’t want to drink it anyway.

6) I spilled some milk. I was upset because I had been looking forward to drinking it.

7) I spilled some milk. I was surprised because I thought the lid on the cup was tight.

8) I spilled some milk. I remember how fascinating it was to watch it pour into the different crevices in the floor.

9) I spilled some milk. I remember laughing because it looked so funny filling up my highchair tray.

10) I spilled some milk. I remember my mother laughing at me, and I laughed too.

The Spilled Milk: Interpretations

1) I spilled some milk. I was curious what would happen when my mother found out.
This person thinks immediately about what her mother’s response will be. This could be the memory of someone who acts first and then is unsure what other people’s reactions to her behavior will be.

2) I spilled some milk. I was worried my mother would be angry with me.
This person may tend to feel worried about other people’s responses to his behavior or mistakes. This memory might also suggest that the mother is overly severe.

3) I spilled some milk. I was afraid that my mother might be angry with me.
This person may have a worse relationship with authority figures than the individual in Example 2. Rather than possibly feeling worried about people’s reactions to his mistakes, he may feel afraid of people’s reactions. As noted previously, fear of a parent for a small incident may also indicate an abusive parent.

4) I spilled some milk. I was certain my mother would pour some more for me.
This person probably has a comfortable relationship with authority figures and likely feels confident that authority figures will help her when she runs into difficulties. It is also possible that this person is spoiled and looks to other people to solve her problems.

5) I spilled some milk. I was happy because I didn’t want to drink it anyway.
In this memory, a person makes a mistake and is happy about it because it lets her off the hook. This person is probably irresponsible.

6) I spilled some milk. I was upset because I had been looking forward to drinking it.
This could be the memory of a person who is often disappointed: “I was looking forward to something and it didn’t happen.”

7) I spilled some milk. I was surprised because I thought the lid on the cup was tight.
This seems to be the memory of a person who is surprised by events in life. Moreover, this person apparently takes measures to avoid surprises – I thought the lid on the cup was tight. – but events, nevertheless, do not unfold as she anticipates.

8) I spilled some milk. I remember how fascinating it was to watch it pour into the different crevices in the floor.
This person is probably an absent-minded professor. An event occurs – the milk is spilled – and he is completely distracted. Rather than thinking about the spill, he is fascinated by the liquid dynamics of the milk.

9) I spilled some milk. I remember laughing because it looked so funny filling up my highchair tray.
This could be a person who reacts with lightheartedness to life’s small mishaps. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” this memory is saying. On the other hand, this could also be a person who does not take problems seriously enough or try to correct mistakes.

10) I spilled some milk. I remember my mother laughing at me, and I laughed too.
As in Example 9, this person is not at all upset by small mistakes in life. This individual, furthermore, apparently enjoys a warm, loving relationship with authority figures. She remembers being joyous and laughing together with her mother. Since such merriment is set off by a mishap, the person might also be irresponsible.

Conclusions: Thoughts and Feelings Determine the Meaning

            Notice how, just like with thoughts, the feelings attached to a recollection can completely change its meaning – even if two recollections describe exactly the same chain of events. Let us consider a final, real-life example of a memory where affect plays a significant role. One man recalled that, as a young child, he went for a long walk through his neighborhood. Relating his recollection, he described details of his neighborhood such as the sidewalk and his neighbors’ yards. He remembered going around the block -- a long walk for a young person -- and then coming home.
            Without knowing about the emotions attached to this memory, we might imagine this person to exhibit a sense of adventure, to enjoy discovery. In fact, when asked about his feelings in the memory, the man responded that the motive for his walk was that he had been angry at his father. He reported a feeling of agitation throughout the journey.
           In adult life, the man had often changed careers and had never settled upon a choice of work that was satisfying for him. In his personal life, too, he was less than satisfied. Although he wished to marry, he had never been in a relationship lasting for more than a few months. He also experienced ongoing symptoms of anxiety. Thus, with the emotions of anger and frustration in the first memory, it is not at all a tale of adventure. Rather, the man is saying, “I am angry, I look for an escape, I continue to feel agitated, and I end up exactly back where I started from.

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(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)