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Your First Memory

Before exploring your first memory, make sure you’ve read the disclaimer.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

When clients aren’t sure how to begin the psychotherapy process, I will sometimes ask them about their first memory. What they share often provides me with astonishing (not to mention time-efficient) insights into their most formative experiences. The brain holds onto the information that it needs. This data informs how we make our way through the world and how we see ourselves in relation to others.

While many people have what Freud coined “childhood amnesia,” or the inability to recall our earliest experiences, others can recount vivid scenes from when they were three years old (but anything younger than that is quite rare). The degree to which people can access early memories depends on a variety of factors. For some, trauma might be a main cause of amnesia; painful experiences are repressed or relegated to the unconscious realm. Others might have had parents who didn’t ask them a lot of elaborative (open-ended) questions about their day in order to help their brain remember. Studies have also shown that the durability of early memories can be culture-dependent.

Find Your First Memory

Regardless of how far back one’s memories reach, everybody can access their first memory, whether they were six or sixteen at the time of its encoding. In other words, however far back you can remember: that’s your first memory. Some people need only a few seconds to pinpoint theirs. If you, on the other hand, need more guidance, first ask yourself if you can remember anything about elementary school. Use this as a starting point and either move forward or backward in time until you land on something that feels like your earliest recollection. Make sure this memory is truly your own and not the result of being told the same story repeatedly or seeing the same family photos.

Deciphering between authentic memories and those that are more externally constructed can be tricky, but trust your gut on this one. People can usually sense on an intuitive level which recollections are their brain’s own creation. Furthermore, less authentic memories are often characterized by people seeing themselves from the outside, as opposed to seeing a scene from their own perspective. Another aspect of false memories is that they lack any element of emotion.

Take a Look Around

Once you’ve found your first memory (or something that feels as close as you’re going to get), let yourself explore. However, if such exploration feels dangerous because your memory is traumatic, please pause here. Consider seeking the assistance of a professional counselor. You don’t have to do this kind of work alone, and in some cases it’s best that you don’t. 

If continuing this journey solo feels safe, it might help to close your eyes so you can really hone in on the details. Are you alone in this memory, or are other people involved? Are you indoors or outside? What sensory elements are at play? What is the emotional tone of your memory? How were you feeling at the time of the experience’s unfolding, and how do you feel now, looking back on it?

You might consider writing your first memory down or drawing the scene on paper and seeing what other nuances become clear. You might also play with perspective. For instance, what would this memory look like in the eyes of an objective observer? If your memory involves your younger self experiencing painful emotions, you might rewrite history and bring a nurturer into the scene who says or does something that would have made all the difference.

Make Some Connections

Give yourself ample time to explore your first memory in whatever way suits you. Then ask yourself this question: What does this recollection say about me? In other words, how does it reflect what I believe about myself and others? How does it inform my view of the world as an essentially safe or unsafe place? Are the key emotions in the dream still playing a significant role in my life? Perhaps you don’t see how any of it plays much of a role at all. If this is the case, consider sharing your memory with a trusted friend or family member and ask them what they think. Their perspective might surprise you!

Anna’s Memory 

This week I asked a couple of friends to share their first memories with me. One of them, Anna, recalled being sick and resisting the medicine her mother kept offering. Finally her mother broke a capsule in two and sprinkled its contents on my friend’s ice cream. Anna felt betrayed (her ice cream was ruined!) and became very upset. So in this memory, we have the themes of illness (something Anna dealt with a lot as a child and would deserve close, careful attention in therapy), authority, resistance, and betrayal. Perhaps this experience was the first of many in which Anna refused to accept what would make her feel better, what was good for her. There’s a lot to work with there.

Bryan’s Memory

Another friend, Bryan, described his parents fighting in the kitchen and sending him to his bedroom. This forced seclusion and the continuation of his parents’ screaming exacerbated Bryan’s already intense anger. For some reason there was a bowl of tomatoes in his room (it was a gardening household), and he threw every last one of them at his bedroom door. The smashing sound they made upon contact surprised him, as did the color contrast of the tomato guts against the white paint. He felt satisfied and frightened at the same time. This experience definitely reflects Bryan’s current relationship with anger and a pattern of feeling shut out of intense relational dynamics, powerless to effect any real change.

Anna and Bryan’s memories both involve parents, but not every first memory will. Some, like mine, don’t involve anyone else at all (except a fuzzy caterpillar). But studies show that the majority of first memories do involve family life, and they are often quite colorful and vivid. Whatever yours looks like, exploring it and other early recollections is a worthy endeavor. Chances are you’ll see yourself in a bigger context, uncover some hidden patterns, reconnect with your own story, and deepen your self-compassion.

Please leave any questions or comments below.

Resources

Batcho, K. (2015). What your oldest memories reveal about you. Psychology Today.

Nelson, B. (1982, December 7). Why are earliest memories so fragmentary and elusive? The New York Times, Science.

Shellenbarger, S. (2014, April 7). The power of the earliest memories. The Wall Street Journal, Work & Family.

Stern, V. (2014). What’s your first memory? Scientific American Mind, Cognition.

Winerman, L. (2005). The culture of memory. American Psychological Association, 36(8), 56.

Getting Started

The First Sessions

Initial psychotherapy meetings tend to be exciting and deeply informative, often rich with emotion and discovery. My approach to the first therapy sessions varies from client to client. If the client is comfortable with leading, I let him or her lead. Some people are dealing with an issue that feels very urgent, and they talk about that issue for the entire hour, crying a lot. Others don’t feel this urgency at all and seem content to give the background details that feel relevant to their current situation. But others aren’t really sure how to begin, and they need some scaffolding.

So these next few blog posts will be for those folks, the unmoored among us. With that population in mind, I will share some approaches that provide clients with structure and get the therapy ball rolling. In particular, I will discuss the importance of exploring a client’s first memory, gathering a personal history, and creating a genogram (a type of family tree). I don’t necessarily do all of these things in the initial sessions. Nor do I execute them in a particular order. But since it’s the beginning of the beginning, an exercise on first memories seems like a good place to start this series of posts.

Not to mention that memories in general are fascinating. I’m sure that yours are no exception. Find out for yourself here. But first make sure you’ve read the disclaimer.

Welcome to Free Therapy

If you’ve never tried psychotherapy but would like to get a better sense of what it’s like, this Free Therapy blog is for you. It’s also for you if you’re in therapy already and would like a little supplement. But first, the formalities:

Disclaimer

I have named this blog Free Therapy while playing it fast and loose with the word “therapy.” I’m not suggesting that whatever you read here will count as actual therapy, because, in my opinion, real psychotherapy can only take place between/amongst people who are sitting in the same room at the same time. Reading can be therapeutic, yes. But it can never fill in for real-deal psychotherapy.

Nor can the topics I address here ever fully convey the most important element of therapy: the relationship between therapist and client. When I write about the initial sessions, for instances, I never mention rapport. But building rapport is the most important aspect of these sessions, and it assumes a different face with everyone who walks through my door.

Furthermore, you will not find much advice in this blog, not a lot of tips or tools. The countless other online resources already in existence would make such an offering redundant. Nor am I here to provide answers (at least not many). Rather, I am here to ask questions, because you, dear reader, are the expert. If any of my questions cause you discomfort, it is your responsibility to stop reading and do whatever will help you feel more grounded and supported. But hopefully the questions you encounter here will serve their intended purpose: namely, to enhance self-knowledge, understanding, and acceptance. 

If you accept the limitations of this approach to therapeutic inquiry, begin your exploration here.