Looking Back to Move Forward: How Early Memories Offer Insight into the Present

vector picture showing a woman choosing between different types of mindsets: scared, sad, or happy

September 19, 2023

What does a memory from when you were 4 have to do with your current struggle to make your voice heard in a group? How is a recollection from a random school play influencing your crippling fear of saying something wrong in public? This article explores early memories and what they could mean to you.

What is an early memory?

An early memory is a story of a specific event that occurred for a person before the age of 10. It usually starts with something like “Oh, I remember this one time when…” or “I specifically remember….”. It differs from what Adlerian psychology calls a report, which is a generalisation of an occurrence. For example, saying “My family used to go to Scotland every summer” would be a report. Saying “One time when I was 6 and I was in the car with my family going to Scotland, this happened” would be an example of an early memory. These memories can vary from long, detailed accounts to a short, one-image recollection. 

It is critical to mention that early memories are incidents before the age of 10 because this is the age at which people fully develop the ability to record actions and perceptions in chronological order.

Why are early memories important?

When we try to remember things from before we were 10, we will inevitably inject our own biases of what we think of the world at an unconscious level. That is what I call in my work “private logic”: the set of beliefs we have developed from early childhood about us, others, and the world, and what we must do to strive in it. We remember and forget with a purpose, albeit hidden from our awareness. That means that what we end up remembering is a nutshell summary of our basic convictions, so we move in the world in such a way that reinforces those persuasions.

These memories are so personal and subjective, that the same story can likely be told dramatically differently by someone else. Or it could be that the memory never happened in reality, but we chose to keep it in our mind as a guide for present-day behaviour.

What to look out for in an early memory?

Several details turn the early memory into a repository of someone’s worldviews. 

  • Who is involved in the memory? The absence/presence of other people in an early memory is an important indicator of the image we created about cooperating with others. The way we position ourselves concerning those other people is relevant: are we in a competition? Are we trying to please everyone? Are we commanding over others? 
  • Movement in the memory. The patterns of movement in an early recollection can depict the way we are moving through present life. Some cues to help interpret the movement in a memory are: who makes the first move? Who stands still? Is there movement towards, away from, or against others? 
  • “Good” or “bad” memory? Usually, the recollection of a very pleasant memory can indicate an idealised version of how life “should be”. We choose to remember patterns and dynamics that justify what our idea of a safe, holding environment is. For example, if in our “good” memory there’s always someone comforting us when we hurt ourselves, we might react quite strongly in the present when there’s no one in our lives to reach out to for comfort. Alternatively, a “bad” memory can signify an idea of how life should/must not be. A recollection of being embarrassed in front of ridiculing children can enforce a strong sense of having to be strong or get even to find the one-up position.

Still foggy? Worked example

Let’s look at an early memory I have since I was 7 or 8. I’ll go through this memory like I do it with clients. You will see a bit of an interpretation of the memory, as well as some key pieces of information:

  • Focus of the memory: if the memory were a YouTube clip, and I could hit the pause button at any point, what would that moment be? The focus usually indicates the most sensitive point out of the entire recollection.
  • Feeling: the feeling associated with the focus and the reason why that feeling was chosen
  • Title: if I could give the focus a newspaper title, what would it say? Giving a title helps make sense of the mindset we associate with the memory. It gently brings it into our awareness. 

Early memory:

I am on my patio and I’m trying to create a basket out of dried corn leaves for an arts and crafts project at school. I am struggling to build up from the bottom of the basket to the sides, and I am upset. My dad comes and jokingly says “What’s this frying pan you’re doing?” and leaves. I start crying. 

Focus: Dad calling my basket a frying pan

Feeling: sadness & frustration, Because: I wanted him to appreciate my efforts

Title: Basket, not frying pan

Interpretation: Although seemingly insignificant, the memory shows that I find it disheartening when my efforts are not appreciated. This showed up in my work many years later. All it took was a manager to seem unaware of the amount of work I put into something to send me down a discouraged spiral. The sadness would get topped up with frustration, which would cause a rift in the working relationship. It was my way of showing that my efforts matter and they deserve to be seen! I also found others quick to analyse what I do, and more importantly quick to make fun of my work, therefore I understood that I must produce nothing less than perfection to get praise. 

What next?

Gaining the clarity and insight is not enough to instigate change. What did I do with this memory to help me shift my view and try new behaviours? 

Firstly, I looked for strengths in the memory. I saw how conscientious I was when I was trying to create the most beautiful basket. I remarked how keen I was to make something useful. I was focusing on the sadness and the frustration without realising I wasn’t allowing any space to let these lovely things come to the fore. I became more concentrated on the process than the result. 

Secondly, I rewrote the memory. The new version started just the same, but when I was told, “What’s this frying pan you’re doing?” I no longer become upset and cry. I keep my gaze on weaving those corn leaves. In this reimagined memory, I finish the imperfect basket and bring it to class. So now I no longer let my interpretations sidetrack me – I stay on task and present it at the end, knowing that it can always be improved. And that is okay. 

Final thoughts

See how powerful early memories are? I had the chance to witness monumental aha moments with clients whilst working on early memory-inspired beliefs. 

Try it for yourself. Write down the first recollection of a particular incident that took place before you were 10. Use this printable PDF to help you remember the sections. Take all the elements of the memory in, and see what beliefs come up for you. Let me know what you discovered – I would love to find out.

If you want to work together to map a system of beliefs based on your early memories, let’s talk! We will collaborate to find all those pieces of the puzzle and more! Get in touch to book a discovery call – we can turn your memories into strengths and resources! 


  1. Harold Mosak, Roger Di Pietro. Early Recollections: Interpretative Method and Application: Interpretive Method and Application. Find it here
  2. Robert L Powers, Jane Griffith. The Key to Psychotherapy: Understanding the Self-Created Individual. Find it here