Adlerian Early Recollections: Application to the Client

Frequently, I hear professionals and students discussing Adlerian Early Recollections (ERs) as a tool.  Well, they are not a tool. To stay true to Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology, we should see Early Recollections as a unique window with a view of one’s pattern of life – a pattern that both a client and a therapist may jointly discover. Because of their strong ties to the ethics and therapeutic fundamentals of Individual Psychology, the significance of ERs can only be understood based on major Individual Psychological assumptions. 

Several of these assumptions, very briefly, are outlined here:     

  • Humans are socially embedded, and thus human nature is essentially relational. Human behavior occurs in a social context and is always socially (whether pro-socially or anti-socially) purposeful.  

  • Humans are goal-oriented (Adlerian principle of teleology), and our behavior is guided by a central theme, a “life line” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p.195). Goal-directedness makes human striving uniquely human.  That goal defines one’s unique (phenomenological) movement.  In therapy, it provides an understanding of a person, and so we will always seek to understand that goal. The major law of Adlerian psychology is a Law of Movement.

  • In that goal-oriented movement, humans seek sense of perfection and completeness (one’s personality can be seen as related to the degree to which we tolerate perceived incompleteness, imperfection and to a manner in which we cope with that incompleteness/imperfection while striving for completion and perfection). In Adlerian therapy, we often use a language of moving from “felt minus” to “perceived felt plus,” from a sense of inferiority to superiority. That striving is inherent in human nature, “[t]he impetus from minus to plus never ends (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p.103).”
  • Humans are subjective and live in a subjective reality built by fictions that they create and maintain (at any cost) – as if they were truth. All psychological processes form a self-consistent organization from the point of view of the goal.  This self-consistent personality structure is one’s Style of Life, within which we interpret experience, control experience, and predict experience - so we can move in line with that prediction (Shulman & Mosak, 1988).

  • Humans are guided in life by soft determinism.  Adler did not discount one’s heredity or environment, but placed an upmost importance on a person’s unique style of dealing with heredity and environment, of her or his way in solving challenges of what Adler called “iron logic of communal life (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p.127).”  

  • Humans have creative power of self, and should be seen, in Adler’s words, both as an artist and a painting. This is a core of how Adlerians see a possibility of change and how they view therapeutic process.  According to Adler, “there is only one reason for an individual to side-step to the useless side: the fear of the defeat on the useful side (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p.157).”

  • Because all behavior is purposeful, we seek purpose in symptoms too. Beliefs, emotions, symptoms, behaviors – are never random and are goal-directed.  In doing so, we (a therapist and a client together) watch for a character of client’s movement.  Adler reminded us that “life happens at the level of events, not of words (Ansbacher & Ansbacher,1956, p.195).”

  • Gemeinschaftsgefühl is a measure of one’s health, according to Adlerian psychology (Adler, 1964). In therapy, we will try to estimate one’s degree of Gemeinschaftsgefühl and will encourage a client to increase it, to bring it to an optimal level, holding high our optimistic belief in a client’s ability to solve life challenges in a most pro-social cooperative manner.  That optimistic attitude is a core of Adlerian ethics.

  • This is consistent with Adler’s definition of Gemeinschaftsgefühl (one’s ability to“see with the eyes of another, hear with the ears of another, and feel with the heart of another”) – human quality that is “not inborn but is an innate potentiality which has to be consciously developed (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p.134).”

  • In Adlerian psychology, cooperation is not only a contextual matter or a higher level aspiration.  The three life challenges that Adler saw as essential for human survival  (love/intimacy, work/occupation, and fellowship/friendship) can only be solved cooperatively (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, pp.131-133).

  • In a process of attaining a sense of perfection and completion, humans need a lot of courage.  The best of Adlerian courage is one’s willingness to risk imperfection in a process of self-perfecting.  We see lack of such courage, or discouragement, at the heart of pathology of all sorts – from minor neurosis to severe psychosis.  We also see the therapist’s discouragement as a core element in a non-working therapy and a source of therapeutic impasses. In my supervision practice, identifying moments of the therapist’s distress and viewing the therapist’s Lifestyle issues through these moments is a goal of case processing.  

  • From these assumptions, we view one’s maladjustment being characterized by increased inferiority feelings, underdeveloped social interest, and an exaggerated uncooperative goal of personal superiority. Accordingly, problems are solved in a self-centered “private sense” rather than an others-centered “common sense” fashion (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p.2).

  • In neurotic Lifestyle, we should see symptoms that are generated by a discouraged person following her or his attempt to measure self against the life tasks, concluding her or his own inferiority in relation to a subjectively measured complexity of a task, and then attempting to use symptoms to “solve” life challenges that to her or to him seem impassable.  So, the symptoms, subjectively, will serve as a barrier preventing a person from fulfilling the tasks of life. That complex dynamic is often accompanied by safeguarding tendencies and a dance of what Adlerians call hesitating attitude (yes-but; Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, Mosak, 1977, Shulman & Mosak, 1988).

  • The question is, “What is a window into one’s Lifestyle?” Because there are no random memories, and like other activities, memory is purposeful and helps one to move toward the ultimate goal, we believe, with Adler, that one’s entire Lifestyle resonates in that person’s Early Recollection (Mosak & Di Pietro, 2006).  Early Recollection is a snapshot of one’s life line.

  • Metaphorically, Early Recollection is a story of one’s life, a way to understand the client’s view of self, others, the world, and how one deals with life challenges on her or his way to a desired sense of perfection and completion – through purposeful remembering.  We selectively (purposefully) remember only those events from early childhood that are consistent with our present view of ourselves, the others, and the world (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1937; Clark, 2013).

  • Adler insisted that “if we have found the real law of movement in an individual’s recollections, we will find the same law confirmed in all his other forms of expression” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p.354).

  • Early Recollections are unique in that they paint more of one’s present and typical than of one’s past. Because the subjective meaning of early recollections are largely unknown to a person, they are less subject to the response distortions that we may see in common self-reports (Clark, 2013).

  • Cooperation is not only an essential ingredient in communal survival.  It is a prerequisite of a useful therapy.  Exploration of one’s ERs is a cooperative endeavor, aimed to unearth and clarify client’s convictions about self, others, and the world; to define the client’s view on therapeutic relationships in order to build an alliance; and to find client-generated metaphors that will start working immediately.

Marina Bluvshtein, Ph.D., L.P., M.A., LMFT, is an Adlerian therapist, supervisor, educator, and researcher with Adler Academy.  She presents nationally and internationally on a wide range of topics related to Adlerian history, theory, education, and clinical practice. Her latest publication (“Paris: Freud and Adler”, co-authored with V. Leibin in 2015) can be found in the Journal of Individual Psychology, 71(4), 399-414. With questions and for more Adlerian resources, she can be reached at [email protected] or at 763-464-4783. You may follow her on Twitter @Adleronline   


Adler, A. (1964). Superiority and Social Interest. New York: W.W.Norton & Company. 

Ansbacher, H.L. & Ansbacher, R.R. (1956). (Eds.). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A systematic presentation in selections from his writings. New York: Basic Books

Clark, A.J. (2013). Dawn of Memories: The meaning of Early Recollections in Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Mosak, H.H. & Di Pietro, R. (2006). Early Recollections: Interpretive method and applications. New York: Routledge.

Mosak, H.H. (1977). On Purpose: Collected papers of Harold H. Mosak. Chicago, IL: Adler School of Professional Psychology.

Shulman, B.H. & Mosak, H.H. (1988). Manual for Life Style Assessment. Muncie, IN: Accelerated Development.

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