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Body Language

How Body Language Matters in Interpreting Early Recollections

Nonverbal communication conveys the meaning of first memories of life.

Key points

  • Observations of a person's nonverbal behavior contribute to empathically understanding the individual.
  • Face-to-face engagement is essential in the rendering and interpretation of early recollections.
  • The experiencing of listening to an early recollection involves the subjective capacity of empathy.

Recently, I was asked to interpret the meaning of an individual's early recollection over the telephone. Caroline*, a 35-year-old licensed mental health counselor, lives across the country from me, and we did not have an opportunity to arrange a video conference. Only after Caroline related a first memory of life, however, did I realize that something was missing from my ability to make sense of her remembrance. What I missed was my observation of Caroline's body language or her nonverbal communication. Specific body channels focusing on her face, eyes, and hand and arm gestures that convey emotions were not observable as Caroline shared her early recollection.

Here is Caroline's first memory:

I have a pretty vivid memory. I was probably about 4-years-old, and we were in the first house where I lived. It was nighttime, and I was in my bedroom across from my brother's room. His door was open, and I could see that he had a cold and was not feeling well. My parents brought him vanilla ice cream, and I was shocked. I could not believe that he was getting ice cream when he was sick and I was not getting any ice cream at all. So, I decided that I was sick, and grabbed a bunch of tissues and pretended to blow my nose as if I were sick. I filled a garbage can full of fake tissues. I think that I remember that my parents possibly noticed, and kind of disregarded it and went downstairs.

The most important part of the memory for Caroline was, "I remember feeling as though there was an extreme injustice against me (laughing)." Her feelings at that point were: "Lonely."

New Africa/Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/Shutterstock

The memory could possibly be interpreted such that Caroline was not concerned about her brother, and that she was being selfish in wanting the ice cream. Intuitively, however, this meaning did not resonate with me as a conviction of her life. In particular, Caroline's voice was more determined than self-serving, and her laughing after stating "extreme injustice" took something away from the urgency of the words. What the memory says to me is that, in life, Caroline goes to considerable lengths to be recognized and not to be overlooked. In this sense, the remembrance reflects a lesson learned not to wait for others to be in a position to bypass her, but, instead, to do what is necessary to be noticed on her own account.

After Caroline shared her early recollection, I discussed my view of the memory. She said that it made sense, as she tries to "get things just right or be perfect." Caroline related that she tends to be hypervigilant, and strives to stay two steps ahead of others by predicting any obstacles or issues that might arise. In this way, Caroline receives recognition for exemplary behavior and avoids being in a position to wait for others to fail to notice or overlook her. She does this in a persistent and determined way that brings attention to her competence and reliability.

What I also learned from Caroline's early memory is the importance of being with a person face-to-face, and using all sensory capacities to make sense of a remembrance. Years ago, while attending a workshop on early recollections, the speaker suggested closing one's eyes while listening to an individual's memory. I wasn't sure about the guideline then, but I know now that it is not a good idea. Nonverbal expressions matter in communication and in interpreting the first memories of life.

More from Arthur J. Clark Ed.D.
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