Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Early Recollections and Empathic Use of Self

A key to understanding the first memories of life.

Key points

  • An empathic use of self facilitates an understanding of a person's early recollections.
  • An empathic use of self contributes to developing a relationship with an individual.
  • Early recollections are possible to understand through an experiential and reasoning process.
Source: morgenstimmung-jpg

One of the best ways to understand the meaning of an individual's first memories of life is to use oneself empathically. By engaging one's imagination, intuition, and other capacities, experiential and reasoning processes contribute to grasping what it is like to be another person for a momentary period of time. In the minute or so that it takes to listen to an early recollection, an empathic use of self connects with the lived experience of an individual through a brief story.

Paul, a 75-year-old, retired operations research analyst, shared a first memory with me. "When I was two or three years old, my mother put me in a big, black, baby carriage. We were living in a rented house down the street from where my mother grew up. I was lying in the carriage. One day, I decided to get out of the carriage and put my legs over the side. I figured that I could do it. And I could. As soon as I hit the yard, I had feelings of pride and terror. My first instinct was to find my mother. I was looking for stairs, and I found them on the other side of the house. I started climbing up on my knees. I decided we didn't live there and climbed up to the third floor. I saw a door stop with an image of a cat and started to cry. My mother was shocked. I was relieved to be back in her care and control."

After rendering the early recollection, I asked Paul if there was anything else that he could recall in the memory, and he said, "The door stop was cast iron." Identifying the most important part of the memory, Paul stated, "The sense of freedom was exhilarating, but immediately frightening. I didn't know what to do with the freedom." At that point, he related, " I felt torn between pride in figuring out something and a sense of helplessness in what to do next."

When reading Paul's first memory and his responses to the follow-up questions, it is likely that you experienced similar reactions that I had when listening to his remembrance in person. Immediately, I identified with the task of trying to figure something out that is difficult and becoming even more challenging. From an imaginative posture, I readily visualized Paul in the baby carriage, climbing out, crawling up the stairs, seeing the cat image on the door stop, and finally finding his mother. Intuitively, I sensed that Paul's perseverance would lead to a positive result. At the same time, I was aware of his feelings of pride and fright in the journey. As another internal reaction, I physically felt an escalating tension in my body as Paul ascended the stairs.

From an interpersonal empathy perspective, I was able to observe Paul's nonverbal and verbal behavior, and detected feelings of pride and distress in his face and vocal tone. As a reader, you did not have this opportunity to pick up these revealing communications. From an objective empathy position, I am also familiar with early recollection research that suggests a problem-solving orientation of scientists in the first memories of life. Further, from an existential tradition, the life conditions of freedom and responsibility seemed relevant as I listened to Paul's remembrance. From the literature on early recollections, Paul's memory indicates heightened personality dimensions of degree of activity, social interest, self-efficacy, and conscientiousness. With respect to optimism/pessimism, Paul is ambivalent, but the resolution of his first memory points to positive expectations in an ultimate sense.

We all have the potential to engage experiential and reasoning capacities in ways that serve to enrich our connection with other people and grasp their ways of being. This is an empathic use of self.


In Empathy and Mental Health: An Integral Model for Developing Therapeutic Skills in Counseling and Psychotherapy (2023, New York, Routledge), I discuss an empathic use of self in more depth relating to early recollections and understanding a person.

More from Arthur J. Clark Ed.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Arthur J. Clark Ed.D.
More from Psychology Today