Freud reported that his free associating patients occasionally experienced
such an emotionally intense and vivid memory that they almost relived the
experience. This is like a "flashback" from a war or a rape experience. Such a
stressful memory, so real it feels like it is happening again, is called an
abreaction. If such a disturbing memory occurred in therapy or with a
supportive friend and one felt better--relieved or cleansed--later, it would be
called a catharsis. Frequently, these intensely emotional experiences provided
Freud a valuable insight into the patient's problems. That isn't surprising, e.g.
if a woman who abhors all flirtatious and sexual activity suddenly remembers
(with intense crying) being brutally raped when she was 8 by her older
brother, it would be impossible to deny that there is a possible connection
between the rape and her current attitude towards sex. Freud saw his
patients have these kinds of emotional memories and then feel better (and
eventually act differently sexually). Hence, the theory that repressed
traumatic experiences cause neurosis. And the advice: uncover the trauma.
The idea that painful, abusive experiences need to be uncovered
(remembered) before treatment can progress is not just an old notion; most
therapists today believe uncovering such memories is at least moderately
helpful. The detailed procedures (and the safe-guards) for catharsis or
venting or discharging emotions are given in method #8 of chapter 12. Be
cautious when dealing with any strong emotion. And, be skeptical of any
traumatic memory, especially if it is recovered in a way (books, therapy or
groups) or under conditions that might be suggestive (see warning about
psychological readings given above).
Over 50 years ago, Alfred Adler (1931) wrote that our earliest memories
give us insight into our "life-style," i.e. they represent "the story of my life."
This is because our earliest memories reflect our original view of life. Our life-
style has three parts: (1) Beliefs: What am I like? What are others like? What
is the world like? (2) Motivation: What do I want? What do I expect? What is
my place? Our goals are unique and based on the meaning we give to life. (3)
Choice: How to reach my life goals (or how to stay in my place)?
Very often we don't change very much between ages 2 or 3 and 20... or
60, perhaps because our 2 or 3-year-old self still lives within us. Our beliefs,
motives, and choices as a 3-year-old may still be operating inside us quite
unconsciously. The purpose of this method is to see if you are still behaving
and emoting according to the basic beliefs and motivations you had as a child.
A recent book may help you understand your childhood memories (Leman
and Carlson, 1989). They say that the earliest memory is an accurate picture
of you as you really are today. For example, if your earliest memory is about
messing up or being criticized, then you may still feel insecure (afraid of
messing up again). This fear may cause you to be too scared to try to
succeed or to be an anxious perfectionist to try to avoid failure. Your early
memory reflects the central insecure aspect of your personality and how you
try to cope with the insecurity. If you believe others are always trying to