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Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

When a pleasant early childhood memory turns unpleasant

In the narration of particular early childhood memories, there is a marked emotional shift that may be revealing of an individual's personality. The most common change involves expressions of pleasant to unpleasant feelings during the recounting an early recollection as a projective technique. In these instances, a remembrance begins on a positive note and concludes in a negative way. Because an initial recollection suggests hints about a person's outlook on life, what sense can be made of a memory that begins and ends on opposite ends of an emotional pole?

One possible explanation is that the shift in feelings represents a familiar pattern in the everyday life on the individual. Typically, this involves hopeful experiences being intruded upon by an anticipation of unfavorable situations. A sense of anxiety or apprehension emerges for the person in the direction of "waiting for the other shoe to drop."

As an example of an emotionally modulating early recollection, Sam, a recently retired attorney, related a memory from a time when he was 6 years old. " I remember my mother saying to me, 'You're a big boy now, and I want you to go to the store for me.' She put a shoe in a bag and asked me to bring it to the cobbler to be fixed. My mother then put two quarters in my pocket. The shop was only a couple of blocks from where we lived, and I felt special to be going to the store on my own. When the man fixed the shoe, he said, 'You don't have to pay me. Go buy yourself an ice cream cone.' I then went to the drug store and bought a cone. When I got home, I told my mother what happened and gave her two dimes back. She got angry and said that I should not have spent the money on something so foolish. I felt so bad for being selfish. Immediately, I realized how much things cost. Money was tight."

Thematically, the importance of not wasting money is evident in Sam's remembrance. He blames himself for being insensitive to his family's financial needs. At the same time, a broader perspective points to Sam's recollection involving an emotional shift. At the start of the memory, Sam feels proud of himself as he strolls down to the cobbler shop. However, as the remembrance concludes he experiences harsh negative feelings.

With respect to Sam's daily existence, he frequently enjoys special moments that are life-enhancing and enriching. These occasions are emotionally uplifting and often involve simple events, such as listening to a favorite song on the radio or taking a walk. At the same time, Sam periodically experiences a sense of foreboding that positive situations will not last. For Sam, and others like him, the anticipation of events devolving in a negative direction evokes feelings of anxiety. After all, in Sam's view, bad things, such as a loss of a job, terrible weather, or whatever can and do happen. In tangible ways, the possibility of a negative turn of events diminishes the enjoyment of pleasant feelings in the moment.

An interesting perspective, however, emerged when Sam was asked, "What part do you remember most in the memory?" He stated, "The special feeling I had when walking to the store all by myself." His response points to a prominent theme in his early recollection of appreciating particular events and occasions. As a reflection of his outlook on life, Sam has a capacity to resonate with these positive moments. However, for Sam, and other people who experience similar responses, the challenge is to address the negative trends in thinking that tend to jeopardize pleasure in the here-and-now.

There is no logical reason to believe that events frequently end in unpleasant ways. After all, about 85 percent of things that people worry about never happen. Although deep convictions of life do not yield easily to change, with determination and support, reducing an anticipation of negative situations is possible. Observing how often pleasant events seem to conclude in unpleasant terms is one way to measure faulty thinking. A particular technique, "Catching Oneself," may also be helpful. When Sam becomes aware of feelings of anxiety when enjoying an event, he touches his shoe to remind himself that a satisfying experience does not have to end in stressful or negative ways.

For some, however, ingrained patterns of a shift in thought to anxiety-laden situations may be entrenched to the point where change is particularly difficult. In these instances, counseling may be needed to understand and come to terms with this pattern that can take the joy out of pleasant moments of life.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop is not inevitable. Yet, the human potential to enjoy and appreciate life's precious times can be challenged by feelings of "What next?" At the same time, means do exist that enable an individual to try to hold on to the shoe and not let it drop.