Empathy and Early Recollections: A Match That Works

Understanding the first memories of life through three empathic steps.

Posted Jun 26, 2020

 Jamie Decas/Unsplash
Source: Jamie Decas/Unsplash

Grasping the meaning of an early recollection of a person involves momentarily experiencing what it is like to be the individual. When listening to a remembrance, it is possible to engage three empathic postures in order to make sense of the memory. First, allow the recollection to resonate internally. Second, attune to verbal and nonverbal communications. Third, draw from personal experiences of listening to previous memories from others, and from learning about early recollections.

In an example involving the empathic steps, Harold, a 40-year-old teaching assistant related the following: "I remember being with my father sitting in the front seat of a car and he kept trying to start the engine. When he turned the key, it made a grinding sound over and over. All of a sudden, he started yelling and swearing and hitting the steering wheel. It was very scary." When asked, "Is there anything else that you can recall in the memory?" Harold responded, "I think that I was about 5 years old."

The first empathy step occurs internally when listening to Harold's first memory. Most people are able to identify through experience with Harold in feeling frightened in an out-of-control situation. Imagining Harold as a little boy sitting near his father as he shouts and shakes the steering wheel of the vehicle likely comes readily to mind. Visual features of the car's interior may also be apparent. An intuitive response possibly surfaces relating to the importance of the memory to Harold, and a physical reaction, such as a bodily tension, may be evoked.

The second empathy step involves the interpersonal exchange in hearing and visually observing Harold as he relates his remembrance. On a verbal level, the content of a recollection yields a theme and details to consider. The volume and feeling tone of Harold's words are also important. From a nonverbal stance, observing Harold's tension-laden face and body contributes to understanding the memory.

The third empathic step relates to previous opportunities of listening to early recollections of other people. A stock of impressions builds when engaging the memories. As with Harold, passively experiencing a frightening or distressful memory is somewhat infrequent in the content of early recollections. There is also a vast amount of literature and readings relating to the projective technique since its introduction by Alfred Adler over 100 years ago.

In Harold's remembrance, he perceives himself as vulnerable and fearful, others are volatile, events are unpredictable, and life is insecure and potentially threatening. Empathically understanding Harold through this memory and in his day-to-day existence enables a person to grasp what it is like to be him in his life's journey.

Today, empathy in our world is more important than ever for understanding others. The same process relating to empathic understanding of early recollections is possible to apply in everyday life and in therapeutic contexts (Clark & Butler, 2020).


Clark, A. J. & Butler, C. M. (2020). Empathy: An integral model in clinical social work. Social Work, 65, 169-177.