The taste of grandma’s cake or the words of a once-popular hit playing on the radio can instantly take us back to our childhood. How can memories come in handy in adulthood? And why does memory hide certain episodes from the past?
Every one of us, from time to time, feels the need to return to childhood. By touching it, we rediscover forgotten feelings: lightness and serenity in our attitude towards life, sincerity and spontaneity in our actions, pure joy or genuine sadness in the feelings that overwhelm us. Looking at the world through the eyes of the child we once were, it is as if we are awakened from a long sleep.
ASSOCIATIONS EVOKE MEMORIES
Childhood comes back to us on the level of the senses: taste, touch, smell. A piece of biscuit cake allowed the hero of Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time to feel again the serene happiness forgotten long ago.
“The taste of Madeleine cake is a classic example of how a small detail, a fleeting sensation triggers a chain of earliest childhood memories,” says psychotherapist Margarita Jamkochian. – And we all have our own memories that can turn us back into children again”.
For Inna, 29, it is the smell of strong tobacco: “My grandfather smoked Belomor from morning till night, he was soaked in it. I still, smelling it, remember the summer, my grandparents’ house, how we used to splash ourselves with a hose in the sun, how we used to bake potatoes in the ash.
Anna, 40, smiles: “Every time I take a bite of sheep cheese, it’s like being at VDNH, in the Sheep Farming Pavilion. I used to love going there with my mother so much! When she, exhausted by the smell, tried to take me away, I would start crying bitterly.”
And 36-year-old Dmitry feels like a child when he hears Yuri Antonov’s once popular motif “Sea, sea…”: “In an instant, I go back to the summer when my brother and I were first brought to the beach: that song was playing all day long from the loudspeakers there. The sea was cold, parents didn’t allow children to swim for a long time, but our mother said we were hardy and we could. My brother and I used to spend hours in the water and we were probably the happiest kids in the whole resort.
When we feel like children again, we experience moments of happiness that don’t seem to belong to us anymore, but they give us a special feeling that we want to keep forever.
MEMORIES FROM THE PAST ARE THE KEY TO THE PRESENT
Every childhood memory, no matter how trivial it may seem to another person, is surprisingly important to us. Why is the power of these brief moments, which we don’t know why, so strong in our memories?
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed that childhood memories provide insight into adult behaviour. He called the child the father of the adult.
His disciple, the Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, used the analysis of early memories to recreate his patients’ individual life histories
“There are no accidental memories,” wrote Adler in What Life Should Mean To You, “out of the innumerable impressions that fall to a man, he chooses to remember only those which, though vaguely, he feels are related to his present situation.
“Adler believed that when our lifestyle changes, memories change as well: other stories from our childhood come to us, we interpret the incidents we remember differently,” explains psychotherapist Elena Sidorenko. By reflecting on them, we gain the opportunity to look at ourselves from the outside, to realise the regularity and continuity of everything that happens to us and, thanks to this, to influence our future.
“When we remember, we look for the source of our personal strength in those distant events and experiences,” says psychotherapist Margarita Jamkochian. – We turn to childhood, as if to warn and comfort ourselves, because it is at an early age that enormous resources are hidden. And the amazing thing is that by remembering, we can give them back to ourselves.
SPONTANEITY OR INFANTILISM?
Watching a grown man play football with the boys, many people think, “What childishness!” When an elderly lady, listening to street musicians, suddenly throws off her cloak and begins to dance with a respectable companion, we smile: “What spontaneity!” But if this kind of behaviour is repeated over and over again, we feel annoyed: “What infantilism!
“Every adult wants to be a child sometimes,” explains psychotherapist Viktor Makarov. – We behave childishly, we fool around, but then we fix our tie – and go to the office! Returning to the familiar way of life, we act as adults: we allow ourselves to be different. But an infantile person is always the same.
“A psychologically mature person is able to express his or her feelings directly, but also to keep promises and be responsible for the decisions made. An infantile person cannot do this,” agrees family therapist Inna Khamitova.
Infantilism has many faces: irresponsibility, self-centredness, dependence on others, unwillingness to deny oneself pleasures, inability to make decisions independently
The infantile person believes that there is always someone in the world who will solve their problems: a husband or a wife, a boss or the state. In fact, he simply refuses to grow up, and this is not the same as a genuine return to the vibrancy of the early years of life.
The most recognisable example of this behaviour is Peter Pan, the boy who chose not to become an adult. It is essentially a tragic character. Despite the charm of the character, he reminds us that there is no other path to personal development but adulthood – from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to maturity. It is a sad life for those who are left on the eternal “mooring” of one of the early stages of their life, denying themselves the right to know what comes next.
WHY WE TEND TO FORGET CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES
Many modern psychotherapy schools help to look for the causes of adult problems in early childhood. But it is difficult to go down this road… without labour and doubt. Even when working with a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist, some of us never manage to retrieve childhood memories from the depths of our memories.
“Looking into ourselves is difficult because it is scary: after all, childhood makes us not only experience moments of happiness, but also suffering, feeling small again, defenceless or rejected,” explains existential psychotherapist Svetlana Krivtsova. – Therefore, many people prefer to forget about their childhood, but along with difficult memories, they reject childhood lightness, spontaneity, a vivid sense of life.
Psychoanalyst Tatyana Alavidze confirms: “In adolescence, some are in a hurry to become adults, they are ashamed of any manifestations of childishness: they do not dare to fool around, play, express their feelings. By suppressing the child in himself, the young man tries to reinforce a sense of his own importance – in fact, he is not sure that he is an adult, he is afraid to “compromise” themselves with childish deeds and dreams. But even as they grow up, they often continue to behave in the same way.
The consequences of such behaviour are often dramatic, especially when we become parents ourselves
Receiving attention and support from the adult we have become today, our childhood gives us in return its invaluable qualities: clarity of feeling, serenity of soul, ability to fantasise, play and create. It is not only psychotherapy that teaches us to return from time to time to the child living in us, to communicate with him or her – everyone of us has this opportunity. It is in our interest to use it to make our lives more fulfilling, harmonious, creative and truly alive.