The Role of Early Recollections in Career Counseling

By Keley Smith-Keller

Narrative therapy's approach - to help clients express significant stories related to life themes - has its roots in the Early Recollection of Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology. The early recollection is a basic tenet of Individual Psychology: clients' early recollections often tell a great deal about the underlying direction and purpose of an individual's behavior and life outlook. Storied approaches are gaining ground in the world of career counseling. The recent 2007 annual conference of the National Career Development Association lends proof: no fewer than four sessions or round tables included or mentioned this topic.


One of the great advantages of using a client's early life recollections is that they are easily accessible and economical. Clients are not asked to respond to a specific stimulus, as you might find with other projective techniques. But, to me as a career counselor, one of the greatest benefits of asking a client to tell their stories is that the client can feel heard and understood by the counselor.

How to Use Early Recollections with Individuals

There are several ways to gather a client's early recollections for career counseling purposes. The following is just one suggested approach.

  1. Let your client know that you will be recording information on paper for this part of the process. It is important to gather a client's story as accurately as possible. I tend to be as "face-valid" as possible with clients when I use this technique. I tell them that their stories can give both of us important information about key themes for the client.
  2. I might begin with a prompt like this: "What I'd like you to do is think back as far as you can remember, preferably before age eight or so, and tell me about an early memory of an event in your life. Be as specific as possible and tell me all of the details that you remember."
  3. Write down the client's story verbatim. Don't ask for clarifying information at this time.
  4. When the client has finished, I ask the client - if it is not evident or volunteered - to describe a predominant feeling from the story s/he is telling. I also ask clients to provide a title or headline for their early recollection.
  5. I may also ask my client to pretend s/he has a camera and is able to take a photo of this early recollection. I ask the client to tell me what might be in the photograph and if this picture provides any different feelings.
  6. Most counselors who use early recollections suggest gathering at least three early memories. I follow this guideline as well. I may ask for more than three if it's difficult to gather a general theme from just three.

How to Process Early Recollections

Interpreting early recollections takes practice and guidance. In addition, every counselor has his/her own way of working through these early memories with clients. As a career counselor, my frame of reference centers on how the client's themes from early recollections might affect career planning. In general:

  • Look for recurring themes and feelings.
  • Pay attention to the amount of detail; this might give clues to the importance of sequence, details and order. In addition, note the people in the client's story - both those present and those NOT present.
  • Approach interpretation tentatively. I often ask "I wonder if..." questions to test out how a client's story might be interacting with present reality. For example, if conflict is a major theme in early recollections, I might wonder, with the client, how conflict is a part of the client's current job search or career decision-making.

Early Recollections in Career Classes

I have also used early recollections as a group activity in the career exploration class I teach at a mid-sized university. This process can be a meaningful group activity, but there are important ethical guidelines in using this activity with groups:

  • Explain to students why early recollections are gathered. Tell students that their stories may provide listeners with personal information about students' lives that they may not want to share. No one is ever required to participate. I also talk about limits of confidentiality in classroom settings.
  • Giving credit to Mark Savickas, I often use this activity with Savickas' Career Styles Interview Questions. This set of questions asks students/clients to provide data about early heroes (not family members), favorite subjects, mottoes or favorite sayings, and favorite media. Student listeners can often peg major themes operating with their fellow classmates when volunteers also provide data on their favorite heroes.
  • In lieu of asking for students to provide interpretations, I often ask them what headlines they might write for a volunteer's story.


Early recollections provide clients and students with an opportunity to narrate important themes from early life that can add richness to the client-counselor experience. The interpretation of early recollections can take practice; counselors are on safe ground always checking with a client's view of the story by asking "wondering" questions. Good resources for further study can be found from a variety of sources. While not necessarily narrative in nature, I have found the Journal of Individual Psychology an excellent resource for further study. The article referenced below, for example, focuses on Adler's use of early recollections and the parallels with narrative therapy.


Hester, R.L. (2004). Early memory and narrative therapy. Individual Psychology, 60(4), 338-347.

Savickas, M. (2006). Career as story. Presentation at the spring conference of the Ohio Career Development Association, Wooster, OH.



Keley Smith-Keller, Ed.D., is the director of the Career  Development Center at Northern  Kentucky University. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education, where she teaches the graduate-level career theories course. In addition, she teaches an undergraduate career exploration course. Smith-Keller received her bachelor's degree in English from Iowa State University. She earned her master's degree in Counseling and her doctorate in Adult and Higher Education, both from The University of South Dakota. Smith-Keller is a licensed professional clinical counselor and a master career counselor. 

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