Repetition compulsion

  • Why do we repeat the same mistakes?  Why do we keep doing things when we don’t get a different outcome?
  • We all develop patterns that have become ingrained.  How do we find a way out of them?

The past exerts a powerful impact upon us, we just might not know it.

When Freud worked on the idea of the repetition compulsion he hypothesised that we repeat things because we are still trying to find a way to master the problems we are grappling with. 

For Freud, who had a particular interest in infant sexuality, this becomes drawn to a question of an unconscious element that seeks gratification, and hooks us into the repetition.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that we seek the comfort of familiar and predictable things.  But while some repetitions are benign and harmless and perhaps even make us feel better.  Others, such as the destructive use of drink and drugs, or risky and impulsive sexual behaviour, or gambling can put our lives and relationships at risk.  

One question is whether the things we are drawn to repeat have a normal or pathological intensity to them? Anything that we might say has a pathological intensity, may reflect a wish to repeat a disturbing experience. 

Psychotherapy and the Repetition Compulsion

One of the things we find out about in psychotherapy is the way in which we can become hooked on doing things that are not good for us. 

A client might come to therapy with the stated intention of finding a way to break a negative habit, but often what becomes evident in the therapy is the client’s enduring desire to repeat the problem rather than stop it.

It is one thing saying we want to break a bad habit, but it is another thing to actually do so.

In ancient Greek tragedy, the problem of repetition was linked to an individual’s destiny.  So in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus and his birth family would seem to do everything they can to avoid his tragic destiny. But in the end they fail.

In psychotherapy, we try to untangle the sense a client may unconsciously have of being bound to certain types of pathological repetitive behaviour. We try to assist the client in avoiding a negative destiny.

‘If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up’

Stephen Hawking

Psychotherapy and the Failures of the Past

‘When I meet up with my father I can never find a way to change the way our conversations repeatedly circle around the same problems.  It is very strange but as soon as we are together I find myself feeling restricted.  There is no possibility of me expressing myself freely.  Very quickly I lose access to my creativity and spontaneity.  It is depressing and it never changes.  I don’t know how to break the pattern.’

Anonymous client

One of the criticisms of psychoanalysis is that it can encourage a repetitive focus on the failures of the past.  We have to be careful that we don’t force someone to look again and again at their pain, at their old traumatic injuries. Psychotherapy doesn’t have to be endlessly backward looking. 

With care, it becomes possible to help clients find a way to move beyond their repetition compulsions and to see what alternatives might be available.

When Repetition Compulsions block Spontaneity

In psychotherapy and counselling we try to find ways to reflect on how the therapeutic relationship develops.  We do this because if we can understand the limiting repetitions that occur in the therapy, we may be able to use our insights; to change the way the therapy develops. This creates opportunities to see how a client might change the pattern of behaviour or relationship within their other relationships.

Repeating, Remembering and Working Through

One of Freud’s insights was that certain traumatic experiences are too overwhelming to be thought about.  Instead, Freud suggested that we find ourselves caught up in unhealthy and obscure repetitions that are based on those experiences.  For Freud these ideas became linked, in his work, to the death drive.

  • We don’t know why we are compelled to behave in reckless and impulsive ways but we do.

In Freud’s work on this subject, the repetition compulsion was seen as part of the instinctive life of the client.  After Freud, there was much more interest placed upon the importance of the clients’ early relationships in shaping patterns of negative repetition.  But however theories change, adapt, and are modernised, we still see vital questions in Freud’s work.

Freud asked himself; why was it that his clients failed to get better despite the insights and information that was developed in the therapy relationship.

This remains a fundamental question in psychotherapy and counselling.

‘After my mother died there was a massive reluctance in my family to speak about it.  I found that without talking about it I became trapped in a negative cycle, it was like a downward spiral.  And I think that because I couldn’t speak about it I started acting in negative and destructive ways.  My education fell apart, I was in trouble all the time.  Looking back on it now I think that all of the destructive impulsive behaviour was my way of attempting to be heard and seen.’

Anonymous client

Speaking about our Repetition Compulsions

For a lot of people just having a preliminary psychotherapy conversation or assessment can be transformational.  The act of being able to speak in confidence, to go over the repetitive problems that have brought you, to see the context of where your problems first started to develop can in itself provide a powerful window of insight.

Speaking, instead of compulsively repeating, provides an opportunity to think symbolically about how we live.  Instead of the forced cul de sac of endless negative repetitions, we might start to find a way to come out from the negativity of our pasts.

Contact me

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often key to developing a genuine sense of personal freedom.  The chance to reflect on how you are living, negative repetitions and all can be powerful and transformative.  Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how your problems have developed,  of what it is you are repeatedly attempting to put right.  And of what you can do to change the way your life develops.

I have been working with people on issues such as this for more than twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.

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