Whether it’s repeatedly falling into the same relationship pattern (even with different partners), or continually making the same old mistakes, many of us often wonder ‘how did I get here again?’. Life is a spiral, not a straight path, in which we continually return to the same types of experience. But why don’t we simply avoid experiences we know will cause us pain? Roberta Satow offers reasons why we are destined to repeat ourselves.
Freud postulated three parts of the self: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is ruled by the pleasure principle which is the drive to attain pleasure. The ego is ruled by the reality principle which forces us to meet the desires of the id in ways that are safe and appropriate. The superego is composed of the conscience and the ego ideal. The conscience embodies the rules and standards we learned as children. When we go against them, we feel guilty. The ego ideal embodies the standards we aspire to as adults.
Freud said that this “compulsion to repeat” was more primitive, more elementary, and more instinctive than the pleasure principle
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud points out that the pleasure principle is modified by the reality principle of the ego, but without giving up the intention of eventually attaining pleasure. Pain is temporarily endured on the circuitous road to pleasure. But then Freud turns his attention to trying to explain the tendency for individuals to compulsively repeat painful experiences. He said that this “compulsion to repeat” was more primitive, more elementary, and more instinctive than the pleasure principle. Freud noticed patients’ compulsion to repeat in his psychoanalytic work as well as in the patients’ lives. His attempt to understand the repetition compulsion led him to the concept of the “death instinct,” which embodies aggressive, self-destructive, and self-defeating behaviors. These drives are in stark contrast to the “pleasure principle.” He pointed out that the repetition compulsion, unlike all other psychological phenomena he had studied, including masochism, was uninfluenced by the pleasure principle. When clearly unpleasant patterns of behavior are compulsively repeated, they are simply painful. For example, a woman may marry an alcoholic who is abusive when drunk and then divorce him and marry another alcoholic who is abusive when drunk. A man may marry a woman who has extra-marital affairs and then divorce her only to marry another woman who cheats on him.
The benefits of doing nothing Read more The concept of the repetition compulsion is at the core of the three principal lynchpins of the process of psychoanalysis and distinguish it from other forms of psychotherapy: transference, resistance and acting out. In psychoanalysis the analysis of the transference is the major tool for making the patient’s unconscious become conscious. The patient transfers his unconscious attitudes from childhood, which he does not remember, onto the analyst. He then experiences the analyst as if he is his father or mother or significant other from childhood and regresses to experience what it was like to interact with that person. Often the first dream the patient brings to the analyst is a foreshadowing of the dominant transference in the treatment. For example, my patient who I will call Connie, brought in a dream in the beginning weeks of our work together. The dream was:
I am standing in front of a pawn shop, but it is closed. I look through the window and I can see that there are beautiful things inside, but the door is locked.
Connie described the yearning she felt as she peered through the window in the dream. As the analysis unfolded, Connie’s experience of me was that I was withholding my private life from her, and she was constantly trying to pry details about me through manipulation or researching my professional activities. As time went on, we realized that this was her experience of her mother – that she withheld her feelings from Connie.
When projection is a dominant defense mechanism, it results in dysfunctional and painful relationships. For example, every time the person is hurt or disappointed by someone, he/she assumes the person wanted to hurt him
The second lynchpin of psychoanalysis is the analysis of resistance. Resistance to becoming aware of unconscious wishes and conflicts is a central aspect of the analytic process and involves the repetitive use of defense mechanisms. For example, projection is a defense mechanism by which what is inside is misunderstood as coming from the outside. In its benign version, projection is the basis for empathy; we assume we know how another person feels based on what we feel. However, in its malignant form, projection causes distortions of other people and often results in dangerous misunderstandings. What is projected is disowned feelings and negative parts of the self. Others resent being responded to as if they had negative motives and may withdraw or retaliate. Hence, when projection is a dominant defense mechanism, it results in dysfunctional and painful relationships. For example, every time the person is hurt or disappointed by someone, he/she assumes the person wanted to hurt him. When someone uses projection as his or her main way of experiencing the world, we say the person has a paranoid character.
In the process of psychoanalysis, the patient’s defense mechanisms are activated in the transference. Therefore, the patient may repetitively insist that the analyst has negative motives or is critical and judgmental when those attitudes belong to the patient. In the process of analysis, the analyst interprets the projections so that the patient can better distinguish what is internal and what is external; and to help the patient develop a more realistic, less distorted, view of another person.
The third essential aspect of the psychoanalytic process that involves the repetition compulsion is “acting out”. This occurs when a patient acts out an event from his/her past rather than remembering it in words. It is true that acting out covers over unconscious wishes and conflicts, but it is also an attempt to master unprocessed past experiences by recreating them; the analyst does not necessarily view acting out as simply a resistance to treatment. When the patient forgets a session, or pays late, the analyst interprets the unconscious meaning of the actions as resistance. However, another type of acting out that contemporary psychoanalysts tend to call “enactments” refers to nonverbal behaviors in the treatment room such as the patient suddenly jumping off the couch and running to the bathroom; or the patient feeling a sudden pain in her side. These behaviors are viewed as unwitting attempts to re-create early nonverbal experiences. Patients who have suffered sexual abuse, especially those who had an important relationship with the perpetrator, frequently suffer psychic flooding and disorganization. These experiences of childhood terror cannot be verbalized, but rather the memories are experienced as radical mood shifts, panic attacks, or somatic experiences. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse frequently experience repetitive episodes of abuse and in many ways epitomize the paradox of the repetition compulsion. Why does someone repeat a painful experience?
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse experienced the trauma by the parent or close person who is the abuser and the additional psychological trauma of having a parent who fails to protect them against the primary betrayal. In the transference, the survivor may experience the analyst as the perpetrator or the parent who betrayed her by not protecting her. The patient may also treat the therapist as she was treated – abusing the therapist by changing the story or accusing the therapist of making it all up. These different transferences may not be stable, but rather rapidly shift.
Like Freud, we have all observed the tendency to repeat painful patterns in ourselves as well as those around us and wondered: “Why do I/they keep doing the same negative thing?”
If the survivor is in therapy, the repetition compulsion plays itself out in the transference where the therapist can offer a safe-haven and the enactments can be understood. But most survivors are not in therapy and act out in an array of self-destructive behaviors from self-mutilation, substance abuse, promiscuity, driving while drunk, stealing, and just repeatedly putting themselves in dangerous situations such as walking on deserted streets late at night or hitchhiking. Self-inflicted abuse turns passive trauma into active control over the timing, pace, and severity of the abuse. Subjecting oneself to abuse by entering dangerous situations often results in being a victim once again, but it is familiar and offers a secure identity.
Like Freud, we have all observed the tendency to repeat painful patterns in ourselves as well as those around us and wondered: “Why do I/they keep doing the same negative thing?” We may not have known there was a name for it, repetition compulsion, but we recognized it. Freud thought it was part of the death instinct – implying that it is part of human nature and the only way to get it under control was to become conscious of it. In the post-Freud era, most psychoanalysts do not see the repetition compulsion as a universal human phenomenon, but rather as an attempt to master a traumatic experience or to maintain a fragile sense of self that is based on identifying as a victim.