The compulsion to repeat is the fruit of the unresolved
The compulsion to repeat is a much studied mechanism in psychology . Before going into the details, let’s try to examine the meaning of the word. The term “compulsion” refers to the “compulsion to act”, therefore to think or to carry out behaviors against one’s will. It is no coincidence that the word “coercion” in the juridical context means “compulsion”.
Freud was the first to clinically observe the compulsion to repeat , he did so by speaking of symptomatic neurosis, neurosis of character, neurosis of fate, traumatic neurosis and depression.
The compulsion to repeat consists in the systematic reproduction of the discomfort : the subject continues to repeat painful vicissitudes (actions, thoughts, affective states , behaviors …) in order to ensure a certain dose of unhappiness.
It is important to underline that the compulsion to repeat does not only concern behavioral patterns but refers to a set of modalities that push the subject towards a situation that is counterproductive for his own well-being.
Compulsion to repeat
In symptomatic neurosis, the compulsion to repeat described by Freud consists of compulsive behaviors that invade everyday experience. An example of this are the typical rituals of OCD such as repeatedly washing hands or constantly checking to have closed the door of the house.
When the compulsion to repeat concerns whole patterns of maladaptive behavior, Freud speaks of character neurosis. This is the case of self-harming acts, systematic self-sabotage ( repeatedly failing a diet ) and all those behaviors that somehow punctually compromise interactions with others.
Freud speaks of fate neurosis when one goes incessantly towards the same self-destructive destiny: carrying out the same behaviors expecting different results.
For the father of psychoanalysis, many ailments are based on the repetition compulsion model. Depression itself, for example, is a way in which psychic pain is constantly regenerating .
Why do we repeat ways that make us suffer?
Freud’s clinical observations were at odds with his own “drive theory”, according to which human action was motivated by the pursuit of pleasure ( pleasure principle). If man was made to seek fulfillment , why did he repeat patterns that caused him continuous discomfort?
In 1920 Freud tried to explain the compulsion to repeat by hypothesizing the existence of a death drive that acted beyond the “pleasure principle” and manifested itself in the tendency of the mind to retain and return to previous states and ultimately to annihilation . This explanation did not satisfy the psychoanalytic scenario at all, so much so that also in this article to answer the question we will refer to other psychoanalytic theories.
Fairbairn’s psychoanalytic thought
William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn (1899 – 1964) made a major contribution to modern psychoanalytic thought . Fairbairn tried to explain the problem of the repetition compulsion starting from assumptions that departed from the “pleasure principle” as conceived by Freud.
According to Fairbairn, the motivational drive that moves human behavior is not the gratification of a drive pleasure that leads to the use of others as objects, rather it is the bond with others that is the ultimate goal of human experience . It is the bond that contains the pleasure.
Fairbairn’s theories, in many respects, are in line with Winnicott’s and later Bowlby’s theories. The motivational drive that moves human behavior, according to Fairbairn, is linked to the search for a link with the other .
The child creates bonds with the parents through any form of contact; such forms of contact constitute lifelong patterns . For Fairbairn , pleasure is a form of contact inherent in bonding.
When parents produce pleasure, the child learns to seek pleasure not as an end in itself but as a learned form of contact and interaction with the surrounding world.
What happens when parents produce painful experiences for the child?
If we referred to Freudian drive theory, the child would have to repudiate the parent because it does not give him pleasure. We know that in reality this does not happen.
Fairbairn was struck by the loyalty some children had to abusive parents. The children, instead of going away from their parents to seek pleasure elsewhere, ended up seeking suffering as a privileged form of contact not only with parents but also with others. This scenario perfectly explains the compulsion to repeat in love .
Compulsion to repeat in love
New love relationships are chosen for their resemblance to the bad (unsatisfactory) objects of the past. You interact with new partners in a way that triggers old behaviors and expected patterns .
New love experiences are interpreted as confirming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The compulsion to repeat in love can be described as the principle whereby a person tries to overcome something unresolved that has its roots in the very distant past, putting himself back in the identical circumstances that evoke that ancestral scenario.
To deepen the theory of the English school of object relations (of which Fairbairn and Winnicot were the main exponents), I suggest you read my article: how to recognize an unresolved person.
Bowlby’s internal operating models
According to Bowlby, the child’s early experiences are internalized into a cognitive model that generates expectations and regulates behavior .
According to Bowlbian theory, in moving about in life we orient ourselves through cognitive schemes learned early: Bowlbian theory manages to explain in a fitting way the reason for the compulsion to repeat .
Breaking a behavioral pattern (the one underlying the compulsion to repeat ) would mean debunking an ancestral belief, a learned cognitive model .
To deepen this theory: Bowlby’s internal operating models
The compulsion to repeat is the fruit of the unresolved
In summary. The painful experiences that we have never processed have been fixed in our identity and work in the background giving rise to a series of unresolved conflicts . Conflicts generate compulsive and counterproductive behaviors .
According to psychoanalysis, unintegrated experiences can face three possibilities:
- a pathological and blind path (personality disorders, cognitive dissonances …),
- the way of repetition (equal to the identical, the implementation of the same scripts),
- a way of transformation and integration (through elaboration)
To break the compulsion to repeat and overcome any malaise, the path of transformation is indispensable and passes through sharing in the analytic process (relationship between patient and psychoanalyst or psychotherapist).
The coercive behaviors can take many forms. As Lacan pointed out , there is a difference between repeating and reproducing. In the (symptomatic) reproduction, the reproduction of the same identical symptom is evident, while the repetition is inherent in a symbolic dimension that can introduce big differences with respect to the original scenario.
In other words, if my ancestral belief (born from early experiences with parental figures) sees me as a person not deserving of love , in sentimental reproduction I will be able to surround myself with people who belittle and discredit me (just like parental figures ) while in repetition I will be able to face a series of failures (I will not be able to complete the projects, I will fail my objectives and I will self-sabotage the most important achievements).
To overcome the compulsion to repeat a course of psychotherapy is strongly recommended.
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