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The compulsion to repeat is the fruit of the unresolved

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 ‚Äč‚Äčorient 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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