Some Thoughts On the Neurotic Defense of Repetition Compulsion

Have you ever spent time watching the same movie over and over? Have you read the same book many times? Do you find that when you are sad, tired, depressed, or anxious, you can feel better by escaping into the old friend of the book or movie, and at least for awhile, you feel better?

What is happening is what Freud called a repetition compulsion (RC) which is a neurotic defense against anxiety. The theory involves the idea that we regress from our present functioning state into a previous state of childhood and attempt to utilize the behaviors we used then to make ourselves feel better today. What is missing for us is the adult realization that we can act in new ways on the environment, try new behaviors and perhaps have new outcomes. Many of us are not willing to test the new outcomes hypothesis because we fear change and the unknown. Even if our regressive defense of repetition compulsion produces re-enactments of things that wound us, it is better to try that same thing again, knowing the likely outcome, rather than to try something new and open an entirely new universe of options.

One might wonder if this is something that everyone does? Is it RC when I go to my favorite restaurant and order the same thing every time? Or, is it just that I like it? A Freudian would tell you that it is RC. You are trying to recreate the emotional condition of the past experiences, where you felt safe, loved, and happy. Or, Freud thought that you are trying to unconsciously revisit the past experience where you did not feel those things. In this case, you felt anxious and were not sure that you were loved or safe. You anticipated that you would be hurt or punished and you are trying to relive the experience, hoping that this time if you just get it right. You hoped you would have a better, different outcome. So you order the same food, have a wonderful “date” and all of you will go home happy and loved. The problem is that it never works that way.

Of course a non Freudian, would tell you that sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar, and that it is ok if you always order the pot roast each time because it tastes really good. The question here would not be do you repeat the behavior or thought pattern, but what is the emotional state at the time? Are you anxious? Do you fear you are going to be punished or rejected? Are you testing the waters to see if this time you will be the beloved hero? Is there tension and anxiety in the mix? If not, then it is probably just a self -soothing strategy that you are repeating because you learned that it makes you feel better in the same way that a child sucks its thumb.

But for those of us who grew up in traumatizing homes and experienced the unbalanced rejection by our Objects, the theory says that RC is an unconscious effort we make to re-stage or re-enact scenarios from our past, always hoping that this time we will get it right. If we smile just so, if we wear our lucky tie, if we tell a funny joke, or make some other magical behavioral change then our Object will love and embrace us, rather than reject and wound us. Our thought, consciously or unconsciously, is that we have the power to figure out how to satisfy the Other. We think that we are at fault and we must find the key to the door that unlocks their love and acceptance.

When we grow up, we seek out other relationships that allow us to re-enact the conditions of our childhood. We find friends, bosses, lovers, who will unconsciously play the roles of the rejecting and traumatizing Other. These individuals will dance the dance with us over and over. Our radar selects people who will play the role and help us replay our emotional wounded-ness. We are always hoping that this time we can just get it right, and this time we will have a happy ending and be loveable and loved. As adults, we must learn that it never, ever happens this way. The path towards healing and happy relationships involves our ability to accept that the failure of our childhood was not due to us and our inadequacies, but rather to the failure of the Object to be able to love us because of problems that were theirs.

If we are able to make this giant leap of understanding and trust, we can stop chasing the rainbow. If I am able to tell myself (and believe it) that my father was a broken, wounded man and that his hurting of me was due to character flaws and issues in him, not in me, then I have a chance to heal the wound and not forever chase my father demanding that this time he love me and make me safe. It never happened in real life and it will never happen now unless I can give up the childhood fantasy ideation. I must re-parent myself and love myself because I find that I am loveable, not because of having received my “OK-ness” from the object or the other.

As a therapist I have taken this journey with many of my clients. Can they find enough self-acceptance to be able to stop the negative aspects of repetition compulsion? Can they learn to take the adventurous new road to choose something or someone, new and different? Can they stand on their own two happy feet and trust that they have the right to be loved because they are loveable and love themselves, or will they always chase their broken father or mother and re-enact the losses of their childhood with the constant cry of, “Why does this always happen to me?!?”

I believe that therapy is about re-parenting. The job of the therapist is to create the safe holding environment so that the client can find a safe place to stand. The therapist must be empathic and non judgmental. We must help the client see themselves honestly and accurately, but we must not be the critical parent. The client will project this critical parent onto us and expect that we will react the same way that their parent in real life did; reject, scold, or punish them. Many times clients would come into my office and begin by saying, “You are really going to be mad at me this week,” and then confess some failure of will, or behavior about which I was to be so angry and disappointed that I would punish them and reject them. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I did not respond in the expected manner, it would shock the client. They would not believe I could react this way and would attempt to elicit an “honest” rejection of themselves from me. When I continue to be myself and not their projected critical parent, they eventually are able to consider what was really going on and figure out a new way of experiencing themselves as an honest reflection of my feedback, rather than an unconscious projection from their childhood.

We all use our primitive defenses. We globalize them, and when our current anxieties overwhelm our grown up coping skills, we regress into what worked for us in childhood. That may be anger or rage (we will scare the monster away and get our way.) It may be seduction (I will have sex with them and make them happy and then it will be safe for me here.) It may be a physical behavior like eating or drinking or it may be taking a stupid risk like driving in a dangerous way (all the while expecting that “God” will take us if we are really bad and will let us live if he wants us to continue.) It is irrational, or non rational. When I find myself in this place, I tend to eat chocolate and read a book that I have read many times before. This allows me to escape into another place and another time for the time being, so that I may avoid my anxiety provoking situation. My challenge as a therapist and my challenge for myself is to continue to generate opportunities for new choices and new risk taking. To learn that risk taking and the unknown is not nearly so scary, or so unrewarding, as constantly repeating the failed and damaging past is a lesson I must model for myself and my clients.

Can you do that as well?

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