The Compulsion to Repeat

Patients repeat all of these unwanted situations and painful emotions in the transference and revive them with the greatest ingenuity. They seek to bring about the interruption of the treatment while it is still incomplete; they contrive once more to feel themselves scorned, to oblige the physician to speak severely to them and treat them coldly; they discover appropriate objects for their jealousy; instead of the passionately desired baby of their childhood, they produce a plan or a promise of some great present—which turns out as a rule to be no less unreal. None of these things can have produced pleasure in the past, and it might be supposed that they would cause less unpleasure to-day if they emerged as memories or dreams instead of taking the form of fresh experiences. They are of course the activities of instincts intended to lead to satisfaction; but no lesson has been learnt from the old experience of these activities having led instead only to unpleasure. In spite of that, they are repeated, under pressure of a compulsion. [. . .] The impression they give is of being pursued by a malignant fate or possessed by some ‘daemonic’ power; but psycho-analysis has always taken the view that their fate is for the most part arranged by themselves and determined by early infantile influences. [. . .] Thus we have come across people all of whose human relationships have the same outcome.” (Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 15).

I said it before, and now I’ll say it again: I’m going to bring my Freud action figure out of the shoebox full of paperclips, rubber bands, and assorted office supplies where he sulks, and give him some time with Jesus and Carl Jung at either end of my book shelf holding Jung’s Collected Works. Really, I am. He deserves it for paragraphs such as the one above. Here, Freud succinctly presents how it works when people’s psychological health lists so far to the side that they become wonkified (a clinical term I learned at skool), and insistently and compulsively repeat whatever painful pattern was set up for them in early childhood.

What is Freud saying? He’s saying that when wonky people go to therapy, the very people they turn to for healing will become their worst enemies, that the physician with the balm to heal will suddenly hold a butcher knife, a hangman’s noose, become a bogey who must at all costs be defended against. The angel of light becomes Satan himself, all is lost, all is lost. Why? Because the betrayal and trauma this person experienced during infancy and early childhood were of such consequence psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually that they are, in fact, of mythic proportion. It is impossible, as long as the power and size of the original wound are unrecognized, for the patient to trust the healer to protect and nurture him. How can he, when Mother or Father did not? Were Jesus a psychoanalyst, I think He would say, “Physician, guard thyself.”

Freud is also saying that wonky people keep repeating behaviors that hurt them, in spite of the pain, because there are principles operating that go beyond pleasure. They are compulsive in nature and the wonky person is, in effect, possessed by the need to self-mutilate. In the rather long section from which I extracted this quote, Freud gave the example of the mentor who raises his pupils to respectable heights, only to be betrayed over and over again, somehow managing to leave a sizable trail of breadcrumbs that, in spite of his best conscious efforts, lead back to some betrayal that occurred in his early childhood and from which he has never been liberated. Whatever occurred, it will play an endless loop of a message that sounds like, “Regardless of How Helpful You Are, You Are Unworthy of Loyalty or Reciprocity.” This is an adult who was unprotected in infancy, betrayed, and who unconsciously seeks to repeat the wound. In this case, Christ would say, “Physician, heal thyself.”

Freud also gave the example of a widow who three times in a row married men who soon after marriage were diagnosed with terminal diseases, and who spent each successively brief marriage nursing the ailing husband until he died. Though no conscious act contributed to her choice of men who only became ill after marriage, the woman had an apparently magical power to attract terminally ill husbands. What was the meaning in the circumstances? The circumstances were symbolic representations of something happening in her own psyche.

This reminds me to be conscious of my own patterns, to see how I have habitually returned to old patterns and to use the antidote more and more quickly as I sense my old injury acting up. Just as athletes don special gear to protect injured members, so we must take care to cover ourselves where old wounds cause an ache. For example, if you know that your wound is called “Thou Shalt Give, But Never Receive,” then your antidote may be to wait for or encourage reciprocity, and to consume fewer calories from empty relationships. If your wound acts like “Thy Bridegroom Will Die,” you must look for the praying mantis within yourself, and find the solution to your problem there. If you were left and want to recover from that terrible blow, you must look for all the ways in which you leave others, rather than habitually setting them up to leave you and then bemoaning your fate as a pariah.

The compulsion to repeat will continue, Freud said, until we deal with the root cause.

3 responses to “The Compulsion to Repeat”

  1. eleanor stoneham Avatar

    When I was a little girl, about 5 or 6, we had an animal picture book with a center picture of a group of gorillas. Every time I saw this I screamed and screamed – but had to keep returning to it – I was attracted to its horror. Is there a link to your Freudian “compulsion to repeat?”

  2. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar

    Interesting. In contemplating my own proclivity for projection I realized that I don’t do unconscious things, they do me. Put a gun to my head, I can tell you all about projection, most unscientifically, but I can’t do it, though I do. It sounds like an abnegation of responsibility but it’s not. The sin, or missing the mark, comes in remaining unconscious of what is trying to become conscious, visible; hence the growing compulsion and cyclical nature of things.

    The realization that there are things going on, in and out, of you, that are you but yet are not you gives one pause and forces the reconsideration of the personal omnipotence of the ego/identity and just what exactly “I” am. “Beyond this point there be beasties/dragons” the edge of old maps used to say; dragons and beasties indeed. It seems that as I go along, I find that the map is much smaller than I was initially led to believe and the dragons and beasties much more powerful than I ever suspected.

    1. Eve Avatar

      Librarian, sorry it has taken me awhile to reply; I’ve been out of town and experiencing things that do me (haha). I’ve learned some fascinating things over the weekend as a result and will be sharing them here, though.

      You are hitting the nail on the head though. Dragons and beasties, indeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: