Why do we repeating the same old patterns of thinking, of emotional roller coasters, of relationships? Especially when we recognize these patterns to be stupid or destructive?
Sometimes, of course, we don’t even recognize that there is a pattern. It’s our friends (or therapists) who say, isn’t it a bit strange that this is the fourth time you’ve found yourself dating a man who is married, a woman who forms an intense relationship with you almost immediately but drops you within a month, a man who is unavailable, and the more unavailable, the more attractive he is to you?
Is it just bad luck when this happens? Or perhaps something else?
Freud called this pattern “repetition” and he spoke of a “repetition compulsion.” It doesn’t just happen with our choice of partners – though it’s often most pronounced in these intimate relationships.
Other examples: when we repeatedly get embroiled in power struggles with our superiors at work, power struggles which leave us exhausted and anxious. Or have intense friendships which end up with us feeling betrayed.
When you’re sick of all this repetition,
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane…
Repetition is one of the most important concepts in psychoanalysis. Freud wrote about it in the (very accessible) paper called “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” about which, I taught a seminar recently. (If you want to have a look at the paper, it’s available here: http://therapycommunity.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/freuds-original-paper-on-the-repetition-compulsion).
The key to Freud’s thinking is in the title of the essay. The aim of psychoanalysis is to remember, and reconstruct, one’s past so that we make sense of the choices we have made, but, have not, perhaps, been aware of making. This enables us to choose differently in the future. Repetition, for Freud, is best treated as a form of remembering. In other words, repeating an action, relationship, or pattern of behaviour is a failed attempt at remembering.
To understand this, you need to have in mind that Freud’s concept of human being was that we are all meaning-making-entities, struggling to make meaning/sense of our pasts, presents and futures. To make this meaning/sense, we have to be conscious, in his terms remember.
When we repeat a form of relationship – falling for unavailable men/women, for example – we are repeating a pattern from the past, rather than remembering it. In therapy, we would first notice a pattern, then begin to locate associations to, or early examples of, this pattern.
We might realize that we have always been deeply involved with an unavailable mother or father. That is to say we are still very alive to this past relationship (even if the parent is no longer around).
But this is just a start to making sense of the pattern. Because we would have to remember what distress and other feelings are associated with this parent’s unavailability, how, perhaps, we might have felt painfully rejected, unloved. How, perhaps we fought, were good or delinquent, to try to prevent the parent from disappearing, with no success. (Even though this fighting, goodness or delinquency failed in its original aim, we might still be stuck with repeating these strategies too…)
Finally, we might arrive at the insight that we thought the unavailability of our parent was to do with us, was a judgement on us, was our fault.
Our repetitions of this relationship are a substitute for this remembering. Rather than painfully remembering we are attempting to produce a different result from the same circumstances. An attempt which, sadly, almost always fails.
(Warning to readers: The above description is only one path this exploration might follow – it certainly doesn’t apply to everyone!)
All repetitions in our lives, all the circles we find ourselves going in, can be understood in this way. It’s a powerful understanding because it shifts our focus from action to meaning, from attempting to will a different result each time we find the pattern repeating to engaging differently with the situation.
When you take this to heart, you aren’t just drawn powerfully to unavailable partners, impelled by an unexamined past, but rather see the past in the present, and can make a conscious choice to proceed differently.
Your thoughts might go from the wake up call: this guy/girl is never there when I need them! To the new ideas which are possible because of your awareness of the past: Do I really want to get involved in protesting/complaining about their behaviour, or begging/pleasing/abnegating myself in the hopes that they will behave differently?
When you are not unconsciously driven to repeat, you can genuinely produce a different answer to these questions: No!
And that’s what makes your life stop going around in circles.