What exactly is repetition compulsion?

Man is the only animal capable of tripping over the same stone twice,” says an old proverb, referring to our inability to learn from past experiences. Indeed, many of our problems and conflicts are recurring. Seemingly different situations, but identical in their essence.

Recurring discussions with your partner, children or parents. The same dysfunctional pattern when choosing a partner or friends. Mistakes in professional career. The way to deal with obstacles in life… If we pay attention, we may discover the same pattern, or what Sigmund Freud called the “repetition compulsion”.

What exactly is repetition compulsion?

The repetition compulsion is a psychoanalytic concept with which Freud referred to the impulse of people to repeat unpleasant or even painful and harmful acts, thoughts, dreams, scenes or situations.

Freud coined this concept in 1914, referring to a “patient who does not remember anything he has repressed, but expresses it without knowing that he is repeating it… For example, the patient says he does not remember that he used to be provocative and critical of of his parents’ authority, but he does so with the doctor.”

Later, he also discovered the repetition compulsion in dreams. In fact, most people, especially in some phases of their lives, tend to report dreams that deal with the same theme and are repeated continuously with only small variations.

Why do we feel the need to repeat the past?

For Freud the repetition compulsion contradicts the pursuit of pleasure, which is why he thought it was an element that governs our most primitive and elementary psychic life. A tendency, in short, to restore a previous state of affairs, even though it has not been particularly positive or gratifying.

He believed that traumatic repetitions can be seen as an attempt to retrospectively “master” the original psychological trauma; it is as if we replicate the past, however unpleasant, to overcome it and develop the coping skills necessary to better face the problems of the future.

Basically, when we reactivate that initial anguish, we motivate ourselves to find another way out or solution to the problem. Erik Erikson, for example, considered that “some people make the same mistakes over and over, unconsciously arranging variations on the original theme that they haven’t been able to overcome or haven’t learned to live with.”

Basically, the repetition compulsion condemns us to repeat a mistake until we learn the lesson and can move forward. Therefore, tripping over the same stone twice is not necessarily a bad thing. It just implies that we are learning along the way.

The 3 keys to stop tripping over the same stone and keep moving forward

Certain behaviors, attitudes or decisions hurt us, but despite this we put them into practice over and over again. We repeat the same situation or scene and, of course, we get the same or a similar result. This can cause us great frustration, make us feel incompetent or lead us to believe that there are no more alternatives. On the other hand, to avoid tripping over the same stone twice, it is important to:

1. Stop punishing yourself and change your perspective

The compulsion to repeat tends to reduce our field of vision, prevents us from identifying new opportunities. If we harshly recriminate ourselves for making the same mistakes again, we will only amplify the emotional anguish. Since the repetition compulsion can only be overcome in a safe environment, we need to treat ourselves with greater leniency and kindness.

Therefore, we need to start seeing these mistakes not as mere mistakes or signs of our inability, but as an attempt to control and overcome old traumatic experiences, which means they are also a way to seek a fresh start, according to David G’s theory. Kitron. This change of perspective will allow us to create an affective state more conducive to change.

2. Detect the dysfunctional beliefs behind the repetition compulsion

Attachment theory explains that the repetition compulsion is based on early developmental experiences that led to the formation of relational schemas or mental representations that lead to self-confirmation. This means that if we don’t want to trip over the same stone twice, we have to ask ourselves what experience we have not overcome and what conviction we are trying to reaffirm.

Perhaps we make the same mistake when choosing a partner to validate our belief that “all men or women are bad,” an idea that was probably passed down to us from our father or mother in childhood. Once these irrational mindsets and beliefs are detected, they lose their potency and stop influencing our behavior, allowing us to choose the path with greater freedom.

3. Extract the lesson and draw courses of action

“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana. He also added that “progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retention”. When you don’t learn from experience, you don’t keep it, so it’s easier to make the same mistakes in a vicious circle.

So, if we want to mature, we have to reflect on our mistakes, without making a mistake, taking responsibility for understanding where we went wrong and being able to draw up a different action plan for next time. Only then can we escape the repetition compulsion that haunts us from the unconscious.


by Abdullah Sam
I’m a teacher, researcher and writer. I write about study subjects to improve the learning of college and university students. I write top Quality study notes Mostly, Tech, Games, Education, And Solutions/Tips and Tricks. I am a person who helps students to acquire knowledge, competence or virtue.

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