Sigmund Freud wrote of the “repetition compulsion.” The technical definition, per Wikipedia, is the repetition of “a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again.”
We all know it, in form, if not in function: it’s the tendency to repeat painful experiences. It can be benign, as in the case of a man who dates “crazy” women. Or it can be life-threatening, as in the case of a woman who repeatedly falls in love with, or returns to, abusive men.
Usually, we tell ourselves that what we’re doing is trying to somehow “get it right,” to resolve an inner conflict, once and for all, satisfactorily. I told myself this for years, repeatedly seeking approval from my dad, only to receive, over and over, rejection and disapproval. I kept hoping things would be different, but they never were.
I had a conventional psychoanalysis – four days a week, lying on the couch – for years. (I know, right?) Many people think that the premise of psychoanalysis, of Freud, is the Oedipus complex – that all men want to fuck their mothers and kill their fathers. But for me, the crux of it all was accepting the basic truth of the repetition compulsion: we repeat traumas because we want to. Not consciously, no, but powerfully. We need to. We create elaborate defenses to persuade ourselves that we aren’t reenacting those traumas, repeating, them – that it’s somehow happening to us.
Psychoanalysis helped me see that it’s not happening to me: I’m doing it.
And I’m doing it because I want to, because some part of me craves the trauma. On some level, part of me wanted to receive my dad’s disapproval – it fed something in me. (I’ve written this before: if we do something over an over, it’s because we want to, because it gives us pleasure, even if we can’t see that.) Maybe it let me feel justified in anger at him? Maybe it simply reminded me of my childhood in a neutral, nostalgic way? Or maybe it provided periodic confirmation of something I believed deep in myself. In any event, I needed that. Until I saw it all clearly. And then, lo and behold? I didn’t.
Alas, I’m not free of the repetition compulsion, and neither is the world. You’ll read more about that in the coming days, but it feels a very potent concept to me right now.
Postscript: I see I’ve kinda written about this before. See here. And here. And here.