Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Compulsion To Repeat: The Act of Forgetting

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 18, 2013

Freud said that we have a compulsion to repeat so that we do not think or remember painful experiences. In other words, we attach ourselves to people who repeat our early traumatic relationships so that we do not have to mourn the traumatic aspects. In the repetition there is a denial of the negative feelings. Ulna, fifty-two, said that she did not want to go on medication for ADHD because she did not want to feel that she should have done this years ago, so to avoid mourning her lost years, she would rather not see if a stimulant could help her focus. In Ulna’s case, the compulsion to repeat, or to continue her life, with all of her difficulties, was preferable to feeling the regret of not acting sooner. Usually, this compulsion to repeat is unconscious, and hence needs to explored in a psychotherapeutic setting. This repetition is seen in people who continue to pick relationships which are “the same,” meaning that even though they pick different people, the feelings which get triggered are very similar. This unconscious replication of previous relationships requires in-depth psychotherapy, as no amount of the “Ts” or time-limited psychotherapy, can begin to dig into the depth of this repetition. This compulsion to repeat can also be a way of understanding addiction. Why do people drink when they know it is bad for them, and it hurts their family? Perhaps, they need to numb themselves, as a way of repeating the suppression of feelings that they had to do as children, as no one was around to attend to their inner world. Rather than understanding this phenomena, they repeat the need to escape from their fully functioning mental world. This notion, “the compulsion to repeat” is at the heart of psychotherapy, as wrestling with this concept, by working in the transference, is at the heart of mental transformation. Turning the compulsion to repeat into the act of remembering, allows the patient to mourn the past, and move on to a new way of being in the world, which means new kinds of relationships. This work is called “working through” as the time, and patience, to do this mourning and re-structuring is lengthy and hence not amenable to the time-limited therapies, which I call the “Ts”.

9 Responses to “Compulsion To Repeat: The Act of Forgetting”

  1. Ellen said

    Yes, this is why therapy takes a long time. It’s not a flight from ‘real’ relationships, it’s not ‘venting’ – to actually change how we feel and relate to others takes time and work. I find this difficult to explain to friends who are not in therapy.

    • Thanks, Ellen. Yes, it is hard to explain, in part, because the compulsion to repeat is so deeply ingrained, that the person doing the repetition has no idea that this is a problem until some crisis hits them. Thanks again.

  2. Ashana M said

    Freud assumes the unconscious proceeds in the purposeful, goal-directed way that our conscious minds do. It’s a problem with perspective-taking: we tend to base our views of others on our minds and then make some modifications. In his case he has done the same with the unconscious, basing his view of the unconscious on the way the conscious mind functions. But it does not function in the same way. We confound the error because of confirmation bias–ascribing motives our conscious mind might have onto the unconscious because our preconceived notion is that we proceed in purposeful and intentional ways at all times. Clearly, people do things that are not in their best interest for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that in “hot” states–as in the example of continuing to drink–we are simply unconcerned with the future. It isn’t that we wish a negative future upon ourselves, but that we can’t conceive of the future or we can’t conceive of the future as being very important. So, in your example of drinking, people drink even knowing it hurts themselves and their families because they really want to drink and in that moment of wanting to drink, the hurt in the future ceases to exist or to be important. Our inability to anticipate this alteration in our thinking–and to plan appropriately for it–is called the hot-cold empathy gap.

    • Thanks, Ashana. I think we are saying the same things in different ways. The compulsion to repeat is another way of saying that the person wants to think in the here and now and not the future. Repeating an action says that future, or past thinking, is not taking place, but merely a repetition which in some ways is automatic. To help the person be more thoughtful, both about past traumatic experiences, and future consequences, is the work of moving towards better mental health. Thank Again.

      • Ashana M said

        No, I am not. I am guessing it’s so difficult to imagine ourselves acting in ways that aren’t purposeful or goal-oriented that it’s also hard to understand that I am saying precisely that. But I am saying, essentially, we can’t fly. It is sometimes a great inconvenience that we cannot fly, but it’s part of the biological limitations we need to work with. You are saying we choose not to fly because it’s too painful to do so, which is really quite different.

        Just as we aren’t designed to fly, we are not designed to think about the future while in “hot” states. We often struggle to, we really try, and we can’t. And that’s part of why we keep making the same mistakes. It is not an effective strategy, and it continues to not work no matter how many times we try to do it. But it’s incredibly difficult to accept that it won’t work, and so we don’t. There are things that can be done to improve decision-making, but trying to hold onto our grasp of the future while in hot states isn’t one of them.

  3. Shelly said

    How can there be a “compulsion to repeat” if you say that usually this compulsion is unconscious? Aren’t compulsions, by definition, conscious feelings of needing to do something? In drinking, in your example, people do indeed need to numb themselves, but I seriously doubt it has anything to do with childhood. People drink as a means of escaping the here and now, I would imagine. As Ashana says, the future ceases to exist or to be important to them. I know that psychiatry is based on Freud’s dogma, and Freud likes to tie in everything to childhood trauma, but sometimes someone’s present can simply be difficult because it is difficult in and of itself without going back to childhood.

    • Yes, there are a multitude of reasons to explain why a person needs to search for numbing medication. I am suggesting in this post, that one possibility, is that the trigger is a past difficult experience, and in order to shut down that trigger, the “old friend” of alcohol is brought forward to repeat the pattern that difficult feelings means it is time to escape. This compulsion may be conscious, unconscious, or bits of both. The aim in this post is to consider the unconscious part of some compulsions, especially for those times when one feels, “I know I shouldn’t but I just could not help myself.” Thanks.

  4. I haven’t posted in a long time because I realized I’m better at person to person verbal conversations with these sorts of topics that are so complex and, like a piece of sculpture, must be approached from many many angles with back and fourth discussion…not easy to do in a blog format, at least for me.. With this said I feel I’d like to jump in here to clarify something I know to be true referring to unconscious guilt, repetition compulsion and the power of our unconscious and more primitive mind. I’ll try to be brief. Up until the birth of my second child I, like most, paid little attention to the idea of the unconscious mind…it just wasn’t an issue and I didn’t know much about it. However my daughter was born with severe physical disabilities which is known to trigger significant unconscious guilt in most families. Because the guilt comes from the deepest recesses of the mind it is usually not recognized as such by most people. I began repeating behaviors and attitudes that were meant for my long ago past tho I didnt realize the source was unconscious. Long story short, I began 5 day a week psychoanalysis for many many (did I say many 🙂 years with a hightly trained incredibly skilled psychiatrist/ psychoanalyst. My daughter went to another psychoanalyst for 2-3 day a week psychodynamic psychotherapy for much of her life, until her sudden death from one aspect of her disability while in college many years ago.

    I’m now much more knowledgable and hopefully wiser. Our unconscious is powerful and it takes an extremely well trained and skilled physician to probe through the layers of defenses to access our more primitive emotions so we can understand them which leads to healing. The work is difficult and intense . It takes a very very long time but it alters the complex connections of neurons that no other treatment can reach.

    It’s been my experience through the years that most folks run 180 degrees the opposite direction when I mention the value of this type of long term depth treatment. Defenses can be powerful and, understandably, most people find reasons to doubt it’s efficacy .

    OK so much for being brief! 🙂 I have a page (Painted Darkness) on my website dedicated to the things I’ve mentioned here using my abstract photographs and words to describe my experience from a psychodynamic perspective.

    • Shirah said

      Wow- eleanore, your words are very meaningful and I suspect helpful to a lot of folks who are baffled by their feelings! Thanks for sharing your words and your link.

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