“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. In fact, many of our problems and conflicts are recurring. Apparently different situations, but identical in their essence.
Recurring discussions with the partner, children or parents. The same dysfunctional pattern when choosing a partner or friends. Mistakes in the professional career. The way to deal with obstacles in life… If we pay attention, we could discover the same pattern, or what Sigmund Freud called “repetition compulsion.”
What is the repetition compulsion exactly?
The repetition compulsion is a concept of psychoanalysis with which Freud referred to the impulse of people to repeat unpleasant or even painful and harmful acts, thoughts, dreams, scenes or situations for themselves or others.
Freud coined this concept in 1914, when he referred to a “Patient who does not remember anything that he has repressed, but expresses it without knowing that he is repeating it… For example, the patient says that he does not remember that he used to be defiant and critical of the authority of his parents, but he behaves that way with the doctor.”
Later, he also detected the repetition compulsion in dreams. In fact, most people, especially in some stages of their lives, tend to refer dreams that deal with the same theme and are repeated continuously with only small variations.
Why do we feel the urge to repeat the past?
For Freud, the repetition compulsion contradicts the search for 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, despite the fact that it has not been particularly positive or rewarding.
He considered that traumatic replays can be seen as an attempt to retrospectively “master” the original psychological trauma; it is as if we replicate the past, unpleasant as it was, in order to overcome it and develop the coping skills necessary to better face the problems of the future.
In practice, when we activate that initial anguish again, 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 again, unconsciously arranging variations on the original theme that they have not been able to overcome or not have learned to live with.”
Basically, the repetition compulsion condemns us to replicate a mistake until we learn our lesson and can move on. Therefore, tripping over the same stone twice is not necessarily something negative. 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 incapable or lead us to believe that there are no alternatives anymore. On the other hand, to stop tripping over the same stone twice, it is important to:
1. Stop punishing yourself and change your perspective
The repetition compulsion tends to close our vision, prevents us from detecting 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 framework, we need to treat ourselves more leniently and kindly.
Therefore, we must begin to see these errors not as simple mistakes or signs of our inability, but as an attempt to control and overcome old traumatic experiences, which means that they are also a way of looking for a new beginning, according to the theory of David G. Kitron. This change of perspective will allow us to create a more favorable affective state for the change.
2. Detect the dysfunctional beliefs behind the repetition compulsion
Attachment theory explains that the repetition compulsion is based on early developmental experiences that have led to the formation of relational schemas or mental representations that lead to self-confirmation. This means that if we do not want to stumble twice over the same stone, we must ask ourselves what experience we have not overcome and what belief we are trying to reaffirm.
Perhaps we make the same mistake when choosing a partner to confirm our belief that “all men or women are bad”, an idea that was probably transmitted to us by our father or mother in childhood. Once these irrational mindsets and beliefs are detected, they lose their force and stop influencing our behavior, allowing us to choose the path with greater freedom.
3. Extract the learning and draw lines of action
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana. Who also added that “Progress, far from consisting of change, depends on retentiveness.” When you don’t learn from experience, you don’t retain it, so it’s easier to make the same mistakes in a loop.
Therefore, if we want to mature, we need to reflect on our mistakes, without throwing balls out, assuming responsibilities to understand where we went wrong and to be able to draw up a different action plan for the next time. Only then can we escape from the compulsion to repeat that haunts us from the unconscious.
Kriton, D. (2033)Repetition, Compulsion and Self Psychology: Towards a reconciliation. David. International Journal of Psychoanalysis; 84: 427-441.
Levy, M. s. (2000) A conceptualization of the repetition compulsion. Psychiatry; 63(1):45-53.