A psychoanalytic term for the tendency to repeat past behavior and, more narrowly, to relive disturbing experiences.Freud viewed repetition-compulsion as an unconscious, instinctual impulse that is “more fundamental than the pleasure-pain principle and differing widely from it,” since the experience that is repeated is usually a painful one that contributes “no potentiality of pleasure.” His English disciple, Ernest Jones (1938), described it as “the blind impulse to repeat earlier experiences and situations quite irrespective of any advantage that doing so might bring from a pleasure-pain point of view.”This tendency is clearly expressed in children who repeat mischievous behavior or disagreeable habits even though they may be punished for them. Freud came to believe that the repetition impulse is the core of neurosis, since the neurotic individual persists in using behavior patterns that are clearly irrational and maladaptive—for example, blaming others for his errors (projection), becoming sick in order to escape problems (conversion), or acting childishly when faced with difficulties (regression). Another example given by Freud is the tendency of divorced people to choose a new mate who has the same faults as the original mate. This tendency may be an expression of what he called a “destiny neurosis,” the compulsive unconscious need to arrange life experiences in such a way that one is bound to suffer failure and defeat. Neurotics of this type invariably blame an unkind fate for their continual reverses, and are unaware that they are themselves responsible—or that they are “paying the piper” for deep-seated feelings of guilt.Repetition-compulsion is put to positive use in the psychoanalytic process.Freud found that his patients had a compulsion to re-experience their childhood difficulties during analysis, and they also tended to repeat basic relationships by putting the therapist in the place of one or the other parent. This process, called transference, enables the patient to bring his feelings and attitudes into the open. With the aid of the analyst, he becomes more aware of them, and learns to understand and cope with them. During this process he also finds new ways of approaching his difficulties, and practices them repeatedly during the analytic sessions.The tendency to relive traumatic experiences is another form of repetition- compulsion. The clearest examples are nightmares, terror dreams, and daytime fantasies in which we rehearse events which have been deeply disturbing or damaging to our ego. Many soldiers are “haunted” by battle dreams for months or even years after their war experiences, and almost everyone is afflicted by recurrent nightmares after an accident or near-accident. Very few specialists today would characterize this tendency as instinctual, as Freud did. Rather, they usually explain such dreams as either an attempt to master our anxiety or to get it out of our system. They would also hesitate to ascribe neurotic patterns to “blind impulse” but would explain them as unconscious attempts to overcome anxiety. Freud himself preferred this type of explanation in his later thinking.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "REPETITION-COMPULSION," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed August 9, 2022).


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