PLAY IT AGAIN SAM: On the compulsion to repeat.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on March 19, 2012

There is a Buddhist belief that people come into our life so that we may learn something and/or work through something that we need to resolve before we can move on.  Thus everyone in our lives is a potential teacher, involving us in a relationship with the very thing that we have to work out. I like this idea. I wonder what Freud would have done with this, whether he would have reworked it or used it to inform his concept of the repetition compulsion. Perhaps he did. What he did not know, because it was impossible to know this at the time, is that neuroscience would prove him right, at least regarding the physiology of the repetition compulsion.

The concept of the repetition compulsion has undergone a number of revisions since its initial description by Freud as related to the death instinct-a move toward self-destructive behavior that he postulated was part of our psychology. According to his initial formulation, behavior patterns acquired in childhood relationships are forgotten (residing in the unconscious) and are instead acted out and repeated later in life. Such behaviors are thus reproduced not as memories but as actions, which continue to repeat themselves in our lives.

The compulsion to repeat a particularly self destructive behavior, often within a relationship, was later seen as arising from early (traumatic) experiences which were unconsciously recreated in adult relationships in an effort to repair and master them. The idea behind this was that the individual had learned to behave in a particular interpersonal way in intimacy, and unconsciously sought out people who felt familiar, effectively recreating the emotional environs of childhood and the need to behave in a particular way. We finally have a body of neuro-scientific research that validates this idea, essentially telling us that since our brain develops in relation to our caretakers and their caregiving, both brain tissue and brain chemistry are built and driven by such early experiences. The brain structures borne within the early relational matrix filter and shape subsequent psychological development including learning, perception, and behavior.

Because of the major brain growth spurts that occur in infancy, during critical periods of development, early experiences have a particularly powerful influence over the formation of neurological structures. Not only are the elements of implicit and emotional memories laid down, but  the actual placement of neuronal synapses, as well as the calibration of neuro-transmitters. Researchers now believe that our initial experiences are embedded in the brain’s physical substrate and therefore influence subsequent experiences, feelings and perceptions as well as behavior. Early experience reverberates anew through its echo in our current life. The repetition compulsion is but one of those instances.

This explains why compulsive behavior is so difficult to shift. Why the repetitions continue. The repetition is not only an effort to master it and to get it right, to repair it. It is also a circuitous loop  that is hard wired in our brain and central nervous system. It is literally mapped out in our brain structures as a unique and personal highway of affect, relational memories and adaptive (yes, adaptive!) behavior aimed at psychic survival and homeostatic regulation at all costs- even if it means playing it again, over and over. You can think of it as a loop that has been reinforced over many years (early on), which now resonates in the present and requires the development of new skills, new behaviors and  new language in order to re-wire itself into a different brain pattern. It requires new relational experience(s) in order to grow and stimulate new brain wiring.

Whew! This is why it requires time. And practice. And a relationship that makes possible new experience out of the old. This is why all behavior change requires time and practice and a relational exchange. This is why psychotherapy requires time, commitment and hard work.

The Buddhist tale I began with is more poetic than science. More descriptive of the experiential power of being open to learning something new out of something familiar and old. It too is supported by research, for in the interaction and relationship with our “teachers”  (those others that help us to play it again) we arrive at  and experience what we must learn in order to usher in change. And this too requires the hard work of practice and  the gift of time.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frances Pizzino November 14, 2014 at 11:17 AM

Your words help me ‘understand’ (AGAIN) the why’s of my present life…years ago, Alice Miller’s “DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD” opened the door. For sure the old ‘neuronal paths’ don’t give in or give up easily. Your words inspire me in my journey of 78 years! grazie, grazie


Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. November 15, 2014 at 3:08 PM

Grazie Frances!


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