Do you keep repeating unhelpful behaviour patterns?
If so, you’re not alone! From dating ‘bad boys’ or ‘psycho women’ repeatedly despite vows of “never again” after the misery they cause, to making yet another friend who proceeds to boss you around, or finding yourself in a job where you feel undervalued again, many of us seem unable to stop ourselves repeating experiences that hurt us.
Why should this be?
Sigmund Freud recognised this common human phenomenon, which he called the Repetition Compulsion. Freud believed that we re-enact old, painful traumas or relationships, the nature of which we’ve usually forgotten, in the present in an attempt to make them come out right this time around.
The original difficult situation was usually when were children, and were a passive participant – the event was happening to us and we had no control over those involved, usually significant others such as parents or siblings, or over the outcome. As adults, we are active – it’s us who get ourselves into the situations – but because the reasons for what we’re doing are often outside our conscious awareness, we feel at the mercy of circumstances.
For example, Suzie found herself with one close friend after another who, after a promising start, would undermine and bully her. Suzie found it so hard to deal with her friend’s know-it-all attitude that she would back off more and more until the friend got the message and left Suzie alone. Suzie would breathe a sigh of relief, but soon find herself involved with another know-it-all and the cycle would begin again.
In counselling, she discovered she was playing out her relationship with her much older sister, Gemma, who, in a household where both girls were given little attention by their parents, made herself feel better by asserting control over her smaller sister. Being six years younger, Suzie couldn’t hope to match Gemma’s intellectual and verbal skills, so grew up feeling inadequate around confident women. However, feeling ‘weak’ in the presence of someone ‘strong’ felt so familiar to Suzie that she found herself drawn to people with whom she could re-enact the family script she knew so well again and again.
On a conscious level, Suzie insisted she was desperate to have equal, supportive friendships. But on a deeper level, she couldn’t stop herself re-enacting the drama that originated with sister Gemma. The situation with female friends would never turn out as Suzie believed she wanted it to because she always picked women with personalities like her sister, who were in turn re-enacting their own family dynamics with Suzie.
Maybe you, like Suzie, keep repeating behaviour that doesn’t serve you well. What can you do to change?
Suzie knew her sister was domineering, but was unaware how the dynamic was affecting her choice of friends and dictating her reactions to them. With these friends, Suzie came to realise that she felt like the helpless kid she was originally with Gemma, which in turn led her to behave as she did when younger – falling silent when with the friends, avoiding them, and occasionally having angry outbursts. Recognising these women didn’t have the very real power her sister had had over her as a child, Suzie came to understand that she was entitled to her own views, and actually had a range of options open to her to deal with overbearing friends, rather than having to stick to the limited repertoire she’d learnt as a girl.
Changing entrenched patterns doesn’t happen overnight. At first, as clients become aware of the origins and nature of their patterns, they’re still drawn to similar people and situations. But with insight, discussion of new possible behaviours and the willingness to try these out, with gentle support from their counsellor, clients find that each time they go through the cycle with a new person/situation, they have more self-knowledge about what’s happening (“Here I go again!”) and a wider selection of responses to choose from.
Clients also learn to recognise early on the subtle as well as overt cues showing that, yet again, they’ve stumbled across the type of person or situation they wish to avoid. This gives them the freedom to disentangle themselves before they get in too deep and, instead, make more satisfying choices that suit the adult they are today, rather than the child they were yesterday.