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Repetition compulsion is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This "re-living" can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination.

This concept was noted formally by Sigmund Freud in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which he observed a child throw his favorite toy from his crib, become upset at the loss, then reel the toy back in, only to repeat this action[1]. Indeed similar behavior is common in children, who throw their toy out of their reach and then cry for it to be retrieved for them. Freud theorized that children are attempting to master the sensation of loss, possibly using the toy as a surrogate for their mothers, who cannot constantly be present physically.

Freud believes there are two ways the past is relived: 1) through memories, or 2) through actions, the latter being the basis of repetition compulsion. There are several schools of thought on the cause of repetitive reliving of negative experiences, and many are specific to certain situations.

One idea is a passive form, in which one chooses his or her most familiar experiences consistently as a means to deal with problems of the past. For example, one may choose to stay with a "normal" pattern of pain and chaos instead of risking the perceived trauma of new experiences. Someone experiencing repetition compulsion might believe that new experiences will be more painful than their present situation or too new and untested to imagine.

Another is a participatory form, wherein a person actively engages in behavior that mimics an earlier stressor, either deliberately or unconsciously. In particular, this is often described by the statement that events that are terrifying in childhood become sources of attraction in adulthood. For instance, a person who was spanked as a child may incorporate this into their adult sexual practices. Another example is a victim of sexual abuse, who may attempt to seduce another person of authority in his or her life (such as their boss or therapist). Psychoanalysts describe this as an attempt at mastery of their feelings and experience, in the sense that they unconsciously want to go through the same situation but that it not result negatively as it did in the past [1].

Franz Alexander (1891-1964), a Hungarian American psychoanalyst and physician, stated:

The patient, in order to be helped, must undergo a corrective emotional experience suitable to repair the traumatic influence of previous experiences. It is of secondary importance whether this corrective experience takes place during treatment in the transference relationship, or parallel with the treatment in the daily life of the patient.

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In popular culture

Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo depicts a man who is compelled to repeat a traumatic accident that happens to him in order to find an explanation and a sense of closure about what happened.

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