Does your life consist of certain themes which reoccur? Do you find yourself undergoing similar dramas or predicaments that you play out again and again? This phenomenon is called the repetition compulsion. Repetitions may vary from insignificant but interesting similarities to extremely troubling experiences that keep being played out from time to time.
Psychologists have tended to explain these repetitive behaviours as emerging from ways of thinking which reflect a person’s rigid organisation of the world into a system of beliefs, concepts, attitudes and expectations. They are often associated with early life experiences that have not been properly addressed or processed on an emotional level.
Attachment theorists have found that both the way we feel about ourselves and our expectations regarding how others will love and relate to us in intimate relationships, is seeded in childhood. The way our early caregivers attach to us creates a template of how we expect others in intimate relationships to relate to us. We develop a template, script or working model about the world of close relationships and about ourselves in these relationships. So if, for example, you felt unsure as a child as to whether your parents loved you as much as you loved them, you might develop issues regarding your self-worth and feel regularly unsure in adulthood as to whether your husband also loves you as much as you love him - this being the case when there is no evidence of infidelity or distancing on his part.
This template is plastic in the beginning, but it becomes less plastic with time. It may be changed in one direction or another by significantly destructive or significantly healing relationships, such as may be found in psychotherapy or with an insightful spouse.
Gestalt theorists and Transactional Analysts call these repetitive, self-confirming patterns and templates a ‘life script’. They view it similarly as based on an ‘early scene’ and a consequent ‘life-plan’. Let us imagine an individual who has a ‘script’ (or pattern of expectations about himself in the world) which ensures that he always ends up feeling rejected and put down. Let us say that he suffered high levels of criticism and emotional abuse as a child and has consequently developed an immense sensitivity to any negativity in other people’s reactions to him, even if this was not meant, was intended merely to raise a laugh, or came out wrong accidentally. Traumatised by the past, this person might experience these innocent comments as triggers for unresolved painful memories and respond with attack, defence or withdrawal, thereby inspiring the rejection he had expected all along.
Transactional Analysts have further emphasized the coercive power of parents’ overt messages with regard to shaping a child’s life. In fact families, as a whole, convey injunctions both overtly and implicitly. Examples of injunctions might be: never trust other people; you will only be ‘ok’ as a person if you are successful; always think of yourself first, or never think of yourself, you will only be loved by others if you attend to their needs diligently and so on.
Such injunctions act as a guide to the world. There needs to be an element of doubt regarding their universality and a willingness to shift them when the realities of the world cast doubt on them. The problem with having an overly strong or rigid template or script is that it inhibits spontaneity and limits flexibility in problem-solving in relationships with other people. If they are founded on previous traumatic experiences, they act as defences against unwanted feelings.
Whatever the case may be, when there is a great deal of repetition with regard to re-occurring dynamics with other people, this is an indication that a person has issues that need to be processed and dealt with in psychotherapy.
Dr Ethelwyn Rebelo
Meaningful Minds Psychologists
Contact me at 011 615 1030/ 0817594849