Repetition Compulsion

views updated May 23 2018


Repetition compulsion is an inherent, primordial tendency in the unconscious that impels the individual to repeat certain actions, in particular, the most painful or destructive ones. The repetition compulsion occupies a significantly more prominent role in French psychoanalysis than in North American psychoanalysis.

Freud introduced this notion in chapters 3 and 4 of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), making it one of the new foundations of his theory. In the first lines of chapter 4 he presented this idea as being a "speculation, . . . an attempt to follow out an idea consistently, out of curiosity to see where it will lead" (p. 24). At the same time, he stressed that he wanted to base it solidly on analytic experience, especially that of treating "traumatic neurosis" (p. 24). Just as the unconscious mind reacts to an external trauma by repeating ita paradox, since the trauma is a frightening experiencethe conscious mind resorts to repetition when unpleasurable unconscious contents surface and threaten the equilibrium of the ego as a whole. Repetition compulsion is thus initially a defense, an attempt to bind, assimilate, and integrate undesirable experiences that are incompatible with other experiences. Freud saw this as "a function of the mental apparatus which, though it does not contradict the pleasure principle, is nevertheless independent of it and seems to be more primitive than the purpose of gaining pleasure and avoiding unpleasure" (p. 32). Thus "excitations from within . . . often occasion economic disturbances comparable with traumatic neuroses" (p. 34).

Freud considered the repetition compulsion as a largely dominate "universal attribute . . . of organic life in general" (p. 36). Modifications and development take place only because external factors regularly force the living organism to adapt to new life conditions. In this regard, he wrote, "The aim of all life is death" (p. 38). In "ever more complicated détours . . . these circuitous paths to death . . . would thus present us to-day with the picture of the phenomena of life" (p. 39). Unconscious instincts are also subject to this law, this aim of life, and would be completely submerged in repetition were it not for the environment and its countless demands, on the one side, and sexuality and its potentialities, on the other. "These germ-cells, therefore, work against the death of the living substance and succeed in winning for it what we can only regard as potential immortality" (p. 40). In human beings, these cells were posited as being at the source of what Freud later called the "life instinct," while the compulsion to repeat, which is primary, is associated with the death instinct.

Freud thereafter continually tried to give a more precise account of this initial insight. The phenomenon of positive transference helped substantiate the idea of a repetition compulsion, which could prove stronger than the pleasure principle, he explained in "Remarks on the Theory and Practice of Dream-Interpretation," (1923c [1922]). In "An Autobiographical Study" (1925d [1924]), Freud wrote that "the essentially conservative character of instincts is exemplified by the phenomena of the compulsion to repeat " (p. 57). In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), he explained that the repetition compulsion involves a resistance of the id. And in 1930 he explained why he preferred the term compulsion to repetition automatism.

In his late work, Freud emphasized the destructiveness of the repetition compulsion. In "New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis" (1933a [1932]), he wrote, "And now the instincts we believe in divide themselves into two groupsthe erotic instincts, which seek to combine more and more living substance into ever greater unities, and the death instincts, which oppose this effort and lead what is living back into an inorganic state. From the concurrent and opposing action of these two proceed the phenomena of life which are brought to an end by death" (p. 107). Repetition compulsion thus became synonymous with destructive impulses. Finally, Freud associated it with primary masochism, in which the subject turns violence against himself and subjugates his libido to it, endlessly repeating certain damaging patterns based on experiences rooted at the deepest levels within the self. He theorized that this is a way of tolerating feelings of guilt. The individual manifests a tendency to destroy and suffer, which brings with it feelings of overwhelming satisfaction, all of which are vestiges of a time when the individual did not yet have a sense of reality. In the famous text "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c), Freud revealed his greatest pessimism noting that instead of "permanently disposing of an instincual demand [through analysis]. . . . we mean something else, something which may be roughly described as a 'taming' of the instinct" (p. 224-225)

As on the dichotomy between the life and death instincts, psychoanalysts have been divided on the issue of repetition compulsion. As a result, it has been reinterpreted in several ways. Among the most influential interpretations is that of Jacques Lacan (1978), who saw repetition compulsion as one of the four major concepts of psychoanalysis, along with the unconscious, transference, and the instincts. He used it as the basis for his distinction between jouissance (enjoyment) and pleasure, with jouissance being situated "beyond the pleasure principle" as the desired result of repetition of the worst carried to its extreme. Jean Laplanche, by contrast, emphasized that the "repetition compulsion and the death instinct are not at all synonymous": it is the message of the Other as such that is traumatic, and repetition is the first way of giving it meaning.

The concept of the repetition compulsion turned Freudian theory on its head. It introduced the death instinct, opened the way to the second theory of the instincts, and led to modifications in clinical practice and analytic technique that are still going on in the early twenty-first century. Analysts no longer focus on deciphering slips of the tongue or dreams, or on resolving a particular symptom, but instead try to find ways to halt repetitive behavior patterns by opening up diversionary pathways for them. From a theoretical point of view, the evolution of the notion of repetition compulsion and the constant shifts it underwent in Freud's thinking has received far more consideration than one would expect. In the beginning, the main role of the repetition compulsion was to account for the psyche's conservative tendencies, its reactions in the face of anything that might invade it. Only at a second stage did Freud emphasize the compulsive, systematic, instinctual aspects of the repetition compulsion and bring out its fundamentally destructive side. This shift is problematic. To get beyond the resulting contradiction, which emerges in the opposing positions of Lacan and Laplanche (1980), one must return anew to one of Freud's statements in the metapsychological articles of 1915, according to which all instincts are fundamentally active, willed, and enacted by the subject alone. And one must note in addition that the subject exists in relation to others and is the product of relationships. Subjects repeat what they internalized during their earliest relationships, in order to actively exploit this initial lived experience by all means at their disposal. This repetition turns into automatism pure and simple and becomes destructive when it runs up against some of life's obstacles. Then repetition is completely beyond the control of the subject, who is held hostage to it.

GÉrard Bonnet

See also: Automatism; Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Compulsion; Death instinct (Thanatos); Jouissance (Lacan); Obsession; Protective shield, breaking through the; Punishment, dream of; Repetition; Repetitive dreams; Trauma.


Freud, Sigmund. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1923c [1922]). Remarks on the theory and practice of dream-interpretation. SE, 19: 107-121.

. (1925d [1924]). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.

. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Freud, Sigmund. (1937c). Analysis, terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

Lacan, Jacques. (1964). Position de l'inconscient. In his Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

. (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 11: The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1973)

Laplanche, Jean. (1980). Problématiques II: Castration, symbolisations. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Gifford, Sanford, rep. (1964). Panel: Repetition compulsion. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 12, 632-649.

Inderbitzin, Lawrence, and Levy, Steven. (1998). Repetition compulsion revisited: Implications for technique. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 67, 32-53.

Loewald, Hans W. (1971). Some considerations on repetition and repetition compulsion. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 52, 59-66.


views updated May 17 2018


A compulsion is a persistent, irresistible impulse to perform a repetitive, irrational behavior or mental act. Common behavioral compulsions include hand-washing, cleaning, checking, ordering, and touching. Common mental act compulsions include counting, praying, and repeating words silently. Compulsive acts may need to be performed to exacting specifications. The goal of compulsive behaviors or mental acts is to prevent or reduce anxiety. There is no pleasure or gratification derived from performing the compulsive behavior or mental act. Often, the person feels compelled to perform the compulsive act in order to reduce the anxiety associated with an obsessive thought. Alternatively, compulsive acts are performed as a way to prevent a feared event or situation. Compulsions are excessive (e.g. washing the hands until the skin is raw in order to relieve obsessive fears of contamination) or they are unrelated to the obsessive thought they were designed to negate or prevent.


American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Sadock, B. J., & Sadock, V. A. (2000). Kaplan & Sadock's comprehensive textbook of psychiatry. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Belinda Rowland

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