Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Curse of Repetition and The Death Instinct

One obvious fact of my experience of life is that many of us seem to be addicted to repeating our mistakes.  Indeed we keep repeating painful experiences again and again.  Why do we never learn?  Masochism is an obvious example.  I hardly need to define it, but for the sake of clarity and completion I will do so.  It is 1 : a sexual perversion characterized by pleasure in being subjected to pain or humiliation especially by a love object.  2 : pleasure in being abused or dominated : a taste for suffering.  In short Masochism, in this sense, is a psychiatric disorder characterized by feelings of sexual pleasure or gratification when having suffering or pain inflicted upon the self.  Freud at first saw this as a "secondary process" - a turning inwards of an outwardly directed aggression.  Then he went on to wonder whether there might not be a "primary masochism" as a product of the Death Instinct which I discussed in my last post.  Freud, as we can readily see, has now changed his mind and can clearly see that Masochism is in fact a primary processSadism, which is defined as a psychiatric disorder characterized by feelings of sexual pleasure or gratification when inflicting suffering on others, is, according to Freud, secondary.  It is in fact an attempt to deflect outwards the aggression which threatens the self.

Psychoanalytic practice also convinced Freud that patients compulsively repeat emotionally painful situations.  Freud called this "the repetition compulsion."  Just the other day I was talking about this phenomenon with a friend of mine.  She related a story to me about a friend of hers who constantly falls in love with older men who are eventually unobtainable.  Firstly she spent almost two years in a sexual relationship with a priest who was some years older than her, but who had absolutely no desire to leave the priesthood for her.  When that relationship finished she embarked upon a relationship with an older married man who has a family.  We do not need to be brain surgeons to realise that this woman is repeating destructive relationships.  Why do we do that at all?  Dr Michael Kahn also enumerates good examples of this repetition compulsion.  He refers to one of his students, called Marsha as a pseudonym, who only fell in love with men like her father (who was charismatic and powerful but was always too busy to give her undivided attention) but whenever she found such a man she soon lost interest as soon as he became devoted to her.  He mentions another client, let's call him Kevin, who found himself attracted to a succession of women all of whom had a large number of previous lovers.  Kevin kept becoming jealous of all these predecessors.  Or again take a case of someone I know, let's call him John, who, as soon as someone becomes very close to him, will reject and push away the person drawing closer to him.  Once again I have often found myself being drawn to fall in love with women who are eventually revealed to have deep emotional, if not psychological problems.  From doing some counselling plus other personal work on my own repetition compulsion I have found that I somehow link in to their wounded-ness (if I may compose a neologism) or anxiety or depression and seek somehow to attempt to heal or at least to assuage that wounded-ness in them.  Now that I am aware of this and have made this unconscious motivation conscious I find I am so much less likely to fall in love in the same way!  

Repeating the same unhappy situation over and over again is a major cause of human misery and is one of the first things a therapist looks for when setting out to understand a client.   Dr Michael Kahn gives us this insight which I feel is good:

At first glance it looks as though the person were trying over and over to create a happy ending for that earlier situation.  Should a replay turn out happily, the experience seems spoiled, and it's back to the drawing board to re-create the old unhappy situation once again.  It's as though the very painfulness of the original situation was fixating, driving one repeatedly to behave as though he or she were unconsciously trying to understand what had happened.  The situation with the happy ending would cease to be the original situation, which is defined by conflict, frustration, and guilt, and thus would lose its attraction. (Michael Kahn, Basic Freud, Basic Books, 2002, p. 97)

Freud observed children throwing objects away again and again and saying "Gone!"  He firstly thought that the object of this game might be the retrieval of the object.  But on further observation he noted that children often did not always retrieve these objects and proceeded to throw other objects away.  Freud felt certain that throwing the object away represented the departure of the mother and the retrieval the wish for the return of the mother.  So why did the child not retrieve the objects all the time then?  Why did he/she seemingly wish to be in the painful position of being without the toy or without the mother?

Another thing our man Freud noted was the fact that the patient or client attempted to manipulate the therapist into acting the role of their own parents - that is, an attempt to recreate their parental relationship.  Why did people wish to keep repeating this pain or what Freud rather interestingly and insightfully called "unpleasure," a marvellously Freudian neologism?

After much thought and reflection and indeed much work with further patients Freud wrote a book called Beyond The Pleasure Principle.  In it he stated that he had come to believe that "the pleasure principle" was not, in the final analysis (if you forgive the pun) the most powerful force.  In fact, he said, there was a more primal one still, a "regressive instinct" as he called it - a basic instinct for destruction.  This basic instinct for destruction Freud would call The death Instinct.  I will return to Dr Kahn for clarity here:

He now thought that there were two major forces operating in us, forces continually in mortal combat.  The first such force consisted of the instincts of Eros, the life energy, which move toward bringing things together and moving life forward.  The second major force consisted of the instincts of destruction, which move backward toward recovering the original state of the component parts of the universe.  He thought that destruction included a "death instinct" continually struggling against Eros.  The repetition compulsion, he thought , is a manifestation of these regressive instincts, part of the death instinct always struggling against Eros to move us back to an earlier state. (Op. cit., 102)

I have bolded the final sentence above from Kahn by way of emphasising the basic point of this short post!

1 comment:

BizyLizy said...

I enjoyed reading this post, as well as a few of your others.

As someone who is currently engaging in a relationship I know is unhealthy for me, but one that holds me captive, I am forever searching for enlightenment and understanding.

Fortunately, I have a great shrink. Taking baby steps...

Thanks for your thoroughly detailed and thought-provoking assessments of the human psyche.