Beware of Repetition Compulsion

Excerpt from a letter written to a friend struggling with the kind of childhood background that sets people up for continued unhappiness via the curse of the repetition compulsion. Publishing it here because many could benefit from thinking about this pattern, for their own life or to help others recognise it. It’s worthwhile looking up formal material on repetition compulsion in conjunction with reading this.

Sofia presently feels intensely unworthy and unlovable and is now self-harming due to the situation: An obsession with a man with the compatible dysfunction who is charming her and feels like such a wonderful profound connection even though she knows it’s all wrong and it’s making her miserable. She describes the attraction as compelling and unbearable. This is a very very common pattern of dysfunctional connection and only sets a person up for another dysfunctional relationship. We have to recognise it for what it is to learn to avoid it.

Just gonna address two things that jump out at me here.

One is about being unworthy, unlovable etc etc. Those feelings are typically triggered in repetition-compulsion situations, just as you experienced them when you were a child growing up in a dysfunctional family. Your parents couldn’t be there for you like a child needs them to be, so you felt unworthy, unlovable etc, as kids do when that is the case, especially sensitive kids, and it’s a very large kind of emotion for a small child. So when it comes back in a situation that is psychologically similar to those childhood experiences, the emotion is again very large, because it comes from the wounded child you were, and still carry inside you; and you and I always will – so that will always happen under such circumstances, you can’t undo it and be immune, but you can know the circumstances that trigger it and take care to manage situations physically so you don’t fall into that trap again, or if you have, to get the hell out of there. You have to use workarounds because you can usually not be “normal” and just feel automatically emotionally repelled by those kinds of situations like a normal person (even if you feel intellectually repelled – it’s the emotions that are the Achilles heel).

And the large emotions idiotically feed into the dysfunctional attachment pattern and to those of us with fucked-up sexual scripts, become part of the grandness of the attraction, and the profoundness, and the compelling aspect – it literally is a compulsion. And the sense of “connection” which is in fact a dysfunctional connection, but until you’ve had a healthy romantic relationship you don’t know how different that feels and think/feel that “this is it” when you tap back into your wrought childhood feelings and they become layered over sexual attraction etc etc. It doesn’t help that half the pop songs and movies in the world present dysfunctional relationships as the pinnacle of romance, thereby perpetuating the idea that the dysfunctional is normal and healthy.

Second thing that jumps out at me: You say there are so many things you still want to do with him and FOR him.

I’m going to focus on the FOR him. For you love has mostly been your own taking care of other people from the time you were little, at the sacrifice of your childhood, and later, a lot of potential adult happiness. This is parentification – that you prematurely had to mother people, and that mothering is now a kind of default for love.

Now it’s nice for your siblings you did this, because they benefitted from that developmentally (although it also comes with emotional damage to be mothered mainly by a sibling and not by the parents as is intended). And it was nice of you to do that, but it also damaged you, because you couldn’t have a carefree childhood. I was parentified in a different manner, to be my parents’ confidante and therapist when they needed one, without anyone doing that for me (and either way, as a kid that should never have been asked of me).

So the self-concept and the concept of love becomes tied up with one-sided giving (the only place that is OK is between a parent and a child, with the parent doing the disproportionate giving, or to temporarily take care of physically or mentally ill people – but not long-term or as a “relationship”). And love to you was always an unequal giving of yourself and therefore running on empty – because even parents usually don’t do this well unsupported by others.

So in your serious romantic relationships so far, you gave more that you got and ran on empty, and had unsatisfactory experiences, just as you did in childhood. And because of your childhood and learning that love was always this (because you didn’t get enough love and care yourself), you settle for the same BS, but even worse, are existentially drawn to it – like most people who’ve had the kind of childhood you or I have had.

You love love love, hoping if you love someone enough you will eventually be loved back the way you need to be loved and deserve to be loved. But it doesn’t happen, and under this particular pattern it never will, because you’re starting with the wrong men and situations in the first place. And because it doesn’t happen, you feel unworthy, unlovable etc etc.

The strength of the attraction is not in fact about the potential of the relationship with that person. It’s the child in you that always wanted to figure out how you could play that game you found yourself in and get what you needed, turning yourself inside out to be “good enough” to finally get what you needed, but it never came. And that child, every time it gets the same cues, locks into them and tries to see if this time, it can work out how to play that game and get what you need – by giving more, being better etc etc etc.

But the reason you will not get what you need is because you are always playing the same game that will predictably have the same outcome.

Daniel has clearly charmed you and you probably would be able to make a long list of what you think is wonderful about him, but the bottom line is, he’s unsuitable, and despite the long compelling conversations creating feelings of closeness and intimacy, as unavailable for you as your parents were, but tantalising you with the possibility that he will be available just around the corner. It’s like heroin, Sofia. It’s everything you ever wanted: to break the curse of the person you love not being able to give you what you need. These games may not even be consciously played, but played they certainly are.

You have given Daniel so much power over you and your happiness, and despite all the things you will inevitably think are so wonderful about him – and we are so, so good not just at magnifying people’s good characteristics while editing out their flaws, but at projecting our fantasies onto people without being aware this is what we are doing – the reality is this: He is your 30-year old neighbour, he has two little kids, you’d never have picked that out on a dating app if you have any sense at all, and I think you have a lot of sense.

1) Neighbour: No, don’t go there, especially when you’ve just moved to your own place for the first time in your life and you can’t just go rent somewhere else if you need to get away from there because things are too complicated emotionally – as they often are after a breakup, or with a continuing unwanted unhealthy attraction.

2) Age gap: You could have given birth to him had you begun early, Sofia. And men are generally already more immature than women emotionally, especially early in life. This is a baby, no matter what your smitten brain thinks. You have way more life experience. The chances of an equal and mature relationship are so small in a situation like this. But, you are so used to taking care of younger people, and living in service to them, and mothering them, because that is how you grew up – it’s software, if you like.

3) Two young kids: Do you want to be a de facto mother to someone else’s children? I mean, I like kids, but can you not see how attractive to your reptile brain the situation of taking care of a man baby and his two babies is going to be, if you grew up parentified? Your repetition compulsion says, “Bingo! So familiar!” And you want to GIVE and do things FOR him. Gimme a break, he’s an adult and he ought to be taking care of himself and his own responsibilities. They are not your responsibilities. Adult relationships should be equal, not lopsided. It is not your role in life to be there for other people and take care of them, even though it was allocated to you so early, and even though to an extent that is your professional role (and people like us will typically choose caring roles like social work or mental health or teaching or nursing to feel we are doing something worthwhile – and on one level it is, of course, but don’t let your worth as a person be defined by how much of yourself you give away to others…).

4) Dysfunctional family with a wife who’s not there anymore – just add water / just add Sofia? You weren’t put on this earth to deal with other people’s crap, even though you do it for a living. At the very least, don’t do it in your personal life. I’m not saying be a selfish cow – but there is naturally caring for others, and there is doing it to an excess, when it’s someone else’s problem. We aren’t here to be someone else’s fix-it; adults need to take care of themselves (and mutually within their own circle of friends), or pay someone else to help them do it. Daniel’s problems and issues are his to address, not yours. Fuck him, frankly (and not literally, of course). What the fuck is he doing getting involved with you emotionally if he knows and says he’s not available, is much younger than you, has two kids to take care of, and a situation with his wife to address. Those are the surface facts. Don’t gloss them over, dear Sofia. This is not your circus to adopt, it’s his circus to sort out. And this circus will never, ever give you what you need, and make you happy, no matter the rose-tinted glasses your biochemistry has glued to your nose.

But it’s so much easier for the man to play at romance and do smooth talking than to deal with his own BS and his own responsibilities like a responsible adult. It’s such a lovely escape, and it’s so intoxicating for a guy to be given so much power over a woman – to have her pine for him and to know in his heart of hearts you want to wait for him to become what you need him to be. Just as it is so intoxicating for you to give away your power and your boundaries like this – because “love” always was this and was always at your expense. And to guys, culturally, love is so much entitlement. And fuck Daniel (not literally, of course). He may not be doing any of this consciously, probably isn’t, but fuck him. You deserve so much better than this – and he won’t be the one to fill that role; he’s far too immature, and far too entitled, and has years of learning ahead of him before he can be an equal partner to any woman, if he ever gets there – and many men never will.

This is NOT how love works.

Don’t line up to give yourself to something like this. Run. Shut the door. Try objectively to see it for what it is. Understand you are under a spell, biochemically and psychologically. You could have felt this way about a thousand men in this world, with the same unavailability and immaturity coupled with characteristics you find enchanting. There are many, many immature men in this world; very few adults actually are real adults.

Real love feels very different to this. It took me so, so long to work this out. Real love has none of this torture, none of this inequality, none of this giving away your power and boundaries, none of this romanticising and projection. Real love is real, and nourishing, not distressing. It’s not one-sided. Until you experience a relationship with a romantic partner where the love and giving are equal you don’t know what real love feels like. It is totally unfamiliar, and it will even feel “wrong” so that you may well be pushing away people who are in fact good contenders, while you’re giving your time, energy and heart to the wrong people in the wrong circumstances who, owing only to repetition compulsion, feel so totally “right” – and unbearable.

Sofia is partly awake to this, making progress and getting some help with the situation. Let’s all cross our fingers for her, and for everyone like her in this world who still needs to break free from this very common curse bestowed by intergenerational trauma. Here’s a couple of songs and a School of Life clip that also deal with this topic. And good luck to anyone dealing with the same curse.

And a song about the battle with the self:

4 Replies to “Beware of Repetition Compulsion”

  1. Hi. I’m @NBPTROCKS on Twitter. I was hoping you would unblock me. Jan Herder recommended I leave a comment here. Great writing, thanks.

    1. Again, did you even read it or is this just some kind of attempt to manipulate? I sense a theme here. If you did actually read and comprehend some of the things you purported to have done online, you’d actually have learnt something, and I never saw evidence for that. It seems to me you are more interested in talking and in occupying a podium than in actually learning about the stuff you like to spout about.

      Full marks also for holding a really unprofessional talkfest on a book you didn’t actually read (skimmed it at most) – Lyle’s book, and on the worst podcast interview I’ve ever listened to for “professionalism”.

      Alex, I won’t be unblocking you while you don’t meet my criteria for what is worth engaging with and what isn’t. People like yourself cause so much trouble for the planet and community with your empty talkfests out of so much ignorance, and the indulging of hopium, and I think it’s ego-driven. I’ve never enjoyed your feed or your attitude. Just do your thing if you have to, but it’s got nothing to do with me.

      A topical song.

  2. Sue. Brilliant! Sending all my prayers that the Sophia’s of the world see this and wake up 😉 Sophia means wisdom…was that by accident?

    Everything you said is spot on. It is like heroin and the intense connection feeling only feels intense because of its toxicity which is painfully familiar. Like oh, I’m being chosen…no wait, I’m unwanted again..but am I? Oh you need me…but you don’t want me…am I worthless? Or am I something?

    I was often told I was special by adults around me who would then use me for sex or work or ego boosting. It was also implied that I was ‘special’ and therefore didn’t need the same basic things every other human needs and as such wasn’t weak and therefore somehow favorable. So so so fuct.

    It hit so hard and so fast I simply didn’t see it coming this time. Had I not been emotionally exhausted from the move and subsequent divorce and breakup, I might’ve seen it sooner but I’m out now. Fully tapped out. Two rounds of Deep Brain Reprogramming…not a bad turnaround time 😂 four months all together.

    The good news is, I think I might be convinced I actually deserve more this time.

    I read a Frida quote the other night, a letter actually, I want to blog on it cause it’s so fierce and giving me strength:
    leaving is not enough; you must
    stay gone. train your heart
    like a dog. change the locks
    even on the house he’s never
    visited. you lucky, lucky girl.
    you have an apartment
    just your size. a bathtub
    full of tea. a heart the size
    of Arizona, but not nearly
    so arid. don’t wish away
    your cracked past, your
    crooked toes, your problems
    are papier mache puppets
    you made or bought because the vendor
    at the market was so compelling you just
    had to have them. you had to have him.
    and you did. and now you pull down
    the bridge between your houses.
    you make him call before
    he visits. you take a lover
    for granted, you take
    a lover who looks at you
    like maybe you are magic. make
    the first bottle you consume
    in this place a relic. place it
    on whatever altar you fashion
    with a knife and five cranberries.
    don’t lose too much weight.
    stupid girls are always trying
    to disappear as revenge. and you
    are not stupid. you loved a man
    with more hands than a parade
    of beggars, and here you stand. heart
    like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas.
    heart leaking something so strong
    they can smell it in the street.

    Amen to the scripture of Frida and Sue,

    Love you💜🙏🏼

  3. Hullo Elizabeth! Much love to you! ♥

    Hmmm yes, emotional manipulation and abuse when you are little is such a “gift” to give a child…the gift that keeps on giving. Thankfully it is possible to wake up from the , but when a person does, inevitably they will lament the time wasted whether is was a week or half a lifetime. We can think of it as another learning experience…

    That Frida quote is superb – I’d never come across it. One for women to print out and stick on their pantry doors, toilet doors or wherever they will be forced to read it regularly!

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