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History Repeats Itself, Part I: The Persistent Influence of Our First Families

Boy, father and grandfather sitting in row

History repeats itself, especially in our psychological lives and in our relationships.

Although this fact has been recognized for millennia, one of its earliest formulations in the field of psychology is called repetition compulsion. According to Freud (1914) repetition compulsion is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again, either in real life or in dreams.

Does this idea resonate with you? Are there patterns you tend to repeat in your relational life that you just can’t seem to break or, at the very least, have been slow in changing?

Although Freud attempted many explanations of this phenomenon, some more satisfactory than others, it was only in later years that we’ve gained a fuller picture of why these sorts of events are repeated.

Over the course of our lives, we interact with many different systems. However, our family of origin – the first system we encounter – has the most pervasive influence on our emotional and physical development and future relationships. As we grow up, our parents teach us what’s good or bad, valued or worthless, important or unimportant. In many cases, we learn this from what our parents say and do. In other cases, we learn more indirectly, impacted by our family’s emotional atmosphere [1].

Dorothy was a 45-year-old woman who came to psychotherapy knowing exactly what the problem was but with no idea how to solve it. Mostly, I was struck by her exhaustion – she had deep circles beneath her eyes and looked completely drained.

“I’m not living my own life anymore,” she quickly told me.

As we talked, I learned that Dorothy was exclusively caring for her aging mother, in spite of the fact that her two sisters lived less than an hour away. She visited her mother morning and night. Most days, they talked on the phone ten times. Dorothy’s mother was emotionally abusive, often calling her a terrible, hateful daughter; at other times, she phoned Dorothy’s husband to complain about Dorothy’s failings. Dorothy never confronted her mother or insisted that her sisters contribute to their mother’s care.

Dorothy experienced ongoing emotional neglect during her childhood. Although her mother was well intentioned, she’d suffered from severe mental health issues. Dorothy recounted innumerable incidents in which she sought, without success, to elicit her mother’s love. “I remember her lying on the couch almost every afternoon when I got home from school. She’d been crying and hadn’t changed out of her pajamas.”

After a brief pause, I asked, “You just wanted her to notice you?”

Dorothy sighed. “Yes,” she continued, “but no matter what I did, that never happened. I brought home artwork from school, cleaned up the house. Several times, I even cooked dinner. But my mother never got off the couch or thanked me for my effort.”

“I wonder,” I offered, “whether you’re still trying to get her to love you now.” Dorothy began to cry, a first lightly but then in more heavily, making contact with deeply held but rarely acknowledged feelings of disappointment and loss.

We all leave our family of origin with emotional baggage. Some people have more baggage than others, and some are more aware of what’s packed in their bags than others [1]. Learning what’s packed in these bags, and perhaps deciding to work through and leave a few items behind, is the essence of family of origin work.

Dorothy understood that she was repeating a pattern from her early childhood. But change did not come quickly. Over a series of meetings, we discussed the strong emotional pull Dorothy felt to recapture her mother’s love and attention – though she freely admitted that she’d never had these in the first place. Several months later, Dorothy came in and said, “My mother started insulting me again on the phone today.”

“And?” I said, waiting for her to respond.

“And I told her, ‘If you can’t speak to me kindly, then we’ll have to talk another time. Maybe tomorrow when you’re feeling better.’”

“What happened next?” I asked

Dorothy sighed. “She kept going, like we expected she would. But I rose to the occasion. I said, ‘I’m sorry mother, we’ll have to talk later,’ and I hung up the phone.”

This article will be continued in future installments.

References:

  1. Brown, F.H. (2006). Reweaving the family tapestry: A multigenerational approach to families. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  2. Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreb¬¬History Repeats Itself

© Copyright 2013 by Tom Wooldridge, PsyD, therapist in Berkeley, CA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Marshall April 25th, 2013 at 12:54 PM #1

    I don’t understand the pull that we have to do this over and over to ourselves. I understand that for many of us the routine is habitual and this is what we’ ve always known. But we have grown up now- don’t we learn that some people are just viral to us and we would be SOOOOO much better off without them in our lives? I know that it is hard when it is close family, believe me I know all about that from my own first hand experience! But I also know that people who continue to hurt me, those are people I don’t want or need so much in my life anymore. And if I continue to allow them to exact that behavior on me, then who do I have to blame for this other than myself?

  • Barrett April 26th, 2013 at 3:48 AM #2

    It is so amazing how I always said when I was growing up that I would never be like my dad, but here I am at 30 with kids and guess who I find myself sounding more and more like every single day?

    And now, instead of making me crazy to realize that I am him, it makes me proud to know that I was raised by a man who was only doing the best he knew how for me and the whole family.

  • clive April 27th, 2013 at 12:50 AM #3

    parents have a big influence on us.but when the same parents ignore or are hurtful to us we may come to expect that from them overtime and even accept it.it just not fair for either side here but one mistake can trigger another and the domino effect goes on.

  • clare April 27th, 2013 at 5:49 AM #4

    It is not so simple to move on from what you have known your whole life.
    Obviously these are the people who have known you from your very earliest years.
    They have molded and shaped you fer better or for worse, and have probably played a huge part in how you react to certain things today and how you interrelate with others.
    You can’t just forget about all of that- instead it is good to recognize all that they have given you, both the good and the bad, and be thankful for the good and maybe look into the ways that you would like to chage or even challenge the bad.
    Doesn’t mean that you can change them, but you have the right and the ability to change yourself if that is what you want to do.

  • Jeanna April 29th, 2013 at 4:54 AM #5

    aaahhh the family of origin. . .
    how long am I supposed to allow those poeple to ruin my life?
    they ruined the only childhood i will ever have
    so why let them continue to bother me now?

  • Tree January 3rd, 2014 at 1:44 PM #6

    At the age of 9 or 10 I began to fight to emotionally separated from my family of origin,especially from my parents. Rather than accept the abuse, I would run and hide from them and stay out until the weather drove me in. I left home at 14. When my parents attempts to contact and manipulate me failed they manipulated my siblings into contacting me and manipulating me. That worked for awhile. Fortunately I was eventually able to disengage from most of them as well.
    I came from a family where we, as children, suffered from terrible mental and emotional stress from the intense physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse from our parents.
    I attempted to run several times from the age of 9 or 10 on. My parents tried to keep me in seclusion to control me. I had no friends or contacts. I had no money, no social skills,no training of any kind. I headed out into the world blind, to make my way and try to find a way to survive and live. It took a long time but I made it. Now I am writing a book. It’s a book about walking out of hell and into life. Life is good and sweet and loving if you let it be so. If you know that joy and happiness can be there you can look for it.

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