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Radiohead and repetition compulsion

How come I end up where I started

How come I end up where I went wrong?

15 Step – Radiohead

Have you had the sickening experience of realising you are back in the grip of the problems you set out to avoid?

Do you keep making the same mistakes?

  • arguing with work colleagues
  • not communicating with partners
  • destructive behaviours, drinking, gambling
  • procrastinating
  • underachieving at work

It seems that we tend to live in ways that repeat and go round the same problems over and over again.  We might aspire to live differently and stop making the same mistakes yet somehow we find ourselves repeating them.

What’s behind these repetitive acts?

It may be that there are certain kinds of emotional experiences that we don’t know how to digest and so are stuck repeatedly going over them. For example, where there have been traumatic separations, the experience can be of such an intensity that it can’t be faced.  We put it to one side, we’ll deal with it later.

However it may be that this original situation, not faced, is the very thing which leads us to negative repetitions.

Change, or live like this forever

Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence was that if you are not happy with the way you are living this moment then you need to change it, otherwise you are destined to endlessly repeat it.

  • If something is wrong in the present – change it, or you will never move beyond it.

Psychotherapy and the repetition compulsion

Freud was intrigued watching his grandson play with a cotton reel.  First the boy threw the reel away, then he drew it back.  Freud felt the repetitive act might be the boy’s attempt to gain control over a difficult situation; the loss of his mother.  By playing the game, Freud speculated that his grandson was deferring the sense of loss, it was giving him some mastery over a difficult situation.

  • Psychodynamic theories suggest that within our repetitive acts are things we are trying to avoid

Repeating is not the same as remembering and means that effectively you are stuck in the traumatic moments of your past and cannot move on from them.  Somehow you have to try to find a way to break the repetition, to become conscious of what you are doing.

How do you create the possibility of changing things?

When an event is worked through it can become part of the past, part of your history, and because your energy is no longer tied up in repetitions, you have more energy available for the present.  You are free to live differently.

This is the work that psychotherapists do.  They find ways of bringing to light the repetitions that are being enacted in the therapeutic relationship and by bringing them to light make it possible for client and therapist to think about and recognise the way they have been relating to each other.

When these moments of recognition happen, clients can spontaneously find ways to change.  It may take a while to understand what has happened, but during that time it becomes the case that things in the therapeutic relationship are changing.

Breaking the pattern – an example from psychotherapy

Let’s say a habit develops in the therapy where the client is always a few minutes late.  You can bring it to attention, the client is probably aware of it anyway, but it keeps happening.  It is more than a chance event, it keeps happening.

An argument might blow up about it. The client thinks you are making too much of it, you think there is something in it.

The argument becomes heated, but instead of the client walking out on you the opposite happens.

They become able to consider that there might be something in it. They settle. They start to come on time.  The therapy has turned a corner.

You might not fully understand the change but you are aware of it.  There is more trust, more interest from the client in their therapy, something has been worked through.

Psychotherapy may be the only place in which you can gain this kind of insight and stop the repetition.


Radiohead and repetition compulsion

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Radiohead and repetition compulsion. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Mar 2018
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