Parents, teachers, and therapists alike have all experienced both the maddening frustration and torture of having to accompany family members, students, and patients, respectively, as they repeat the same disheartening patterns of behavior even when the consequences may be dire. To add insult to injury, these helpers also have been subject to the recalcitrant nature of the repeaters who cling to their repetitive patterns while rejecting the logical advice of those who are trying to help. Similarly discouraging is the oft spoken statement by repeaters who say that they do not know what else to do despite the fact that those around them have discussed alternatives many times! Some repeaters not only feel compelled to reprise the same thoughts and behaviors, but also when confronted, actually espouse a “yes, but” stance in defense of the repetitions! As Holmes (2014) put it, individuals “…create the same gloomy prisons [for themselves and those around them]…over and over again (p.27).” The natural human response is to try to help by using logic, reason, cajoling, or even bribery to get the repeater to stop. Yet, insight may have little effect. The urge to repeat is far stronger than any appeal to common sense or warnings about the consequences.
Why continue to engage in repetitive, unsuccessful behaviors when other seemingly more constructive choices exist? Amongst the multiple reasons for repeating is the neuropsychological underpinning that supports this pattern. The intense urge to repeat is rooted in the early, reptilian part of the brain which operates outside of the reach of language. This is why attempts to influence repetitive thoughts and behaviors via the use of language are often unsuccessful. This early part of the brain is concerned with survival and over time the evolution of repetitive behaviors has become inextricably intertwined with an intensity that signals danger to the individual if the behaviors are not repeated. While survival is the most basic human instinct, the worries about surviving become generalized to situations and people where survival is really not the issue. Yet, the compelling urge to repeat has been elevated to the degree where terror is experienced at the prospect of letting go of the behaviors despite their causing continuing difficulties. As Holmes put it, “…talking to the cerebral cortex [the mature part of the brain] is like trying to keep the lion that is mauling a child from killing that child by explaining to the lion tamer that his animal is misbehaving-it doesn’t begin to confront the problem where it lies [the reptilian brain]….the cerebral cortex is too small to control the lions, tigers, and bears in the more primitive parts of the brain (p.30).”
So, how do those who care about the repeaters help them? First, it is of paramount importance to recognize that because repetition is incorrectly associated with survival, just telling the repeater to stop will either fail completely or result in a temporary halt simply to avoid losing the affection or attention of those telling them to stop. Repetition is a manifestation of a normal developmental process gone awry. For instance, infants are observed to venture put into the world in baby steps, only to return back (i.e., reproachment) to the parent for a check-in and a refueling. Healthy repetition of this process allows the infant to internalize over time a sense of constancy and confidence that results in individuation and a feeling that they will be okay. However, when this refueling was interrupted or not sufficient, the opposite results and a feeling of not being okay without the other ensues. For example, a patient, when anxious, repeatedly feels an urgent need for contact with her mother who is viewed as the only one to provide soothing. Yet, the refueling needs to be repeated over and over again as the capacity to self-sooth has not developed and, or is being resisted, a pattern that, paradoxically, evokes annoyance and a withholding of the needed feeling by the mother. Understanding this process, regrettably, does little to change it.
The help that is required is not an intellectual explanation or insight, but an emotional communication that speaks the language of, and, thus, reaches the reptilian brain. It begins with allowing repeaters to talk enough to gain their trust rather than correcting them and thereby making them feel they are understood (i.e., that you get him/her). What is enough is hard to say. However, providing the atmospheric conditions for the repeater to feel safe is a prerequisite for any effort to diminish the repetitive cycle. In this day and age, the pressure to produce academic or behavioral changes quickly at school, at home, or in the therapy office, while good intentioned, may actually work against the goal of helping repeaters stop the repetitive behaviors by raising their resistance. In contrast, Holmes points out that the repetitive talking and behaving, while hard to tolerate, serves the purpose of bringing the repeaters to the point of being sick of hearing themselves or behaving in the same ways. When the repeater reaches this point, the simple idea that doing something different is required in order to have a satisfying life that parents, teachers, and therapists have tried unsuccessfully to convey, is more likely to take hold when it is adopted by the repeaters as their own idea.
Crafting a successful emotional communication has to evolve as a natural response to the feelings that the repeaters induce. For example, it would be a natural response of parents, teachers, and therapists feeling the frustration and hopelessness experienced from being subject to the repetition of the same thoughts and behaviors to feel annoyed and angered by the rejection of their advice. Rather than venting anger on the repeater for failing to respond to the helper’s repeated efforts (which may provide temporary relief, but communicate rejection), the helpers can give these induced feelings a “turn”: “What am I to say when you repeatedly act in ways as if we never discussed these situations?” This is an honest emotional communication that does not signal that you are dropping the repeater (although you may feel like doing so) and is, instead, a loving statement that implies that the helper cannot stand seeing the repeater ruining his/her life and does not want to support it. This is a tricky proposition as it is easier to vent anger and frustration at the person who is frustrating your efforts. However, the same frustration you are experiencing can be expressed more productively in a way that is not an attack on the repeater who is struggling against the urge to repeat by risking a personal response without personalizing the repeater’s failure to enact the helper’s interpretations and advice.
Geltner (2007) likens emotional communications to the process of finding the right feeling to move repeaters progressively forward rather than continuing to engage in hopeless repetitive cycles. It involves using the induced emotions in ways that include mirroring. For example, a repeater constantly complains that no one understands him and he persists in trying to obtain this understanding by repeating over and over again the same complaints and enacting the same behaviors, hoping each time that someone would just listen. Instead, most others just become irritated upon hearing the same complaints and just tell him to stop complaining and do something different. In contrast, the right emotional communication may be to mirror/agree with the repeater: “It is just infuriating that people do not respond the way you would like!”
A primary challenge in crafting the right emotional communication is that implicit in the repeaters’ recurring behaviors is an angry message decrying the failure of the world do satisfy their needs. Ironically, when this message is received more strongly than the communication of the repeaters’ neediness, a reciprocally angry response may be elicited which perpetuates the cycle. Returning the right (i.e., curative) feelings requires that the listeners first need to hear, accept, and tolerate the primary cry-the need to be understood and for someone to fix things for them-rather than the repeaters’ angry responses to the world’s failure to meet their needs. Then, giving those angry feelings-which are experienced as an assault by the helpers who feel hopeless and helpless to help-the right turn.
Geltner, P. (2007). Finding the right feeling: Objective countertransference and he curative emotional communication. Modern Psychoanalysis, 32(1), 66-78.
Holmes, L. (2014). Reaching the repetition compulsion. Modern Psychoanalysis, 39(1), 26-37.