◆ Failure is the only way a person learns. One cannot learn what one already knows or has mastered. This is why facing one’s own ignorance or lack of skill in the process of failing results in learning. But learning must result in an acquisition of knowledge, skill or experience that in turn lead to a change of some sort. If there is no resulting change, one might argue that true learning has never taken place. So repeated failures, if they were indeed relatively similar in nature, signify the lack of learning; whereas repeated failures that are made at least somewhat unique each time signify that learning may have, indeed, taken place. This fact, known to many, is influential in the self-judgement of only a minority of people when they reflect on their experiences with failure.
Aspirations, or what are referred to as ‘dreams’, are what keep life ‘alive’! However, few dreams ever come true, and no individual ever achieves ALL of their aspirations. Therefore, it would be extremely risky to plan one’s future on the basis of a single dream. It would not be wise from a statistical perspective to have a solitary, inflexible dream. It is obvious, that one should both be prepared to fail repeatedly at actualizing a dream, and yet keep striving to do so. It could become pathological, however, to have tunnel vision that enables only the unceasing pursuit of one dream even when it becomes possible to know that it may never come true. The constancy of disappointment and frustration in such instances is conducive to misery for many (but not all) individuals with such solitary life goals. Life becomes ‘lifeless’. The reasons some appear unable or unwilling to deviate from such a state of tunnel vision are many and vary widely among different individuals, ranging from inadequate flexibility or imagination to constitutional restrictions in the range of their interests, but importantly may include less obvious or even unconscious factors such as a form of ‘repetition compulsion’, a phenomenon that I believe subtly or overtly drives many aspects of our behavior.
Many of us fall into automated repetitious patterns of failing at pursuits or relationships that keep us stuck with experiences of frustration and anguish and expose us to relational heartache and the recurrent witnessing of our dreams evaporating unfulfilled. The psychoanalytic concept of repetition compulsion refers to behavioral patterns that lead to re-living experiences that may have had central impact during development or on the formation of identity. These experiences are often re-lived symbolically, and the behavioral patterns are not consciously planned or produced. Exposing oneself to abuse by an authority figure at work may be a re-living of abusive experiences with an authoritarian parent. Writing an exam without preparation or accepting a task without the capability of completing it only to drown in self-loathing following failure may be a repetition of the experience of denigrating criticism one often received as a child that could never please a teacher or a parent. We may psychologically go over past events repeatedly as part of the process of grief, or in the form of flashbacks that sometimes follow traumatic experiences, and in doing so, we re-experience the full range of emotions that had accompanied those earlier events. We may have traits in our personalities, or patterns of interpersonal behavior, that show in the way we relate to others that are resistant to change in spite of the harm they may have caused us. We may gravitate repeatedly to form relationships with partners that are sure to eventually disappoint us. Or we may be so worried about being abandoned that our worry about it drives us to repeatedly behave in such a way that all but ensures that we will be abandoned, an outcome we both expect and unconsciously facilitate every time. The manifestations of this unconscious phenomenon can be as varied and as unique as are the experiences and narrative stories of the lives of each individual suffering from its consequences.
◆ Many theories have been proposed to explain repetition compulsion, one of which is that repetitions are unconscious attempts at mastery of past unpleasant or traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, they do not lead to mastery, as no true meaningful learning follows. However, the need to achieve mastery never fades resulting in the compulsion to repeat the re-living of the experience. Another possibility is that conflicts and impulses that are repressed (kept unconscious) maybe pressing for an outlet from their hiding place, which threatens their gratification, a threat that had led to their repression in the first place. This renewed threat reactivates some of the same defenses that were used originally to repress these impulses or conflicts. The set of defenses used may manifest as repetitive behavioral patterns, repeating every time the repressed threatens to rear its head. A third possibility is that the repetition may have the objective of being an unconscious way of remaining stuck. Moving forward, for some of us, maybe even more threatening and anxiety-provoking at an unconscious level than the familiar state of being stuck. Lastly, relational patterns have a way of becoming relatively rigid templates that develop in our childhood as we form our attachment relationships, and these relational patterns maybe the only way we have learned to relate and are hard to escape or change.
◆ As mentioned earlier, some factors behind repeated failures and unfulfilled dreams may be obvious and maybe all that needs to be known for some individuals experiencing them. For others, unconscious factors are at play. That may be especially true when there does not seem to be any real learning following these recurrent failures. Solitary dreams that are never fulfilled, tunnel vision that disables our imagination, and the viscous cycles we find ourselves in whereby unpleasant experiences keep recurring in our lives and in our relationships can all make our lives feel lifeless, but there might be a way to bring 'aliveness' back into our lives.
◆ If we are able to insightfully explore the repetition compulsion, with all the myriad possibilities for its underlying mechanisms, in addition to any easier to see causes of recurrent failures devoid of any ascertainable true learning, we would probably have a fighting chance to finally break the vicious cycles we may be caught in. This kind of insight could be a challenge to achieve. It likely will require the development of a long-term therapeutic relationship with a psychoanalytically-trained psychotherapist. In therapy, the trained therapist may pick up on unconsciously-driven patterns as they manifest in the therapeutic relationship. These patterns can then be understood, monitored, and gently modified while experiencing the therapeutic relationship itself slowly introduces alternative relational experiences that vary from the fixed templates of earlier relationships. This is not a painless process. Failures are experienced, along with the frustrations and anguish that may result. Past painful experiences are explored, and anxieties may flare up. However, this time around, true learning is more likely to take place, and it is a kind of learning that is both experiential as well as intellectual. Eventually, the combination of insight and the experience of new, healthier patterns that slowly become habitual result in lasting change. Mastery, a goal that repetition compulsion probably sought, may finally be achieved in an adaptive and healthy manner. Outside of the consulting room where therapy takes place, failures may still happen, but with a twist. Their outcome would be learning that leads to change. A dream may no longer be solitary and may have sibling dreams, and an unfulfilled dream may no longer doom our lives to feel lifeless.
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