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Bibring, E. (1943). The Conception of the Repetition Compulsion. Psychoanal Q., 12:486-519.

(1943). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 12:486-519

The Conception of the Repetition Compulsion

Edward Bibring


Repetition is a descriptive term which comprises various kinds of repetitive behavior. Some of them may clinically be characterized as forcibly persistent, highly impulsive, or 'compulsive' repetitions. A grouping of repetitive behavior patterns may be based on descriptive or explanatory principles or on both. In accordance with Hartmann we distinguish between (1) response repetition (similar reactions to similar stimuli); (2) pleasurable repetition (of what is pleasurable in itself or leads to pleasurable results); (3) tension repetition (of the undischarged); (4) routine repetition (routine behavior, e.g., habits) and (5) fixation repetition, a term, which as a result of the discussion presented here, may replace Hartmann's 'repetition due to an unassimilated trauma'.

The term repetition compulsion, though sometimes mistakenly used in a descriptive sense, is a purely explanatory conception. It aims at explaining certain 'compulsive' repetitions by the assumed tendency of the instincts to surrender to the formative influence of overwhelmingly intense, powerful, 'traumatic' impressions, whether pleasurable or painful.

Since this paper was first presented, Ives Hendrick has published an article, Instinct and the Ego during Infancy, in which he discusses at length the relationship of the repetition compulsion and the pleasure principle on the one hand, that of the repetition compulsion and the conception of the instinct to master (which he introduces), on the other hand. The repetion compulsion is a 'latent' property of this instinct and becomes manifest under certain conditions. The manifestations of the repetition compulsion are: (1) The need to practice the partial function of the ego (in the way of repetition) during the learning phase; (2) the compulsive play of later infancy; (3) the compulsiveness of neurotic symptoms in

general. With regard to the conditions: the repetition compulsion is made apparent by the effort to master when the ego function is not adequate, or whenever the ego is not adequate to perform an instinctual impulsion. On pages 47 and 48, Hendrick gives a more detailed list of the conditions which release compulsive repetitions. To avoid full quotation, I should like to condense these conditions into three groups. Compulsive repetition occurs (1) when the ego's capacity for efficient performance of partial functions is not yet fully developed; (2) when the matured function is frustrated from without or within; (3) when functions remain for certain reasons immature. As the two first seem in a certain sense to be related to each other, one may summarize the conditions into two groups: when (1) functions of the ego have not yet matured (in the child) or have failed to mature (in the adult), or when (2) the matured function is obstructed by internal or external conditions, the instinct to master is frustrated and its latent tendency toward compulsive repetition (repetition compulsion) becomes manifest. A detailed discussion of these statements may be reserved for another opportunity.

At present I should like to compare Hendrick's view with the one elaborated here. Hendrick describes the repetition compulsion as a latent property of instinct and defines it as a 'compulsion to repeat'. But this repetition compulsion is not the same as that which Freud described as the conservative nature of the instincts, the impressibility of the libido, its adhesive nature, its fixability, the tendency toward 'binding' on the one hand, the urge toward discharge, toward restitution, toward regaining the pretraumatic situation on the other, tendencies which I separated here as the repetitive-reproductive and the restitutive. Hendrick's conception of the repetition compulsion comprises, as far as I see, two factors. First there is a tension complex, so far as repetition occurs when the instinct to master, with the goal of adequate performance of function, is frustrated by inadequate functions. There is the question, whether the frustration of the instinct to master as

such leads to tension and consequent repetition or whether the instinctual drives of the id, failing of adequate discharge because of an inadequate ego function, result in tension and repetition. Probably it is sometimes the one, sometimes both. However this may be, the resulting repetition belongs then to the group of tension repetition (Hartmann's trend to repetition of the undischarged or, as we may also say, inadequately discharged).

From this it seems that Hendrick attempts to explain compulsive-repetitive behavior by the forcible urge of multiple obstructed needs. But this is exactly what Kubie is aiming at. From this point of view Hendrick's and Kubie's conceptions seem related to each other. The main difference, as pointed out by Hendrick, is that Kubie's tension repetition refers to the instinctual drives (within the pleasure principle of the id), whereas Hendrick's refers to the ego instinct to master, which is included in the pleasure principle of the ego.

It is interesting to see that the final conclusions of both authors with regard to the concept of the repetition compulsion differ fundamentally. Kubie considers the theory superfluous, since compulsive repetition seems to him sufficiently explained by the pleasure principle of the id. Hendrick, too, comprehends the compulsive repetitions as the result of tension, but within the pleasure principle of the ego. That means that even if the content of the repeated is unpleasant the repetition serves the pleasurable tendency of the ego to achieve mastery. This coincides with certain statements made in this paper. But Hendrick's theory of the repetition compulsion seems to go further. Here is the point where, at least in my opinion, the second factor enters. Hendrick apparently refers the fact that it is repetition which the instinct to master employs as its method of achievement, to a basic property of this instinct, defined by him as compulsion to repeat or as repetition compulsion. Hendrick's answer to the question, whether the repetition compulsion is a property of id or ego instincts, seems thus to be in favor of the latter.

There is a remark in Hendrick's article, however, which presents a different aspect. In paragraph three of his list of conditions releasing compulsive repetition he states that the exercise of a matured function may be disturbed by 'survival of a dominant compulsive pattern of instinctual discharge which is not subordinated to reality principle or superego'. Unfortunately, Hendrick does not discuss the implications of this statement. It seems, however, that he accepts the possibility of a repetition compulsion of the instinctual drives which apparently becomes manifest in 'compulsive' patterns of discharge.

This permits the conclusion that Hendrick comprehends the repetition compulsion (in the sense of a compulsion to repeat) as a property of all instincts, those of the ego as well as those of the id. Of all the characteristics of the repetition compulsion in Freud's conception, as mentioned before, Hendrick took over only one, the urge to repeat. This may indeed be the common denominator of the three groups of phenomena which Hendrick considers as manifestations of the repetition compulsion. The question arises here whether it is a satisfactory logical procedure to explain certain types of repetitive behavior by the assumed compulsion to repeat as inherent in the instincts.

Generally speaking, there are three possibilities of placing the repetition compulsion. One may refer it to the instinctual drives of the id, or to the ego instincts, or to both. This leads to three different conceptions of the repetition compulsion. If we ascribe it only to the id, it would unavoidably be conceived as an instinctual automatism, as tension repetition or as fixation repetition. If we refer it to the ego only, it necessarily is comprehended as restitutive or regulative dynamism. If one attributes the repetition compulsion simultaneously to both the id drives and the ego instincts then probably one would accept Hendrick's conclusions.

In the light of the view expounded here, the tendency to 'compulsive' repetition is in the first place due to instinctual

tensions, which follow the path established by certain formative impressions. This conception narrows the repetition compulsion down to a property of the id drives. The ego in its attempt to manage the disturbing tensions may apply different methods. Active repetition by the ego is only one way to manage or to master the phenomena of the repetition compulsion. The ego, as it were, unites the instinctual urge with repetition for its own purposes.

It is a problem in itself whether this tendency of the ego to control tensions should be ascribed to an independent instinct of mastery. It would lead too far afield to discuss this question here. The instinct to master corresponds to a certain extent with what has been described in this paper as the restitutive tendency of the ego. I wonder, however, whether it would not suffice if this active repetition were ascribed to the alarmed ego's need to assimilate disturbing tensions, to its resistance to disturbances from within, and to its tendency to reëstablish 'homeostasis' (Cannon). How far this may apply even to the process of learning deserves some discussion.

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