Human beings are inherently social creatures that interact with each other via multiple modalities. The bonds that join humans, social networks, family groups, friendship groups or society, are founded on patterns of interaction that help to formulate and sustain these social networks. The act of coming together among humans involves a complex range of behaviours that are often prefaced on factors such as situation, context, culture and the personality traits of the actors.

Understanding why people repeat behaviours in human interactions is an important element in understanding clients; not only does understanding of human behaviour help inform my own patterns of behaviour, it can also help inform my therapist-patient interaction in my client work.

The Inner Compulsion to Repeat Behaviours

We all have our idiosyncrasies, little habits and ways of doing things that brings us comfort and makes us unique. We have our own perspectives and outlook on the world, and we have ways in which we make or break relationships that further impact upon who we will become.

Freud (1914), observed that humans display many repetitive patterns of behaviour. He worked with Breuer on the case of Berth who had transferred her relationship with her father onto Breuer, her therapist, which caused her much conflict and distress, a re-enactment of the relationship she had with her father. Freud speculated from this case that early relationships act as a template onto which subsequent relationships are formed. He also articulated that there is a tendency to replay situations and relationships that negatively impact upon us, a process he called ‘repetition compulsion’. Freud concluded that people interact in response to a ‘compulsion to repeat’ undesirable past experiences.

LaPanche and Pontalis (1993:78) describe repetition compulsion as being experienced,

at the level of concrete psychopathology, the compulsion to repeat is an ungovernable process originating in the unconscious. As a result, subjects deliberately place themselves in distressing situations, thereby repeating an old experience.

The latter part of this definition indicates to me that the subconscious memory is charged and alive in the mind of the enactor. LeDoux (2002) describes these stressful, implicit memories

as those that show up more in the way we act that in what we consciously know.

Traumatic experiences cause mechanisms in the brain to fire up so intensely that the memory of it becomes overpowering, so that when a stressful event occurs, it elicits a reaction to recreate the historical event (Perry and Pate, 1994). LeDoux (2002) further explains that, when an emotionally charged situation occurs, the compulsion to repeat in the brain is caused by a persistent conditioned response thereby resulting in the same action over time.

Recently, the impact of my repetitive behaviour came to a meaningful moment when a nerve was struck during a meditation session. What began as a simple visualisation exercise of passing a light from my heart onto a loved one and then accepting this gift back into my own heart, turned into a moment of navigating difficult arising emotions.

When it was time for me to receive the light, to me this meant the acceptance of love, I became aware of an overwhelming force of resistance. I could not accept this love. The resistance was so powerful that even I broke down into tears.

The Unconscious ‘Games' We Play

Relational patterns of interaction can also be understood in terms of psychological ‘games people play’. Eric Berne (1961) describes a ‘game’ as series of transactions in which individuals either disparage themselves or others in their social interactions. According to Berne, ‘ego states’ describe the way a person experiences and manifests their personality through a mixture of behaviours, thoughts and feelings. They are a:

coherent system of thought and feeling manifested by corresponding patterns of behaviour.
— Berne, 1972, p. 11

He identified the Child, Parent, and Adult as ego states that represent the simple internal psychological structures through which people communicate to each other. The Parent and Child ego states are echoes of the past while the Adult ego state is a response to the here and now. He believed that people communicate and behave from these ego states at particular transactions.

The Transactional approach works to determine which ego states are dominant in the transaction in question (APA, 2006). Berne (1961) states that so long as transactions are complementary, Adult-Adult, then communication can continue indefinitely. Transactions tend to go awry when communication is not complementary, Parent-Child. Berne goes on to say that the behavioural outcome of a transaction is dependent upon an ulterior motive. There is a hidden message so that people end up feel the opposite of what it is there were seeking in the first place. Both people can end up leaving the transaction feeling confused and unheard.

Therapy work can identify ‘games’, habitually used in transactions and analyse the ‘scripts’, or unconscious plan, in the client’s life in order to uncover the source of the relational difficulties (Lapworth and Sills, 2006). The Transactional Analysis view of relationships is further supported by the intersubjectivity theorists, Stolorow and Atwood (1992:18) who describe a social encounter as operating:

in a continual flow of reciprocal mutual influence.

They use the term ‘organising principles’ to describe our characteristic was of interacting with the world. Each participant brings to the table a wealth of beliefs, feelings, attitudes, and desires that are not only historically predetermined but develop organically through mutual interaction. This concept of interpreting interactional processes is another important lens to view and understand repetitive human behaviours.

How to Act In the Present Moment

The use of Transactional Analysis client work requires a level of reflexivity and willingness to analyse oneself. Lapworth and Sills (2006) discuss the development of appropriate ‘reflective skills’ when communicating Adult-Adult and present a useful practical exercise of re-writing client transactions in the frame of the three ego states in the attempt to re-evaluate them on an ‘Adult-Adult’ level.

Understanding repetitive patterns of human interaction is important. That the compulsion to repeat early template relationships is the basis of subsequent interactions is tantamount to providing an analytical basis by which to unpick our internal narrative.

How Meditation Helped Me

The fundamental concepts of reflecting and coming to know myself in both my mediation and my psychotherapy have the goal to alleviate suffering and develop the capacity for self-compassion. Meditating on the present and observing the internal patterns of thoughts that arise can provide a useful tool by which to observe and reflect upon repetitive patterns on my daily interactions.

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