The title of this post is a slightly altered version of an essay title by Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” in which he briefly describes the development and the task of analysis. With regard to development, he writes about replacing the method of hypnosis with more appropriate methods, including free association and dream interpretation. With regard to the task, Freud describes the process of working through transference.

Working through transference is essentially working through repetition. It requires remembering the past, recognizing the past in present (recognizing a repetition), and looking for a way beyond the past. Let’s put forth a few assumptions:

  • There are patterns of relating learned in early childhood, which are retained and repeated;
  • The early patterns are directed at significant others, and therefore, are associated with intense emotions;
  • The unpleasant elements in those patterns can result in repression, i.e., pushing out chunks of (possible) experience of consciousness.

The combined effect of learning (to repeat) and repression is unknowing repetition of the past. We would unknowingly attract and be attracted to people with whom we would repeat early patterns of hurtful relationship; we would unknowing behave in ways that repeat early patterns of dysfunction, miscommunication, isolation, and pain; and, we would unknowingly (over)react as we did before, not recognizing why a given event feels so tragic. What makes an event so tragic is that a past tragedy is resonating and repeating within it. Freud describes this way of “remembering” as enacting the past. The past (tragedy) comes back to life, once again, feeding off the present, and subordinating the present experience relative to itself.

A good example of this type of tragic repetition happens with Adam Trask, one of the primary characters in East of Eden (John Steinbeck). What happens between Adam and Cathy isn’t a unique event in Adam’s life. It is a trigger that brings back and confirms and older tragedy, a tragedy that began in his childhood. His (over)reaction is understandable if we recognize where he has found himself once again and how inescapable, how familiar, and how natural that place must seem and feel to him.

What I am writing about as patterns of relationship have a narrative structure. Eric Berne describes them as as games. We could also describe them as discourses (Michael Billig, Rom Harré, et al.). For instance, a narrative might begin with promise, positive feelings, passion, and enthusiasm, and end with disappointment, betrayal, blaming, and so on. The narrative as a whole might become familiar to the person and the narrative as a whole might be repeated (unknowingly, yet actively) by the person. The identity of the narrative (or game or discourse) is confirmed most clearly at the end, when the people involved find themselves in familiar (though perhaps very painful) positions, subordinate to the narrative they have enacted.

Why do we repeat the past narratives hurt us? There are several interrelated reasons: Because we have learned (i.e., have invested in) them; because they afford a way of structuring time; because they are emotionally charged and intensely meaningful; and, because we aren’t fully aware of them (Freudian repression).

What Freud wants to construct is a path for moving beyond these repetitions. But the path goes through repetition (not around it) and recognition (remembering). That makes the relationship with the analyst–as a significant other–crucial. The way out of the past (according to Freud) opens through building one relationship that escapes the old, familiar patterns, one relationship that is authentic and truly responsive to reality, one relationship which doesn’t subordinate itself to a known tragedy, and one relationship in which the past resonates but does not fully repeat.