Demetria De Lia

The Narcissistic Repetition Compulsion: Thoughts on a Greek Tragedy and it’s Cure by Dean of Research, Demetria De Lia.

I, myself, in the transports

Of mystic verses, as in study

Of history and science, have found nothing

so strong as Compulsion,

Nor any means to combat her.  

Euripides Alcestis, lines 962-965.


One of the (many) things most interesting to me about Greek myths, often lacking in other literary genres, is the genealogy of families, genograms that symbolically suggest that the repetition compulsion is transgenerational. Laius tried to kill his infant son Oedipus, and Oedipus killed Laius, and on and on it goes. Our patients, like characters in Greek tragedies, not only repeat the trauma of their own lives, but also the inherited traumas, conscious or not, of their parents and ancestors.

I wonder why this transgenerational induction to repeat is so powerful. Freud told us that the repetition compulsion is part of the death instinct, and so it appears, that the repetition compulsion is connected to that other death instinct derivative, narcissism. Narcissism in a most basic definition is the wish that everyone thinks and feels exactly as we do, and this is the power of the narcissistic transference. When a child is induced to repeat the parent’s trauma, the unspoken message is “be like me, live like me, feel like me, act like me and suffer like me.” Misery loves company. But the child has no way of defending himself against the powerful gods that live with him and within him. In Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, D.H. Lawrence writes that a nonverbal induction is like “a lovely, suave, fluid creative electricity that flows in a circuit between nerve centers in mother and child.” Electricity flows silently as does the death instinct. What does the child suffer if he consciously rejects the parent’s implicit demands? He may feel that he has killed someone he loves, and now suffers the guilt, like Oedipus, of being a murderer (oh, those myths just won’t leave me alone). Preoedipal murderers don’t feel guilt but the oedipal type accept responsibility for their impulses.

Preoedipal murder brings to mind Narcissus who turned Echo into stone and then killed himself. The narcissistic parent who induces her child to repeat the family’s trauma isolates the child from a new experience in living that could involve making attachments to a different way of life. The child’s individuation is experienced by the parent as an abandonment, and because the parent is narcissistic (preoedipal), abandonment feels like death. The death instinct destroys connection to anything life affirming as the parent sacrifices the child’s progress to ensure that the family repetition is inherited by the next generation. In this way the narcissistic parent commits symbolic murder and incest (also a death instinct derivative), inducing the child to be a narcissistic twin, to reproduce the parent’s pain, to live in isolation of the broader world, and to align herself with the repetition compulsion of their shared inheritance.

The repetition compulsion in my own family is a very long story. My grandmother, her invalid mother and three brothers were forced to leave their village in the mountains of Turkey. Only my grandmother survived the journey on foot, boiling edible plants to sustain her. Finally arriving in America, she was a stranger in a strange land, not speaking the language, suffering what I would now call PTSD. My Mother grew up as a parentified child, and this repetition was passed down to the next generation. In our family, children at a young age were expected to take care of their parents. This role reversal had many pathological outcomes.

What choice does the child have? Kill your desires or kill theirs, repeat the familiar pattern, sacrificing your own wish to walk in a different path or abandon the parents and suffer the guilt trip. The child looks at the mirror of his narcissistic mother’s face and sees only her reflection, not his own; here is the birth of narcissistic rage in the child, and on and on it goes.. In the freedom of the psychoanalytic experience, the psychoanalyst gives the child a reflection of her own image and the patient finds an adult who is there to take care of her! What a novel idea! What a liberating experience !

Can there be a greater blessing than when the cords

Of care are snapt, and the mind lets slip its burden- when

spent with toil in far-off places, we come to our home

sanctuary and find rest on the long-dreamed of couch?

Catullus, 56 BC