The Relevance of Groundhog Day to Counselling

Do any of you out there remember the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray that involved a man living the same day over and over and over again?  He kept making the same mistakes, encountering the same problems and ending up the same way until he finally figured out how to live in a better way, differently than he had in the past.  Only then, was he allowed to move on to the next day of his life.

The human desire to seek out and do the same thing over and over again has been noticed and identified by therapists since Freud (and probably before that by the wise ones in various cultures).  Freud called it “The Repetition Compulsion”.  It is that strange phenomenon that results in our choice to create situations that mimic or repeat past awful or even traumatic experiences, in spite of their damaging consequences.

As individuals, we gravitate towards people and characteristics that are familiar, preferring the devil we know to the devil we don’t.  We may avoid choosing paths that lead to what we want because we are afraid of getting it and losing it.

In families, it may manifest in a self-reinforcing system that actually traps its members in these negative patterns of behaviour, even while they are conscious of their ongoing misery.  For instance, if a couple often engage in explosive and hurtful arguments, one member may decide to try and break that cycle on his own.  He comes to the discussion with the best of intentions, remaining calm and trying to be logical or compassionate.  However, the other participant is still in the old place with the old expectations and actually ignores this new behaviour.  His frustration grows because his partner is not responding with calmness and not acknowledging the new approach.  Eventually, his resolve breaks and he is back in the old way of being, yelling about his partner’s inability to understand he didn’t want to yell.

In every instance of this repetition, there are complex emotional motivators that underpin the behaviour.  Simply changing behaviour often doesn’t work because the emotions that fuel the system remain unaddressed.  Experiencing, understanding and integrating the emotion is the key to long standing change.

There are many paths to healing and moving past our own personal “Groundhog Day”.  Support groups, therapy, meditation and workshops can all provide insight.  However, it requires work and the ability to face the reality that we are choosing to cycle around in the same rotten place.  When we finally find the strength to make the shift, we wake up to a new day.