Repetition Compulsion Or Trauma Reenactment : Why Do We Repeat the Past?

Last Update on July 17, 2023 : Published on July 18, 2023

Do you ever feel a compulsion to repeat something despite knowing the negative consequences related to it? This repetitive compulsion or repetition compulsion is referred to as trauma reenactment in psychology. The reenactment or compulsion to repeat something affects the relationship directly.

The repetition compulsion theory was first described by Sigmund Freud (Father of Psychoanalysis). He described the repetition compulsion theory as an individual’s ability to remember or discuss past traumatic situations which might lead them to repeat such traumas out of compulsion.

With the help of psychoanalysis, we can probably learn to overcome repetition compulsion as it helps in identifying and exploring early trauma that may convert into reenactment.

In this blog, we will explore what repetition compulsion or trauma reenactment is based on Freud’s theory along with the treatment process. So, let’s get started!

What is Repetition Compulsion?

Repetition compulsion or repetitive compulsion means an unconscious need to recreate the traumas. Generally, an individual struggling with repetition compulsion might keep on repeating or rebuilding traumas in new situations that symbolize the first trauma. This compulsion often acts as a block to therapeutic change. With the help of therapy, people learn how badly trauma influences their current situation and how to overcome it.

Dreams are known to be one of the common forms of reenactment. Research shows that various people relive the traumas in their current life. For example, people who had experienced abuse during childhood are likely to struggle with repetition compulsion.

Research also shows that reenactment can also be positive in some cases. For example, when an individual grieves repeatedly and shares stories, it enables them to reduce their pain and work through the loss.

Freud’s Theory of Repetition Compulsion

Sigmund Freud described repetition compulsion and he is best known for developing psychoanalysis. Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion suggested that people hold unconscious forces behind the drive to repeatedly seek self-harm.

This tendency describes how our unconscious mind influences us to shape our behavior. Repressed memories, traumas, and unawareness influences them to exert conscious behavior.

Types of Repetition Compulsion

There can be different types of repetition compulsion such as:

  • Repeating behaviors: When people repeat a certain behavior or routine which are maladaptive or creates problems.
  • Repeating relationships: When people repeatedly get into relationships through unhealthy patterns.
  • Repeating self-defeating actions: When people repeatedly engage in self-sabotaging behaviors such as avoidance, procrastination, or negative self-talk.
  • Repeating situations: When people repeatedly find themselves in the same situations they prefer to avoid.
  • Reenacting trauma: When people compulsively repeat or experience traumatic events related to the past.

Repetition Compulsion and Relationships

Repetition compulsion directly impacts the relationships negatively in various ways such as:

  • Abandonment: Abandonment during childhood, might show clinginess or possessiveness in adult relationships.  
  • Detachment: Violence during childhood builds detachment as a coping mechanism which can have really negative impacts in later relationships.
  • Familiarity: Seeking familiarity is human nature and can be negative in some cases. For example, people with distant parents might seek a partner with a distant personality.
  • Self-hatred: Abuse during childhood might result in self-hatred.
  • Triggers: Neglect during childhood might result in anger or harboring feelings towards the situation.

Causes of Repetition Compulsion

There could be various reasons or causes behind the development of repetition compulsion. Since it is a complex phenomenon, it could be developed due to:

  • Affective dysregulation
  • Attachment issues
  • Conditioned associations
  • Coping mechanisms
  • Ego deficits
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Personality
  • Rigid defenses
  • Unconscious patterns

Treatment of Repetition Compulsion

If you think you or your loved one might be struggling with repetition compulsion or trauma reenactment, the first step to take is to address the issue. In order to achieve so, you might have to connect with a mental health professional.

The professional might prescribe psychotherapy as it helps in processing, integrating, and gaining an understanding of the traumatic experiences. Psychotherapy techniques might include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy that helps in addressing negative patterns and replaces them with positive ones which more realistic and helpful.
  • Psychodynamic Therapy: This type of therapy explores past experiences to learn about the subconscious and unconscious issues that result in repeating unhealthy patterns. It also helps in identifying patterns, understanding emotions, and improving interpersonal relationships.
  • Trauma-Focused Group Therapy: This therapy is helpful to understand similar experiences, processing experiences, and gain social support. It is one of the most-used coping and self-care skills.
  • Somatic Therapy: This type of therapy helps in processing the past. Somatic therapy can be really helpful with flashbacks, awareness, and nightmares.

Self-help Techniques for Repetition Compulsion

Below listed are some of the effective and quick coping tips for overcoming repetition compulsion along with psychotherapy:

I hope this blog helps you understand how to break the repetition compulsion. Comment down and share your views on the same.

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Thanks for reading!

About The Author

Aayushi Kapoor
Aayushi Kapoor

Aayushi is a Content Creator at Calm Sage. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Food Technology and a Master's Degree in Clinical Nutrition. Her constant interest in the improvement of mental health, nutrition, and overall wellness embarked upon her career as a “full-time educational writer.” She likes to make an asynchronous connection with her readers. Her mantra for living life is "What you seek is seeking you".

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