Repetition Compulsion: Why Do We Repeat the Past?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published June 07, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Repetition compulsion, often called trauma re-enactment, is thought of as the unconscious need to recreate early traumas. A person may repeat physically or emotionally painful situations that happened in the past, in new situations. 

Trauma is a universal experience, and it can be defined as the gap between an external threat and one’s inner resources to deal with it. At any time that a person is overwhelmed by fear or hopelessness, they have experienced such an event. 

Humans tend to seek comfort in what is familiar to them. Sigmund Freud called this repetition compulsion which he defined as ‘the desire to return to an earlier state of things.’

Freud held the view that a person’s inability to discuss or remember past traumatic events might lead them to repeat these traumas compulsively. 

Repetition compulsion can involve people continuously putting themselves in a situation that they know is not healthy, perhaps without even realising that they are repeating their past traumas.

These actions are most apparent in the types of relationships people engage in, particularly those that are dysfunctional. 

Despite knowing that relationships are destructive, we may continue to demonstrate patterns of these types of relationships. We may be trying to ‘fix’ what happened in the past by recreating the trauma with new relationships, with some arguing that we have an innate desire to complete something which has already begun.

Repetition compulsion can occur in many situations, often when there is a trauma that keeps being repeated. Some examples of repetition compulsion include:

  • Someone who has experienced abuse as a child who goes on to have adult relationships which are abusive.

  • Someone who experienced violence in their childhood is more likely to become perpetrators of violence later in life.

  • Someone with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) having recurring dreams of the traumatic experience.

  • Someone who had an emotionally distant parent or caregiver goes on to have adult relationships with people who are also emotionally distant.

  • When feeling anxious, an individual turns to their favourite movie or TV show and watches it over and over. 

  • After being the victim of a crime, someone may seek out horror movies or watch a lot of crime documentaries to re-experience similar feelings.

Why is change hard?

Repetition compulsion is just that, a compulsion. When we are repeating the past, we are not doing it on purpose, rather it is a learned response to what we already know.

People almost feel compelled to return to a person or situation which recreates their past trauma. There are several explanations as to why people find change so hard. Some possible explanations include the following:

Familiarity of chaos

Individuals may find change hard because they are so familiar with chaos that they see this as normal. 

As a child, humans absorb what is presented to them. If a child is brought up in a chaotic household, experiencing a parent with narcissistic tendencies, or frequently observing abuse, they may have no reason to believe that this environment is not normal. 

At that time in their lives, the child has no way of comparison to what they experience. Thus, when they are older, they may be suspicious of having a relationship with someone who is not a reflection of their chaotic upbringing. 

Inflexible defences

People may have a rigid way of protecting themselves against the experience of repeating their trauma. They believe that there is no point in trying to stop it and that this is just ‘the way things are’.

However, this way of thinking can unintentionally result in the re-enactment occurring anyway. If they were more consciously trying to stop the re-enactment, then they may have more luck with stopping the cycle.

Creatures of habit

As humans, we tend to seek comfort in what is familiar and predictable. Sometimes we revert to familiarity because the outcome is predictable and because even healthy change is scary. 

Someone experiencing repetition compulsion might believe that new experiences will be more painful than their present situation. New experiences are too new and untested, so it often feels safer to return to what we know. 

Emotional dysregulation

Someone may find change difficult if they have poorly regulated emotional reactions in response to negative stimuli. A parent or caregiver may have shut down a child when they got upset and did not comfort them.

When the child grows up, they may have internalised that they deserve to be mistreated and that there is no reason for them to be upset. 

Someone who has poorly regulated emotional reactions may be very sensitive to criticism and interpret this as harsh and respond in a hostile way.

Without tackling emotional dysregulation, people can be stuck in repetitive emotional cycles.  

A need to recreate history

It can be hard to change when we have a need to recreate history. Those who seek out familiar relationships may try to recreate what happened to them during a traumatic event as a way to change the outcome and thereby gaining mastery over what couldn’t be controlled as a child.

For instance, someone may continue to be in familiar intimate relationships with the hope that they can ‘get it right’ this time around.

They may think that if they act nicer, perform better, or use the right words, then their partner will not abuse them. The need to recreate history can therefore make it difficult to make a change. 

Trauma is not remembered

There is some evidence to suggest that to cope with a traumatic event, our brains may have blocked our capacity to remember it. 

This might happen through dissociation, which occurs in the moment that the trauma occurs. Dissociation happens when a person disconnects from their thoughts or feelings in a moment.

Likewise, the brain may block our capacity to remember after the event, through a type of amnesia.

These mental escapes can inhibit our ability to identify similar threats in the future, making it more likely they will happen again.

Re-victimisation

Due to the trauma in earlier life, repetition compulsion may make someone more likely to re-victimise themselves later in life.

For instance, if a child was a victim of abuse, they may be more likely to end up in situations where they are faced with abuse again as adults. 

The need to get it right means that these individuals tend to gravitate towards relationships and circumstances that mimic the ones where they didn’t feel love and acceptance.

When the relationship goes wrong, they are more likely to feel abandoned and at fault again. 

No resolution

If patterns are continuously repeated without being addressed, the underlying issues may never be resolved. 

While it may seem as if someone is healing and has grown, in reality they may find themselves in a position where their current anxieties become overwhelming and so they regress into those repetitive compulsions because they are familiar and comforting. 

Re-opens emotional wounds

The reasoning with many people is that if they stay in re-traumatising relationships, they will eventually get it ‘right’ and will receive the love and acceptance they need. However, emotional wounds will continue to re-open as the relationship fails, causing more pain.

If someone continues to believe they will find the correct way to please someone, they are refusing to acknowledge that their emotional wounds are keeping them from finding peace. 

Self-destructive behaviours 

A lot of people who experienced trauma as children tend to take their hurt and anger out on themselves. These behaviours can include self-harming, drug and alcohol abuse, and eating disorders. 

Sometimes, people will re-enact violence that was done to them as a child as a way of dealing with past hurts. Therefore, they are perpetuating their victimhood onto others and continuing the cycle. 

Low self-esteem

Experiencing trauma can diminish a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. They may believe that they deserve to be mistreated and that it is somehow deserved. 

A child may rationalise that being placed in foster care was something that they deserved rather than as a necessity for their safety.

These internalised beliefs can damage self-esteem and can result in self-sabotaging behaviours later in life. 

How can repetition compulsions affect your relationship?

Below are some relationship patterns that someone who has repetition compulsion may engage in:

Seeking the wrong person

Repetition compulsion can mean that someone seeks out relationships with people who are not good for them. They may always attract the same type of person and be confused as to why this keeps happening. 

They may enter into relationships with toxic people, narcissists, someone who wants to control them, abusive people, or someone who victimises themselves. They may attract someone who is emotionally unavailable or only gives very minimal amounts of love when it suits them. 

Detachment

Detachment is a coping mechanism which can be used by someone who experienced abuse as a child. This refers to a person’s inability to fully engage with their feelings or the feelings of others.

A child who learns to detach themselves as a form of protection is likely to continue to use this coping mechanism as an adult. 

Seeking what is familiar

People often seek the comfort of familiarity. It is what they know, and it seems safer than to try something different which has not been tested. 

For example, someone who has a distant parent may seek a partner who has a distant personality.

Even if they are unhappy in this relationship and do not like that their partner is distant, they may see this as normal for a partner and will continue to find people who are similar. 

Self-hatred

After experiencing an early trauma, individuals can feel a lot of self-hatred feeling as if they somehow deserved the mistreatment.

As they get older, they may be more likely to attract others who mistreat them, reaffirming their negative self-beliefs. 

Hostile behaviour 

If someone was abused or neglected as a child, they have a lot of built-up feelings of anger about the situation. As a result, they may become unable to control their anger as an adult.

They may become excessively angry, even in response to mild inconveniences and they could become violent to others as an unhealthy way to take out their anger on somebody. 

How can you manage repetition compulsions?

If you find that you get stuck in repetitive compulsions, there are things that can be done to help manage them. 

Address the past

Part of the process of managing repetition compulsion is to work on addressing past trauma. Acknowledge what happened in the past and make a conscious choice to not allow those hurts to impact on your future decisions and relationships.

Understand that the patterns you are repeating were not put there by you – these were obtained from somebody else at a time when you were likely more susceptible.

It is important to understand that the pattern will not be healed by the person who caused the trauma – it is down to you to heal. 

It is helpful to understand that you have value, no matter what trauma you have experienced in the past. You also deserve close relationships which are healthy and supportive. 

Address coping mechanisms 

To be able to heal from the trauma, you will also have to address any unhealthy coping mechanisms or negative behaviours that you engage in.

Some defence mechanisms are traditionally used to protect against feelings of traumatic overwhelm and can include substance abuse, self-injury, and violence against others. 

You cannot rewrite history

A main reason for repetitive compulsions is the need to rewrite the past. It must be accepted that history cannot be rewritten and that you can only ensure you find someone who is supportive and breaks the cycle. 

Sometimes you must accept that some people are not going to change no matter what you do. People who cause trauma will likely need professional help and this is not something you should carry as a burden for yourself. You cannot be expected to help someone who is abusive. 

Therapy

The aim of therapy is to break the pattern of repetition. The level of trauma and dysfunction a person has experienced influences the course and pace of therapy.

Gaining control over your current life, rather than repeating trauma is the primary goal of therapy. 

In therapy, you can share your story in a safe place with someone who is non-judgemental. The therapist will help you to analyse what happened and how it has affected you. 

As well as individual therapy, group sessions can be used to generate feelings of acceptance and experience social support, especially from others who may have gone through similar trauma. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), and rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) are popular types of psychotherapy which are effective for reshaping thought patterns that lead to unhealthy behaviour.

These types of therapies focus on being aware of any cognitive distortions, negative self-talk, and core beliefs one may have, and the unhelpful behaviours that occur as a result.

Once these negative thoughts and behaviours have been established, the client can work with the therapist to challenge and restructure these into more positive, healthier thoughts and behaviours. 

The therapist can teach the client how your triggers are causing your negative repetitive behaviours and they can help you form more positive repetitive behaviours.

As maladaptive thought patterns, habits, and repetitive choices can take years to develop, it will also take some time to reshape them into something healthier. 

Psychodynamic therapy 

Psychodynamic therapy is a type of psychotherapy which involves exploring a person’s past traumatic relationships and experiences, with the goal to identify how and why they are re-enacting a trauma. 

Psychodynamic therapy can be helpful for a person to understand the unconscious forces that drive their behaviour.

This may involve looking at unresolved conflicts and past relationships that may be causing repetition compulsion. 

Self-regulation

Below are some self-regulation techniques that can be used to manage repetitive compulsions:

These can all help to control the central nervous system’s arousal response. Through self-regulation, you should become better at understanding what is going on around you and focus on what it is you want and need.

These are also methods in which to externalise any uncomfortable feelings in a healthy way, rather than engaging in repetitive compulsions.

How does repetition compulsion relate to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

While PTSD is common with people who fought in a war, it is also very common for people who experienced any type of abuse in life. 

Someone with PTSD may experience repetition compulsion in the form of recurring dreams involving the traumatic event, or they may be preoccupied with the initial trauma and feel unable to move on.

Because of this, they may unintentionally put themselves in situations which trigger their PTSD symptoms, involving being in abusive relationships which mimics their initial trauma. 

If someone finds themselves continually seeking triggering situations, they may be stuck in a loop of creating and repeating their own trauma. 

How does cheating relate to repetition compulsion?

Infidelity can relate to repetition compulsion in a couple of ways. If a child experiences one or more of their parents cheating on the other, they may believe that this behaviour is normal in relationships.

If they see these behaviours as normal, they might be more likely to accept their partner cheating on them or continuously be with people who cheat on them. 

Alternatively, someone who has experienced infidelity in their parents, or has been cheated on themselves, might be more likely to cheat on their future partners.

This may be because they see cheating as normal, it is their way of dealing with this trauma, or it is a way to victimise someone else for pain they have experienced in the past. 

Can repetition compulsion relate to narcissistic relationships?

A narcissistic parent can cause a child to feel constant guilt and blame themselves for things which are not their fault.

If someone experienced narcissism in the form of a narcissistic parent as a child, they may be more likely to form relationships with other narcissists as an adult.

This could involve having friends, co-workers, bosses, and romantic partners who are narcissistic. 

Someone may be more likely to excuse the toxic behaviour of the narcissist and feel compelled to try to ‘fix’ them. Trying to fix a current narcissist could come about as a way to rewrite the past with their narcissistic parent.

However, this is unlikely to happen and can make the individual re-traumatised and feel more guilty and at fault, thus continuing and strengthening the compulsion. 

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, June 07. Repetition Compulsion: Why Do We Repeat the Past?. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/repetition-compulsion.html

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