Repetition compulsion involves repeating painful situations that occurred in the past. It’s a way to ease tension from physical or emotional trauma, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Repetition compulsion or trauma re-enactment involves unconsciously recreating early trauma. Someone experiencing this compulsion repeats emotionally or physically painful situations.

Trauma can include any experience where you feel overwhelmed with hopelessness or fear. You might want to repeat how things used to be in your life, even when it was detrimental to your well-being.

Learning about repetition compulsion can help you determine how to overcome it. You might not realize you’re doing it, and understanding the signs and causes is beneficial. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can work to treat the compulsion and live a healthier life.

Repetition compulsion is when you unconsciously desire to reenact earlier trauma. However, this compulsion doesn’t help you overcome trauma and could worsen the situation. It occurs when you repeat traumatic behaviors from your past, even when you know it’s not good for you.

What is repetition compulsion in relationships?

Infidelity can relate to repetition compulsion if a child experienced a parent who cheated on their partner. When the child becomes an adult, they may repeat this behavior because they assume it’s normal. They may cheat on their partner or continuously stay with people who betray their trust.

Subconsciously, this behavior may occur as a way to victimize their partner for the pain from their childhood trauma. Staying with a partner who cheats, is emotionally abusive, or is physically abusive could also be a way to handle the trauma they experienced in the past.

According to Freudian thought, narcissism can also play a role in repetition and how it affects relationships. You might want to view the narcissist as loving, possibly because their behavior is familiar to you from your past, causing you to sacrifice your well-being.

The child of a narcissistic parent might feel constant guilt from being blamed for things that aren’t their fault. If this happened to you, you might be more likely to engage in relationships with narcissists as an adult because this dynamic is familiar to you.

For instance, you might find yourself gravitating towards narcissistic friends, co-workers, bosses, or partners who affect your daily life.

Repetition compulsion might occur from narcissistic trauma as a way to try and fix someone. It can also make you more likely to excuse toxic behavior as a way to rewrite the past. However, it can lead to further trauma and guilt.

Repetition compulsion can negatively affect your life and mental well-being. It presents itself in the following ways:

Some older research includes information from Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. It indicates that repetition compulsion happens when someone can’t discuss or remember the trauma. Without realizing it, these people repeat the trauma throughout their life.

Repetition compulsion could occur when you can’t discuss or remember past trauma or the details of the situation. When this happens, you might put yourself in an unhealthy position, although you may not realize that you’re repeating past trauma.

Repeating past trauma might occur because you subconsciously want to fix what happened. You may, without even realizing it, hope that by recreating your trauma, you can find closure and fix what happened in the past.

Some experts indicate that repetition compulsion might not have a purpose. Instead, you might repeat trauma because it’s what you know, even if it’s not a good situation. It can also be a method of linking the past to the present.

Experts indicate that other causes of repetition compulsion include:

  • returning to an earlier state
  • striving for understanding and seeking answers
  • creating significance
  • having a mental representation of past trauma
  • maintaining a habitual pattern
  • creating a defense mechanism

Risk factors include experiencing:

Repetition compulsion can interfere with your well-being and emotional healing. However, you can make changes to break this pattern and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Psychodynamic therapy

One way to overcome repetition compulsion is through psychodynamic therapy. Psychodynamic therapy involves exploring and identifying past trauma that could contribute to repetition. It helps you understand any subconscious issues you’re experiencing.

Psychodynamic therapy can help you understand your past’s effect on your life. It allows you to address and overcome traumatic experiences, leading to less intense feelings. You’ll likely have better judgment moving forward, allowing you to break the pattern of repetition compulsion.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) type of therapy involves recognizing dysfunctional automatic thoughts. CBT can help alleviate these negative thoughts, allowing you to think in realistic ways.

If you choose to try CBT, you’ll work with a therapist to change thinking patterns and behaviors. This type of therapy is more action-oriented than psychodynamic therapy, so you would spend less time discussing your past trauma and more time learning new skills.

Group therapy

Many people who experience trauma also like to engage in group therapy. Group therapy for trauma can be a way to feel less alone with your pain and to feel a sense of solidarity with people who have related experiences.

You can either focus solely on group therapy or you can supplement it with individual therapy. Many people prefer group therapy not only because of the relationship-oriented aspect of it, but also because it tends to be more affordable.

Self-help techniques

Healing from your trauma is the first step toward breaking repetition compulsion patterns. Although working with a trauma therapist is likely best, you can simultaneously practice self-help techniques at home.

Part of coping involves reminding yourself that although can’t change the past, you can move forward and live a healthy life.

Some at-home practices you can try include:

Repetition compulsion can occur for various reasons regarding trauma early in life. It can involve physical, sexual, mental, or emotional abuse. This compulsion can also result from trauma developed from witnessing dysfunctional situations.

Once you identify the compulsion, you can work on overcoming it. You can turn to a mental health professional or practice self-help methods to improve your situation. There is hope, and you can make it happen.