What Is Repetition Compulsion?

<p>Maskot/Getty Images</p>

Maskot/Getty Images

Repetition compulsion involves repeatedly engaging in behaviors or seeking experiences that echo early life experiences, including past traumas. Despite the negative consequences that a person experiences, they continue to seek out reminders of their trauma.

Also known as trauma reenactment, repetition compulsion can take both symbolic and literal forms. In symbolic forms, it might involve having recurring dreams focused on subjects similar to the initial trauma. In other instances, it can involve literally repeating emotionally or physically painful situations that people have experienced in the past.

Repetition Compulsion According to Freud

Repetition compulsion was first described the Sigmund Freud, the Austrian physician best known for the development of psychoanalysis. Based on his observations, Freud suggested that people possess a death instinct, which is the unconscious force behind this drive to repeatedly seek out self-harm.

This tendency, Freud suggested, demonstrated how unconscious influences can continue to shape behavior and well-being. Even though people are unaware of them, repressed memories and traumas continue to exert an influence on conscious behavior.

Types of Repetition Compulsion

Repetition compulsion can occur in a number of different ways. Some of the ways it may manifest include:

  • Repeating behaviors: People may find themselves repeating a certain routine or behavior even if it is not something they enjoy. Such behaviors can also be maladaptive and create problems in a person's life.

  • Repeating situations: In other instances, people may place themselves in the same situation repeatedly, even if it is something they would prefer to avoid.

  • Repeating self-defeating actions: This involves repeatedly engaging in self-sabotaging actions such as negative self-talk, avoidance, or procrastination.

  • Repeating relationships: In this type, people will repeatedly seek out relationships that repeat the unhealthy patterns they have experienced in the past.

  • Reenacting trauma: In this case, the repetition compulsion involves directly repeating and reexperiencing the traumatic events of the past.

Causes of Repetition Compulsion

There is no single cause of repetition compulsion, however. It is a complex phenomenon that can result from a variety of different courses. Some of the other causes that have been suggested include:

  • Unconscious patterns: As Freud originally suggested, unconscious patterns can lead people to engage in behaviors that are unhelpful or harmful without the person understanding why they are doing so.

  • Attachment issues: People who have attachment problems due to early neglect or trauma may find themselves repeatedly seeking out unhealthy relationships in adulthood.

  • Conditioned associations: Repetitive behaviors can sometimes emerge because a person has formed associations that make the behavior almost automatic.

  • Emotional dysregulation: Repetition compulsion may also occur when people have poorly regulated emotional responses to negative events. They may struggle to tolerate difficult emotions or criticism, which may lead them to respond in ways that are disproportionate to the situation.

  • Personality: Sometimes certain personality traits such as impulsivity or perfectionism may make a person more likely to engage in repetition compulsion.

  • Coping mechanisms: Stress and trauma is often the underlying cause of this type of behavior. Repetition compulsion can act as a coping strategy. By engaging in risky behaviors or seeking situations that are similar to the trauma, people often feel that they have a greater sense of control over the situation.

People who have experienced abuse and trauma may have a higher risk of experiencing repetition compulsion. They are also more likely to experience other issues including interpersonal problems, poor self-esteem, and substance use problems.

Repetition compulsion can be influenced by a number of causes. It may be associated with certain mental health conditions, particularly those that are linked to past traumas. Some of these conditions include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

No matter the cause, repetition compulsion can become a behavior pattern that significantly disrupts a person’s life. It can create distress, interfere with relationships, place people in harmful situations, or even lead to re-traumatization.

Examples of Repetition Compulsion

Examples of how repetition compulsion may show up in people's lives include:

  • Romantic attachments: Repetition compulsion may emerge in romantic relationships where people keep seeking out similar relationships to destructive ones from the past. While this is done unconsciously, people seek out partners who are similar to past partners who may have been abusive, destructive, or emotionally unavailable.

  • Flashbacks, nightmares, and dreams: Having flashbacks or nightmares where they relive the trauma can be a form of repetition compulsion.

  • Engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviors: People might engage in risky actions such as driving while intoxicated even though they know the possible risks. This may be a way to recreate a past experience or to help distract from feelings of pain.

  • Infidelity: A person who had a parent who cheated on their partner may also be unfaithful in their own adult relationships, or they may remain with a cheating partner as a way to repeat the painful experiences from their childhood.

Why People Repeat Trauma

A few different theories have been proposed to attempt to explain just why people engage in this type of trauma reenactment.

Unconscious Expression of Trauma

One reason people may repeat trauma is as an unconscious expression of trauma. Freud noted that while the contents of the unconscious mind are outside of awareness, they continue to influence behavior and may be expressed through things such as dreams, slips of the tongue, and behaviors.

People who do not remember a repressed trauma may then be unconsciously driven to repeat the experience.

An Attempt to Achieve Mastery

Freud also suggested that people unconsciously seek out reminders of their trauma as a way to gain closure. By re-experiencing the trauma, they are able to gain some type of mastery or resolution. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, and instead, people find themselves stuck in a pattern of maladaptive behavior.

Linking the Past to the Present

Some researchers also suggest that repetition compulsion can act as a defense mechanism, allow people to mentally return to an earlier state, or be used as a way to create significance by linking the past to the present.

Familiar Patterns

While some theories suggest that repetition compulsion helps people cope or deal with past trauma, some researchers have argued that it serves no purpose at all. Instead, repetition compulsion may simply occur because people are more likely to repeat familiar patterns.

Even if the behavior is unhealthy or destructive, it might be the only way a person knows to manage the situation.

Treatment for Repetition Compulsion

If you have noticed behaviors that might be related to repetition compulsion, there are things you can do to address the issue. It is a complex psychological issue, which means that it can be challenging to treat. It often requires different tactics to help address various parts of the behavior.

Psychotherapy can be beneficial and can help people process, integrate, and gain mastery of their experiences. Different techniques can be useful, including:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of therapy that address the faulty automatic thoughts that cause people to repeat maladaptive behavior. People learn how to identify these thought patterns and then develop new skills that allow them to replace negative thoughts with more helpful, realistic ones.

Psychodynamic Therapy

This form of therapy involves exploring past experiences to learn more about the unconscious or subconscious issues that might lead people to repeat harmful behavior patterns. This is a type of insight-based therapy that helps people to make connections between their past experiences and their current behavior.  

Psychodynamic therapy can help people better understand their emotions, identify patterns, and improve interpersonal relationships. Research suggests that psychodynamic therapy can be as effective as CBT.

Trauma-Focused Group Therapy

If you have experience trauma, it can be helpful to get support from others who have had similar experiences and know what you are going through. Group therapy may help you process your experiences, gain social support, and find a safe space to talk about your feelings and experiences. Participation in group therapy is also a great way to learn new self-care and coping skills from others with lived experience.

Coping With Repetition Compulsion

There are also self-help strategies you can use to help cope with repetition compulsion. Utilizing relaxation techniques and mindfulness practices, for example, may make it easier to deal with feelings of stress and anxiety that contribute to repetition compulsion.

Some techniques that you might utilize include:

A Word From Verywell

Repetition compulsion is often linked to traumatic events that occur early in life, including abuse, neglect, or stressful situations. Such patterns are not always easy to recognize but can take a serious toll on your health and well-being. If you notice that you are repeating maladaptive patterns in your life, you might find it helpful to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you recognize the signs of repetition compulsion and help you work on developing healthier ways to cope.