Human beings seek comfort in the familiar.  When we are used to things, our brain updates its map so that when we come across things again their presence will feel more natural than strange.  Sometimes the natural tendency towards the familiar can lead to unwanted and destructive behavior.  For example, consider someone that has had six abusive relationships in a row.  The relationships cause intense suffering at multiple levels of being.  Yet it is as if the person cannot help themselves and yet again find themselves in another abusive relationship.  Freud called this phenomena repetition compulsion.

Repetition compulsion is when a person repeats an action or situation that has previously caused them trauma, often without being aware of why they are doing so. It is largely an unconscious phenomena.  It is sometimes referred to as trauma reenactment. An example of compulsive repetition comes in the opening paragraph. The person finding themselves repeatedly in abusive relationships is repeating an earlier trauma that involved abandonment among other things.  How this translates into multiple abusive relationships is that the person is replicating abandonment repeatedly.  In other words, the person is having a relationship with abandonment so much so that it continually repeats.

The theory behind this phenomenon is that by repeating the trauma, the individual is hoping to gain a sense of mastery or control over it. In some cases, repetition compulsion can be helpful, as it allows the individual to work through their trauma and come to terms with it. However, in other cases, it can be detrimental, as it can prevent the individual from moving on and cause them to relive their trauma repeatedly. Repetition compulsion is a complex phenomenon that is still not fully understood by psychologists. However, it can have a profound effect on an individual’s mental health.

Repetition compulsion is thought to be linked to the limbic system, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotions and memory. This connection may explain why people with PTSD often relive their trauma through flashbacks and nightmares. The limbic system is also responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which can lead to further anxiety and compulsive behaviors.  When someone experiences a traumatic event, the limbic system may become overloaded and unable to process the experience properly. As a result, the individual may compulsively repeat the experience to make sense of it. While repetition compulsion can be distressing and disruptive, it is important to remember that it is often an unconscious response to trauma.

The need to get it right and fix it means that these individuals gravitate towards people who are much more likely to help them reenact the original trauma.  The abandonment example used earlier in this article is representative of this phenomena.  Even though the person consciously wants a good relationships and does not want to repeat the past, they find that they are compulsively drawn towards people who are more likely to abandon them.

Repetition compulsion can be difficult to break free from.  It is not simply a matter of making the unconscious conscious- although developing some awareness around the issue certainly plays a part.  It takes a long time to form a compulsion to repeat and usually it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to undo the unwanted behaviors.  Part of the reason is that often it is a reenactment of some early trauma which in turn implies that treating the trauma is paramount.

While it is definitely possible to heal from trauma and even thrive in life, this often involves a significant investment of time and energy.  Treatment often involves significant self-reflection, guidance from a supportive therapist and a lot of hard work.  The gist of healing is in changing the destructive processes involved which can often involve cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), talk therapy, reflective journaling, and mindfulness among others.

Just as an aside we can utilize the tendency to favor the familiar to our advantage.  For instance, by repeating constructive behaviors we make them more familiar and thus more likely to repeat them in the future.  As an example, think about starting an exercise regime where often one of the most difficult facets is to initially establish a routine. Once the routine is established, it becomes easier to maintain it.  In part this is due to the familiarity with the routine.

A similar example: I have been learning Taichi for a few years.  In the beginning I had great difficulty performing some of the intricate movements.  I was unfamiliar with the movements and what was required. Over time, I became more adept at the forms involved.  Some forms have become embedded in muscle memory and in that they have become more ‘natural’.  The point being that via repetition the difficulty that was once encountered has become significantly less so.  Habit formation such as used in this example is like repetition compulsion but without the involvement of a trauma.  It is the trauma which make it problematic for people afflicted with repetition compulsion.

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These articles relating to trauma might also be of interest:

What is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma, Neuroscience, Self-Regulation and Window of Tolerance