Why do we repeat trauma?

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why does so-and-so keep going for the same type of partner even though their parents were abusive?”

It may be a repetition compulsion.

This is a Freudian concept on which we seek the familiar, he describes it as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.” It’s a neurotic defense mechanism, an attempt to rewrite our histories.

Imagine you are exposed to a abusive pattern with a primary caregiver, and at the time of exposure you lack power. You have no control to change the situation. You might find yourself repeating the trauma and it’s circumstances as an adult. For example you may enter the repeated pattern as an adult in order to find control, to almost “repair” and “fix” the injury from early life, although not always successful. Importantly, these deeply rooted patterns can be playing out in our unconscious, and may not be repeating consciously.

The concept works well when it’s repeating positive cycles or helpful healthy behaviors, however it runs us into difficulty when we’re repeating behaviors that lead to toxic relationships and various types of abuse. The theory according the Freud was that this compulsion is lead by the “death drive” – perhaps that’s a topic for another day.

Some theoretical understandings of this compulsion is that we return to what’s familiar in times of stress and repeat negative patterns and thoughts (rumination). We return to these patterns as a form of self soothing because it’s more predictable to locate yourself there, even if it doesn’t work.

For example, a child can witness a parent who is abusive and the child may feel helpless, rejected and without control. In later life, the person may seek to have control in adult relationships and try to counter the rejection and receive the love that was denied in childhood. Unfortunately, the need to get this corrective experience can lead us to gravitate to dysfunction. The need to heal our inner child often keeps us from letting that child go and we regress instead. This perpetuates the cycle of destructive relationships and we don’t reach the attachment need we were after and are left feeling more abandoned, rejected, helpless and out of control. One can end up seeking a partner to acquire the feeling of being in control and “correcting/fixing” the childhood experience; and in our attempts to receive the love that was denied, we can often deny your own feelings to achieve that love.

Another outcome can be the person repeating the behavior they witnessed and becoming abusive towards others or to themselves (self harm, addiction, high risk behaviours) in order to feel a sense of control. This becomes a dangerous reenactment of abuse.

Therapy can help to create a corrective emotional experience in order to feel empowered; so as to not feel compelled to re-enter this repetitive cycle. A helpful therapeutic process can also help you discover your relational patterns, defenses you employ as well as developing healthier coping mechanisms and find healing.

It can take time to address these dysfunctional patterns, and many therapies approach this. Therapies such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Psychodynamically Oriented Therapies, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and more recently Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT) can all be helpful in this regard.

What are your thoughts?

References :

Dryden, W. (Ed.). (2012). Cognitive Behaviour Therapies. SAGE Publications Limited.

Inderbitzin, L. B., & Levy, S. T. (1998). Repetition compulsion revisited: implications for technique. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 67(1), 32.


Amy Glover is a practicing Clinical Psychologist based in Cape Town. She has her masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Community Counselling (cum laude) from the University of Stellenbosch. She divides her time between a private practice in Vredehoek, Cape Town and developing practitioner-led resources to equip professionals to navigate online platforms for mental health services. She is passionate about preventative mental health and works with individuals and couples. Amy Glover is available to see clients online for therapy. Email: amygloverpsychologist@gmail.com or contact here.

One thought on “Why do we repeat trauma?

  1. This concept of the inner child is a deeply meaningful one that remains a source of echoing emotional pangs, whether good or bad, that continue to impact adult life. Would you say that holding on to that inner child is a healthy thing, when confronted with a traumatic childhood, in the case of a desire to regress to a state of happiness/contentedness? What I mean to say is that holding on to a your inner self could point to a desire to return to who you were before the abusive event, and thus ‘correct’ the emotional experience, as you said.


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