Repetition Compulsion, An Expression of Trauma

Trauma may generally be described as a subjective life experience whereby a person’s resources are not adequate to manage an external threat. As coping mechanisms fail, the individual is overwhelmed by fear of bodily harm, death or mental anguish. A single event such as rape or physical assault may cause trauma. Or a series of events such as prolonged child abuse or military combat may cause trauma. In either case, the victim faces post-traumatic helplessness with a reconfigured fractured world view. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this new world view has shifted from trust and safety to mistrust and fear. In most circumstances victims heal and return to social and psychological normalcy. However other victims enter into a cycle of repeating the trauma over and over again.

The notion of a traumatized victim repeating their trauma seems unfathomable. Ordinarily one would think the opposite; that the victim would do all within their power to avoid the trauma and rewrite the past through loving behavior directed towards self and others. However this is not always the case as was noted by Freud in 1914 when he coined the term “repetition compulsion.” When a victim continually repeats their trauma time and time again or when they situate themselves in circumstances whereby the trauma is likely to be repeated, they are displaying repetition compulsion. The purpose of this article then is to explore trauma repetition and how a therapist may lead a patient out of this destructive cycle.

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Research has documented that some women who were sexually abused as children become prostitutes while others marry abusers. Some men who were sexually abused as children become sex offenders. And other men and women who experienced childhood physical abuse marry and divorce an abuser only to marry another abuser. Understanding the compulsive self-exposure of these individuals to circumstances that mirror the earlier trauma is the first step in stopping the repetition.

Drawn to the familiar – Traumatized children view the world as a place of danger and tend to navigate from a fearful perspective. As adults this same perspective might unconsciously draw them to familiar life situations they experienced as children. Fear and pessimism drive relationship decisions and these victims are drawn to unhealthy people that mimic their earlier abuser. Albeit ineffective, the attraction to familiarity creates the same suffering over and over.

Getting it right this time – The trauma victim resides in a world of extreme conflict whereby deep seated emotions churn to deny and suppress painful memory while at the same time purge and resolve the memory. The conscious mind is unaware of this conflict but makes decisions, including relationship decisions, driven by the conflict. The resulting behavior, albeit ineffective and damaging, is an attempt to reconcile the initial trauma by “getting it right this time.”

Repetition compulsion as maladaptive behavior can be stopped with the help of a thoughtful professional therapist. The first step is to make the victim aware of the repetition and its dangers, to explore the causes of the repetition and to establish new perspectives and habits. If victims blame themselves, they may be guided by their therapist to reconstruct their perspective of the trauma, accept their innocence then shed guilt and shame. Feelings of being out of control and vulnerable in an unsafe world can be replaced by feelings of confidence and security. In the end the repetition is no longer valued by the victim and engagement in healthy satisfying relationships becomes an option.

Miriam Gold, LCSW, PLLC
Springboard Therapy
Therapy Services for Children, Adolescents, Adults, Families, and Groups

Miriam Gold specializes in trauma PTSD therapy in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her treatment specializations also include childhood and adult Trauma, adult survivors of trauma, both recent and past. Treating children and adolescents; Neglect/Sexual Abuse/Physical abuse, Community/War/Political Violence, Natural Disasters, Life Threatening Medical illness, Serious Accidents, School Violence, Traumatic Loss, Foster Care and Adoption, Attachment Concerns. Miriam is Rostered in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) through the North Carolina Child Treatment Program. TF-CBT is an evidence-based treatment for children, adolescents, and their parents or caretakers who have experienced trauma or loss. Extensive training in Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), an evidence-based therapy for adults.