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Understanding Trauma and Repetition Compulsion: Why We Repeat Relational Patterns

The cycle of trauma is an enigma wrapped in pain and puzzling behaviours. Trauma's impact stretches far beyond the initial event, casting a long shadow over a person's life, often leading to a peculiar phenomenon: repetition compulsion. A phenomenon in which a person unconsciously repeats patterns from past trauma - over and over again as a way of attempting to master or resolve them.

In this post, we delve into the nature of trauma and how repetition compulsion fits into this complex tapestry.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to an event or series of events that are deeply distressing or disturbing, such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape, or other violent personal assaults. It's not confined to these major events alone, however; it can also stem from ongoing, subtle, or insidious forms of abuse or emotional neglect.

The traumatic experience often overwhelms an individual's capacity to cope, causing feelings of helplessness, diminishing their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences. It is also important to remember that trauma is highly individualized. What might be traumatic for one person might not be for another.

“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then, but the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside the individual.” - Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Unveiling Repetition Compulsion

Repetition compulsion is a psychological phenomenon first identified by the famous psychotherapist; Sigmund Freud. Wherein a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. When it comes to repeating relational patterns, the traumatic event is often rooted in early childhood through our attachment, or lack thereof, with one or both primary caregivers. However, we can also experience relational trauma in our adult relationships if we find ourselves in a toxic, physically or emotionally abusive relationship.

It's important to understand that trauma, particularly developmental trauma, has a profound effect on our brain's structure and function. Experiencing trauma in a toxic relationship with a narcissist or someone with a severe personality disorder can cause significant stress, activating our body's fight-or-flight response. This heightened state of alertness can disrupt the neural pathways that regulate our emotions and reactions, creating a pattern of hyperarousal or hypervigilance, which becomes the body's new "normal." This exposure to repeated trauma can lead to an alteration of our attachment style. We may develop what's known as disorganized or insecure attachment, characterized by a deep-seated fear of rejection and abandonment, difficulties in trusting others, and a constant need for reassurance. These shifts in attachment style can lead to repetition compulsion and perpetuate a cycle of unhealthy relationships, as individuals may find themselves unconsciously drawn towards situations and partners that mimic their past traumatic experiences.

Why Does Repetition Compulsion Occur?

While it might seem counterintuitive to reengage with a traumatic situation, it's essential to understand that repetition compulsion is an unconscious effort to gain mastery over the situation. The psyche attempts to recreate the scenario in a bid to resolve the initial, overwhelming experience under 'controlled' circumstances. Unfortunately, what often happens instead is a reliving of trauma, further cementing the traumatic experience within one's memory and emotional responses.

There are a few theories as to why this occurs:

  1. Control and Mastery: As mentioned, a key motivation for repetition compulsion is the unconscious desire to gain control over the traumatic experience. The individual may feel that by recreating the situation, they can change the outcome and thus 'rewrite' the traumatic event.

  2. Identity and Self-Understanding: For some individuals, especially those who have suffered repeated or chronic trauma, their experiences become a part of their identity. Unconsciously, they may feel compelled to repeat traumatic situations because it aligns with their self-perception or understanding of how the world works.

  3. Neurobiology and Conditioning: On a neurobiological level, high-intensity emotions experienced during trauma can cause certain neural pathways to become ingrained. As such, certain stimuli or situations may trigger a trauma response, leading the person back into similar situations.

Breaking the Cycle

Despite the tenacity of repetition compulsion, it's crucial to remember that cycles can be broken, and patterns can change. Individuals can learn to recognize and understand their patterns, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and build resilience.

Supportive relationships play a pivotal role in trauma recovery. Connection to supportive and understanding individuals can help foster resilience and provide a safe space for expressing and exploring feelings related to the trauma. A network of supportive relationships can also provide affirmation and encouragement as individuals navigate the sometimes challenging journey of healing and recovery.

Finally, self-care is a vital aspect of trauma recovery and breaking the cycle of repetition compulsion. This includes not only physical care but also emotional and psychological self-care. It might involve engaging in relaxation exercises, mindfulness, creative activities, or other outlets that allow for the expression and processing of traumatic experiences in a healthy way. Regular physical exercise and a balanced diet can also play a key role in maintaining overall health and well-being, which can support mental and emotional health.


While trauma and repetition compulsion can present significant challenges, understanding their dynamics is the first step toward healing. It is a courageous journey to embark upon, filled with self-discovery and resilience-building, but with the right resources, support, and professional guidance, recovery is possible. Remember, there is no predefined path or timeline for trauma recovery—each individual's journey is unique and progresses at its own pace.

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