What is Repetition Compulsion & Can We Stop Repeating the Past?


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repetition compulsion birds flying over a canyon with a signpost reading lost found searching Middle Class Dad

My wife and I both had rough childhoods and have struggled with making poor choices over and over again. So we’ve had to learn to understand the concept of repetition compulsion and how to overcome it.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

Repetition compulsion, the repeating of negative behavior patterns, draw us into challenging relationships & keeps us in a negative holding pattern. We know these behaviors are wrong, but because they are familiar, often rooted in childhood trauma, we go back to them again and again.

Do you struggle with behavior patterns you keep repeating despite knowing that some of them aren’t healthy?

Maybe you smoke or gamble. Perhaps others among you cheat on your spouse or have other sexual compulsions.

You’re not alone!

These behavior patterns are comforting because they are familiar to us.  But many of them are limiting our relationships, keeping us from our full potential and hampering our future!

Thus when we find ourselves repeating destructive behavior we are practicing what’s known as repetition compulsion.

In this post, we’re going to explore exactly what repetition compulsion is, why we do things we know are destructive AND how we can change our behavior permanently.

Breaking unhealthy relationship patterns IS possible and today we’ll learn exactly how to do it.

How does repetition compulsion work?

The term repetition compulsion was first documented by noted psychotherapist Dr. Sigmund Freud, in a paper he wrote in 1914 about “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through”.

Freud noted how people who grew up with traumatic events but didn’t necessarily recall them clearly had a greater tendency to engage in those damaging behaviors later in life, despite the obvious irony.

I know I have certain behavior patterns and tendencies I fall into. 

More importantly, I know I tend to gravitate towards certain types of people; people who fall into specific patterns and personalities.

Some of those behavior patterns (mine and others) are NOT healthy.

But fall into them, I do.  Why?  Because they are familiar.  You see even if we’re adept enough to recognize a destructive pattern, we often are still drawn to that pattern because it’s familiar.

Thus the child of a smoker who watched a loved one get cancer often takes up smoking themselves. There is comfort in familiar behavior patterns even if the familiar is damaging.

What is the root of repetition compulsion?

They say that ANY habit takes weeks to form and takes weeks to break.

In the case of negative behavior patterns though, many of these take years to form.

And breaking unhealthy relationship patterns can take years depending on how deeply ingrained in us they are.

Many who set New Year’s Resolutions (click to read my article on the right way to set & keep them) to lose weight or take on other new goals/choices often fail. 

They fail because they lack the discipline to repeat the new task enough until it becomes a habit.

Many of our less desirable behavior patterns got formed at a young age.  We watched our parents drink too much, smoke, yell to get what they want or over-eat to combat stress.

In those formative years, we often learn more by seeing what our parents do, rather than by what they tell us.  That’s even truer if what they are telling us doesn’t match what we’re seeing.

Even a 5-year-old knows a hypocrite when they see one.

What is traumatic reenactment?

According to Peter M. Bernstein, Ph.D. in his book Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic (click to see current price on Amazon), “Traumatic reenactment is a process that includes compulsively repeated thoughts, attitudes, and patterns of behavior.

The goal of reenactment is to resolve and heal a past traumatic experience or series of experiences. Reenactment arises out of our past and can seriously disrupt our present lives and relationships.”

In other words, we keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

As you know the saying goes, that is the definition of insanity. With repetition compulsion, we watched these behaviors repeatedly as kids until they became familiar to us.

We may not have been totally OK with those things, but there IS comfort in the familiar. 

You see no matter how scary the behavior might have been that we witnessed, there was one thing even scarier; the unknown.

With the known, even if it’s negative, we know where it’s going. We know what is likely to happen and how it will end.  With the unknown, it’s completely up in the air and out of our control. That can be incredibly scary to a young child.

Bernstein goes on to say “It is important to remember that reenactment does not occur on a conscious level. Rather, these patterns surface as a result of the pain and turmoil felt on a subconscious level. And because we do not actively choose these patterns, we are unable to actively choose something different.”

In truth, nothing is within our control other than our own thoughts, actions, and responses.  But when we’ve been damaged by behavior patterns, the familiar is very comforting.

If you struggle to Let Go of Past Hurts (click to read my article on how), I strongly recommend you take a moment and check out one of my most shared and liked posts on Facebook.

In that post, I walk you through the 11 steps I have personally taken to try and shed the negative aspects of my past so I can move forward in a more healthy way.

How to forget a traumatic past

My step-Father, Frank Garvin was VERY particular about how bath towels got folded.

He would often pick them up and throw them to the ground if they weren’t folded correctly.  Thus even though I was very nervous folding towels in front of him, I still fold them that way to this day. 

I also think about him every time I fold a towel, even though he passed away decades ago.

So every time I fold a towel I face the very real thoughts rooted in my own repetition compulsion relationships of my childhood.

I detail my life with him in a much-shared post about Growing Up with an Alcoholic Father (click to read my journey) and it’s well worth your time in checking it out.

Why do we gravitate towards bad habits & negative behaviors even if we know they it’s destructive?

Why does a moth gravitate towards the flame knowing it will get burned?

As I said above we gravitate to the familiar.  Repetition compulsion means that behavior patterns emotionally become part of who we are. And negative patterns can be very hard (but not impossible) to break.

When a behavior pattern is ingrained in us on an emotional level (as all habits are), logic and rational thought don’t have much of an impact on those habits.  The smoker knows that smoking is a terrible, expensive and life-threatening habit, but they continue to smoke.

The good news is that breaking unhealthy relationship patterns starts with simply acknowledging it.

young woman in a hoodie smoking Middle Class Dad repetition compulsion

How repetition compulsion affects different personalities

I know in my case as I’ve detailed in previous blog posts, I had issues with trust.

More specifically I developed a fear of people I loved leaving. My folks split up when I was 6 months old.

Then my Mom and step-Dad split up when I was 10.  My step-Dad Frank, the man I called Dad for all of my pre-adult life, then passed away when I was in high school.

Thus I learned a number of times at a young age that if you get too close to people they will leave you. 

My wife developed similar behavior patterns in her life.  But in her case, she learned to push people away. Whereas I tend to cling too tightly.

Thus in many of my past romantic relationships, I was attracted to women who also had repetition compulsion patterns stemming from their past. 

Not all (in case any are reading this) but I was definitely drawn to women who needed “fixing” (cue the Coldplay song “Fix You”).

I also had a tendency to come on strong and probably could have been accused of smothering or at least moving too quickly.

I covered some of how I can be a Clingy Guy (click to read my post on how to be less clingy) in what has become my most popular relationship post.  Check it out if you haven’t already!

How does repetition compulsion affect relationships?

In short, if one partner suffers from repetition compulsion, it puts a huge burden on the other.

If both people suffer, however, it can make the relationship almost impossible unless both partners are fully aware and working on their issues actively.

In the case of my wife and I, we both brought issues from our past to our marriage table.

My wife abused drugs and alcohol and while very vivacious and flirtatious, actually really never let anyone see or know the real her.

She learned at a young age not to trust anyone and not to count on anyone, so keeping interactions with people at a superficial level meant never having to rely on anyone or put herself out there.

Me, on the other hand, had a tendency to fear being left which I mentioned above. 

That drove me to sabotage relationships as they got further along. I somehow felt more in control if I was the one ending the relationship I knew (in my head) was destined to end anyway.

It took my wife and I a lot of tears, a lot of years, a lot of therapy, and 3 years of sobriety to really wrap our heads around our past and not allow it to dictate our present or our future.

How to break unhealthy habits

Breaking unhealthy relationship patterns times time!  But like anything in life, you CAN accomplish it if you set your mind to it.

Here are the steps I like to follow:

  1. Identify the behavior pattern you wish to break
  2. Acknowledge the truth about how that pattern was formed
  3. Accept where you’re at in the process of trying to better yourself (no sense in beating yourself up over past issues – learn the lesson and move on)
  4. Pinpoint where you want to get to in this process (after all, you’ll never hit a goal if you don’t know what it is)
  5. Figure out how to break down the goal into small digestible baby steps
  6. Measure your progress along the way
  7. Acknowledge if you slip up or fall back (but don’t let setbacks hurt your motivation)

Breaking repetition compulsion takes time. 

You have to understand that you took years to create and build these patterns and habits so they won’t go away overnight. 

Anything worth doing requires effort, focus, determination, and hard work.

Thus if you struggle with negative behavior patterns in yourself or are drawn to damaged people in your relationships you will have to work to overcome those impulses.

How amazing could your life be if you were free of the drama?

Check out the amazing book Excuses Begone! (click to see current price on Amazon).

It’s about “How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits by the “father of motivation”, and it’s from Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, author of 21 New York Times Best Sellers!

In that award-winning book, Dr. Dyer reveals “how to change the self-defeating thinking patterns that have prevented you from living at the highest levels of success, happiness, and health.”

Repetition compulsion and narcissism

What is a narcissist?

A narcissist is someone who:

  • Loves attention
  • Has little regard for how their actions affect others
  • Feels very entitled
  • Is not open to feedback or criticism

In essence, we’re talking about someone almost sociopathic, ego-driven, and ultimately insecure. More often narcissism is present in men, but it does show up in women too.

In fact, one of my articles deals exactly with the Characteristics of a Narcissistic Mother (click to read it).

The doctors are unsure whether the narcissist is that way they are due to genetics or environmental factors. But I’m betting on environmental factors, and especially repetition compulsion.

Ultimately the narcissist is someone who has built a protective shell around them for protection.

They disregard others because they learned not to trust others at a young age. The attention their ego craves is driven by incredible insecurities from the trauma suffered at a young age.

And their behavior as a whole is an attempt to control their life fully now having grown up feeling completely out of control.

So, what are my . . .

5 Ways Repetition Compulsion Can Destroy Your Future?

1. It Can Keep You in a Destructive Holding Pattern

Like any issue, if you don’t deal with it you’ll likely continue to repeat the scenario.  There’s no shame in making mistakes, but it’s crucial that we learn from them, take ownership of them and not continue to repeat them.

2. It limits your potential

As long as we are held prisoner by our past and by our negative behavior patterns, we will never be the person we are truly meant to be.  We can strive and see some success, but as long as those patterns control us we’ll never reach our full potential.

3. It can lead you repeatedly into challenging relationships

I speak from personal experience when I say that negative behavior patterns not only make us less than solid partners but also can make us gravitate to others who aren’t great partners either.  That’s not to say they aren’t amazing people. But as long as those negative behaviors dominate our personality we’ll have an uphill battle trying to be a good partner and so will they.

4. It can damage your relationship

When we’re already in a committed relationship, every time those negative behavior patterns enter into our communication we risk damaging that relationship.  We also risk destroying trust.  Substance abuse is often a side effect of destructive patterns and that too can destroy an otherwise healthy relationship.

5. It can push healthy partners away

If you aren’t in a committed relationship but are looking for one, it can be very hard to attract partners who are mentally strong and well-balanced if you are struggling with destructive behavior patterns.  The inherent issues from the past that we haven’t dealt with will eventually come out.  When that happens, healthy partners will be quick to recognize it and likely be out the door.

Did I cover what you wanted to know about repetition compulsion?

In this post, we took an in-depth look at exactly how many of us gravitate to destructive behaviors, knowing they are bad for us. We do this simply because these behavior patterns are familiar.

The desire to engage in destructive familiar behavior patterns is clinically known as repetition compulsion.

We explored why we naturally gravitate towards the familiar even if it’s destructive.

More importantly, though, we looked at steps we can take in breaking unhealthy relationship patterns so we, and our loved ones, can live a better, more fulfilled life.

In short, we don’t want to live with repetition compulsion because of the refusal to deal with the destructive behavior patterns of our past.

You deserve better.  Your spouse, partner or prospective partners deserve better.  If you have kids, they definitely deserve better too.

The good news is you CAN change it.  You just have to decide to make a change and make that your top priority

What has been your biggest challenge overcoming the past?

Jeff Campbell bio Middle Class Dad repetition compulsion

I also have to add that my opinions are my own and purely based on my own observations and years of experience and should not be construed or received as medical or mental health advice. If you need medical advice or mental health advice, please consult a professional.


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Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market.

2 thoughts on “What is Repetition Compulsion & Can We Stop Repeating the Past?

  1. I stumbled upon this post by chance and it came at exactly the right time – just yesterday my husband and I were talking about how he had done something that sabotaged what he was working towards and we wondered whether it was actually his subconscious forcing him down a particular path because the new one felt too wrong and difficult. I’ll be pointing him to this post, and the steps he could take to stop this negative pattern taking over again. He needs to break out of this funk! Thanks for sharing.

    Alice

    1. Hi Alice

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment!

      In truth we all have a past and patterns we’ve built and it does take work to move past them or at least get to a place where they aren’t controlling us. We may never get rid of them, but recognizing them when they come up is more than half the battle.

      Thanks for being here!

      Jeff

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