If you’ve found yourself trapped in a cycle of toxic relationships, then you should know you’re not alone. Humans are hardwired to find comfort in repetition. In fact, Sigmund Freud gave this strange practice a name when he dubbed the “desire to return to an earlier state of things” as repetition compulsion. In short, people often look to recreate the past because it’s what they know. Although the word compulsion doesn’t inspire positive connotations, repetition compulsion isn’t always negative. For instance, when you’re feeling anxious or dealing with trauma, you may turn to a favorite movie or TV show over and over again. This behavior is usually harmless and can even serve as a coping mechanism that brings a person comfort when going through a difficult time — which is an example of repetition compulsion that’s unlikely to have a negative impact on your overall well-being.
But for other people, repetition compulsion presents itself through unhealthy or dangerous behaviors. In these cases, times of stress may lead people to turn to drugs, self-harm, or alcohol abuse if these patterns have already been established. While it may seem counterintuitive to repeat negative behavior over and over again, Psychology Today reports that it’s actually a fairly common occurrence. The trouble with repetition compulsion is that it’s a complex psychological issue that’s still not entirely understood.
What we do know is the phenomenon is grounded in a desire to seek out familiarity, even when that means continually placing yourself in the same types of adverse situations. Such is especially true for people who grew up with toxic or abusive parents. Overall, people who experienced traumatic or dysfunctional relationships with their parents as children are more likely to seek out unhealthy relationships as an adult, leading to a cycle of being trapped in abusive situations.
While it may feel like you’ll never be able to break free, there are ways to deal with repetition compulsion. But before you can seek out treatment, you need to understand the root causes behind this complicated psychological issue.
What causes repetition compulsion?
There is no concrete answer as to what causes repetition compulsion, but there are lots of theories. One reason why people seek to recreate the past is an unconscious desire to change the original outcome. For instance, if you grew up with a distant father, you may find yourself drawn to distant partners as an adult. And much like when you were a child, you’ll put pressure on yourself to change your behavior in hopes of turning a negative relationship into a positive one, even though it’s not your responsibility to try and accommodate an abusive partner.
In other cases, changing your established patterns of behavior may trigger intense feelings of anxiety and fear that you would rather avoid. As humans, we truly are creatures of habit — even when the habits are bad for us. In a strange way, even mistreatment can feel safer than making a leap into the unknown for a fresh start. That’s because there’s comfort in the familiar, even when the familiar is objectively bad.
What is the Law of Repetition?
The Law of Repetition states that repeating a behavior makes it more powerful. In other words, the more you do the same thing, the more comfortable it feels. As a result, it will become harder and harder to break out of your established patterns the longer they go on. For example, if you constantly find yourself in relationships with people who put you down, you may find it difficult to be attracted to anyone else, even if you set out to find a partner who is loving and caring. Basically, the negative behavior is so natural that it begins to feel wrong to break away from it. In some cases, you may even believe you deserve to be mistreated, especially if your pattern of toxic relationships is tied to a traumatic memory.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, there are ways to deal with repetition compulsion that can help you break free of toxic patterns for good.
How can you stop repeating mistakes?
Before you can stop repeating the same mistakes, you must personally acknowledge that you’re trapped in a vicious cycle. Once you take this powerful step, you’ll be ready to seek help for your repetition compulsion. Help may include:
- Exploring your childhood traumas with a therapist or counselor.
- Making a real effort to acknowledge and resist pre-existing patterns.
- Undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy to train your brain to become aware of negative self-talk and other triggers.
- Learning healthy coping mechanisms to keep you from constantly reliving past traumas.
- Engaging in mindfulness exercises.
- Approaching mistakes from a different perspective so you can avoid making the same ones over and over — accepting the occasional blunder is the first step in moving forward and acknowledging them as part of your journey.
- Giving yourself some credit. When you do something right, take a beat to appreciate it and recognize your accomplishments. That feeling of accomplishment may sometimes help you stay on the right path.
It takes a long time for repetition compulsion to take root in a person’s life, so it only makes sense that breaking these negative cycles will take time, too. But with self-reflection, guidance from a professional, and a willingness to explore the reasons behind the patterns in your behavior, you can overcome repetition compulsion — and leave toxic relationships behind for good.
How is maladaptive behavior similar to repetitive compulsion?
Maladaptive behavior and repetitive compulsion are actually very similar. This behavior prevents you from adjusting or adapting to a new situation. People usually experience it after a traumatic event, extreme illness, or significant changes in your life. It could also be a habit you developed over time, but it can be worked through like repetitive compulsion.
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