Repeating the Past

(This is a summary of a more comprehensive article in Psychology Today)

Why would you repeat the past? Why would you date or marry someone just like the father or mother who was most problematic for you? It seems to happen quite often, even though it would make more sense to look for a partner with opposite traits.

Though never formally studied, this phenomenon has been observed by most psychotherapists and psychiatrists and was first recognized by Sigmund Freud, who named it “repetition compulsion.” In it, you would repeat a difficult relationship or event over and over again. This includes reenacting the event itself or putting yourself in situations where it is likely to happen again. This phenomenon is also described at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, where it’s referred to as “the definition of insanity”: Doing the same thing over and over again hoping that this time something different will happen.


Many theories offer explanations as to why “just leave” is no simple option for people stuck in the same old unstable and challenging relationships. For starters most of these people find themselves in situations reminiscent of an original trauma without realizing it. Secondly, we all seek comfort in what is familiar and predictable—even if it means repeatedly dating people who are emotionally unavailable or verbally abusive. Additionally, seeking out a stand-in for your most complicated parent gives you a chance to recreate history and this time gain mastery over what you couldn’t control as a child. Triumphing over a frustrating old foe is always more satisfying than prevailing over someone who feels strange and new.

Reenacting scenarios from your past involves the hope that this time you will get it right. If you act nicer, perform better, dress differently, or find the right words, then your partner will no longer rebuff you or hurt you. Consciously or unconsciously, you are deeply pleased if you can satisfy this parental stand-in and unlock their love and acceptance.

Other reasons you may keep coming back to people who mistreat you are 1) you’ve internalized that you deserve to be mistreated 2) early conditioning has caused you to link emotional abuse with love and 3) reenacting the hurt you suffered may provide a temporary sense of relief or even pleasure–but may ultimately lead to feeling helpless and out of control.

Sadly, some people are so preoccupied with the hurt they have suffered that they are not able to develop meaningful life experiences. This fixation often results in difficulties with being fully present for new people and possibilities, almost as if their emotional development stopped at the age the damage occurred.

War veterans may enlist as mercenaries, victims of incest may become prostitutes, and victims of childhood physical abuse seemingly provoke subsequent abuse in foster families or become self-mutilators. Still others identify with the aggressor and do to others what was done to them. Clinically, these people are observed to have a vague sense of apprehension, emptiness, boredom, and anxiety when not involved in activities reminiscent of the trauma.” —Bessel van der Kolk


First of all it’s important to ask yourself and your therapist if you’re repeating your past in any problematic ways. Then before exploring your traumatic roots, you may need to cut out some of the coping mechanisms that you’ve traditionally used to protect against uncomfortable feelings such as substance abuse or self-injury. Next It’s important to revisit and understand your challenges in therapy making sure to support that process with some kind of self-soothing, like deep breathing, meditation, or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).

The key then is to develop a safe relationship with your therapist, in which you can explore the realities of your childhood experiences and their effect on you current life. This connection can protect against further social isolation while you break away from your old familiar ways of relating to people.

The level of hurt and dysfunction you have experienced influences the course and pace of therapy; yet gaining control over your current life, rather than repeating past harmful behaviors is your ultimate goal. You may think a bad situation or feeling will last forever. Your challenge will be learning to notice what is happening in the here-and-now, and recognizing how things will ultimately shift, rather than immediately avoiding reality and self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and some of its relatives are effective treatments for reshaping thought patterns that lead to unhealthy behaviors. Becoming aware of your childhood-based cognitive distortions, negative self-talk, and core beliefs, and replacing these thoughts with healthier, more realistic ones is crucial.

Once the difficult experiences have been located in time and place, you can start making distinctions between current life choices and past trauma and reduce its impact on your present experience.

As previously mentioned, tools that reinforce a state of calm and a mind-body connection can greatly benefit healing. By finding ways to settle yourself down and think more clearly, you may liberate yourself from repeating the past and be free to make new choices–like the kind of person to date. Or at the very least you may understand the power of the compulsion and thoughtfully choose someone who is the best version of the kind of person you’re drawn to. 

Dr. Adam

May 6, 2021