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Repetition compulsion is a psychological phenomenon in which we repeat a traumatic event or the feelings associated with it to cope with it. This can happen in various ways: by reliving the trauma in the form of nightmares or flashbacks, thinking about it compulsively, or even engaging in self-destructive relationships and behaviours.
We may repeat behavioural patterns we learned in childhood in the unconscious hope of finally getting the love and acceptance we never received from our parents. When we are stuck in a cycle of pain and hurt with our parents, it can feel like an endless loop, but with insight and time, it is possible to break free from repetition compulsion.
The trauma said, “Don’t write these poems.
Nobody wants to hear you cry
about the grief inside your bones.”
My bones said, “Write the poems.”
Repetition Compulsion: Why do we keep returning to parents who hurt us?
It often takes years and many attempts before we finally free ourselves from our abusive, undermining and bullying parents. Even when we consciously know our parents continue to humiliate, belittle and hurt us, we somehow cannot stop ourselves from keep going back to them. We go to them hoping for praise and recognition but receive undignified humiliation and insults. Their reactions reinforce the negative beliefs, self-hatred and shame that have been implanted in us from an early age, making it harder and harder for us to get back up and fight back.
When we experience a traumatic event, our natural reaction is to try to make sense of it. We want to understand what happened and why it happened. Unfortunately, this often leads us to repeat the same patterns of behaviour that led to the original trauma. In psychoanalysis, this is called repetition compulsion, and ironically, it is a defence mechanism that our mind employs to protect us from further harm. Repetition compulsion is common in people who have experienced complex trauma, and in most cases, it simply exacerbates trauma.
It is also not uncommon for us to find ourselves in relationships that reflect patterns from our childhood. Maybe we have a controlling partner who acts just like our alcoholic father. Perhaps we overstay in a toxic workplace and tolerate abuse because we feel helpless against any possible change. Even if these relationships were belittling, humiliating, and abusive, they can feel familiar and, in an eery way, ‘comfortable.’
One reason behind repetition compulsion is that we hope for a different outcome this time. Perhaps our parents never gave us what we emotionally need, so we still look outside ourselves for partners, employers, and teachers who will give us the attention, care, and approval we need. By repeating the same behaviours and maintaining a harmful relationship, we hope to gain some control over it. We unconsciously try to make things right, even though we consciously know it is impossible.
This is not a reason for victim-blaming, as your conscious is really trying to help and make things right. It is an honourable attempt.
Behind repetition compulsion is our unconscious refusal to grieve.
In the back of our minds, our inner child refuses to give up. The youngest, most vulnerable part of us does not want to be orphaned, and rightly so, because we innately know it is not right, and we want to protect ourselves. As a child, we had to justify any abuse to preserve our sanity. Even though this strategy has lost its usefulness in our adult lives, we continue to do what we have always done. So instead of recognizing the deepest pain and suffering – that our parents cannot love us as we deserve – we keep trying, keep knocking on the wrong door until we are so hurt and wounded that we are paralyzed in life.
Unfortunately, repetition compulsion rarely works as a means of overcoming trauma. It often makes things worse. For example, when we try to reconcile with our parents but they continue to abuse us, or when we surround ourselves with toxic people and expose ourselves to narcissistic abuse. If our parents cannot give us the love we deserve, we only hurt ourselves more by trying repeatedly. At some point, our self-esteem would be so destroyed that there would be no turning back. Repetition compulsion is a powerful force. It can dominate our lives and prevent us from moving on.
“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”
Repetition Compulsion— When the Abuse is not Obvious
It is difficult to acknowledge the impact of abuse when your parent’s harmful behaviours are not explicit, obvious, or consistent. Their abuse may fall into the grey area, meaning it is not extreme or physical, but it somehow undermines you or gradually erode your sense of self and self-esteem.
For example, they may treat your siblings much more favourably but do not admit it. They may devalue you as the “sick one” in the family or cast you out like a black sheep. They may break the identity you are trying to build for yourself in hopes that you can be moulded like a puppet. They may treat you like an extension of themselves and keep you from deviating from the path they have in mind for you. However unbelievable it is, they may be competitive with you and try to destroy you when you shine with beauty, intelligence, relationship, eloquence, and performance.
After years of invisible abuse, you may end up with self-loathing, internalized shame, imposter syndrome, and the inability to stand up for what you deserve. When you succeed in life, you almost immediately expect to be envied, attacked and brought down. Or you feel that you are somehow a fraud and that your good fortune will soon be taken away from you. You fail to set boundaries with others in life or to live without paranoia.
If your parents have always played the victim and gaslighted you, you may live with the pervasive and lingering sense that you are somehow toxic; that somehow in relationships, you will be hurting other people. You constantly feel guilty and ashamed, like you need to protect the world from yourself.
Even if there is no physical beating or sexual abuse, the trauma of this toxic family dynamic can be damaging and long-lasting.
Toxic Interactions with your Parents— Some Examples
If you have spent your entire life in denial, it can be challenging to see the extent of the abuse. However, looking closely, you can see how toxic each interaction is. For example;
Every time you talk to them, they override your opinion and refuse to allow you to have your own values and identity.
They contradict everything you say and claim they are playing “devil’s advocate.”
They alienate you from people who support and love you unless it is clear that these people are their allies and not yours.
They criticize your new partners as they compete with them for your attention and try to control your behaviour in any intimate relationship.
They tell you that your lifestyle is somehow “misinformed,” “too naive,” or just plain wrong.
They constantly imply that you are doing something wrong, lecturing and instructing you on how to live your life based on their own values and experiences.
When someone bullies or berates you, they give the other side the “benefit of the doubt” instead of empathizing with you.
They are pushy, looking for information and later using it to manipulate you.
They control your behaviour and use passive aggression and silence treatment to get their way.
They claim that they are protecting you when, in reality, they are undermining you.
They try to psychoanalyze you and attack you with pathological labels.
When you turn to them for comfort and reassurance, they tell you that you are “too sensitive,” “too dramatic,” and “think too much.”
Often their constant effort to put you down hides under the guise of protection or even love and care. To make matters worse, you may have spent your younger years trying to justify their behaviour or find reasons for their cruel behaviours.
But if you are strong enough to take a step back and trust the signals from your body and emotions, you can see how your parents’ immaturity, trauma, and mendacity led them to act in hurtful and undermining ways.
They may not be “bad people,” but they are certainly parents with a limited capacity to love you the way you need to be loved.
If you feel traumatized every time you turn to them in times of need, it is time to take a step back and protect yourself.
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”
Healing from Repetition Compulsion
Here are a few things you can do psychologically to free yourself from repetition compulsion:
Seeing Their Limitations Clearly
Why do we keep returning to parents who hurt us? Why do we keep returning to the people who have undermined our self-esteem and caused us so much pain?
It could be that we hope they will finally change and treat us the way we deserve. Or it could be that we are so used to being treated badly that it feels normal to us. It could even be a subconscious attempt to heal and work things out.
Most importantly, we keep trying because we all long to be seen, heard and acknowledged. The irony is that the more we are deprived in our younger years – which is likely to be the case if we have parents who undermine us – the more we crave acceptance, validation, recognition and attention, and the more likely we are to keep trying to get this from our dysfunctional parents, even if we have repeatedly failed at it. Repetition compulsion keeps us trapped in a toxic and demoralizing cycle.
If we refuse to acknowledge reality for what it is and keep returning to our parents for love, attention, approval and praise, we will only get hurt more and more. We can internalize the sense of shame and failure to such an extent that our life progress is hindered and our potential hampered.
To free yourself from repetition compulsion, resist the temptation to want things from your parents as if they were able to give them to you. For some people, the phrase ‘My parents are not my (emotional, spiritual, psychological) parents’ can be a powerful mantra. Even if you are biologically related to them, they cannot function as your loving, living, nurturing ‘parents’. At best, they have good intentions and provide for you materially. But they cannot support you in times of emotional distress, give you sound and mature life advice, and offer you tenderness and compassion when you are suffering.
A Chinese proverb says you should not try to borrow a comb from a bald monk. If your parents cannot show empathy or hold back on their attacks and undermining behaviours, you have no choice but to walk away. They are only capable of what they are capable of, which does not include emotional support and a mature relationship.
They may be the ones who visit you in the hospital when you are hurting, but they cannot be someone with whom you can safely share vulnerable feelings. Therefore, you might want to resist the temptation and compulsion to share details of your life with them and seek other sources of support, such as therapists, close friends, loving partners, and your inner parent.
This does not mean you have to separate from them or never see them again (more on this in the next point), but you should probably give up seeking compassion, companionship, comfort, and deep acceptance from them.
Reframing What It Means to Break Free
With some parents, the abuse is sporadic and subtle, and we may not want to give up the relationship altogether. Some of us see setting boundaries with parents as a betrayal or abandonment and feel incredibly guilty when we break away. We may feel that we are turning our backs on our own family, which goes against our own values of love and loyalty.
In reality, however, this is not “cutting the cord.” This is a way to transcend the relationship you have maturely.
We can learn to redefine what it means to set boundaries. It is not abandonment or betrayal but a more mature kind of love. Sometimes it is helpful to think of our parents as unruly children. If they are emotionally immature, then that is what they are.
Imagine that our parents are made up of two parts – a young, immature and sometimes dysfunctional part and a transcendent, adult and loving part. The first part is the primitive part of them, driven by their inherited fears, insecurities and impulses. The second part is the more evolved part that embodies the archetypal divine father or mother.
In some parents, the divine, adult and healthy part is so hidden and suppressed that they let the more dysfunctional part of them runs the show. We can only protect ourselves by keeping a firm distance from them.
But we can trust that our parents have a healthy, functioning and transcendent part that wishes they could love us the way we want to be loved – without selfish intentions, jealousy, dysfunctional emotions and projections. This part of them does not want us to be co-dependent. This part of them wants us to go our own way and not be dictated by inherited traumas.
However, because of their immaturity and psychological limitations, they may be unable to bring their healthy side to the forefront. Instead, what they say and do is governed by their trauma and insecurity. These drives lead them to be jealous of their own children, feel threatened by their beauty and success, want to control how their children live their lives, and project their own fears and insecurities onto their children.
They want to free themselves from their unhealthy urges, but they cannot do so. So it is up to us, who can keep our boundaries and say no, to take the lead. This is how we should consider the importance of keeping our distance and setting boundaries.
Like children who need boundaries and guidance, our parents want us to stand firm and say no. They would not admit it, even to themselves, but secretly they want us to resist their aberrations and go our own way. As the real “adult” in the relationship, it is our job sometimes to play “bad cop” and do what is needed, not what the child thinks they want. For example, a child may want to eat candy all day and play all night, but that’s not what they need. When children test boundaries, there is a latent hope that there will be guidance, discipline, and someone to say “no” to them.
Like children, our parents are silently, mutedly, eagerly waiting for our ‘no’, our rebellion, and our independence. The wise part of them wants us to grow into our own person and find our place in the world rather than remain a puppet or an extension of their neuroses.
So we need to remember that saying no and walking away despite what they say on the surface is also a way of respecting and loving our parents – but we are responding to the healthy and wise part of them, not the unhealthy and dysfunctional part.
Saying no to our parents’ demands for co-dependence is not a betrayal. Instead, we are helping our parents do what they would like but cannot muster the strength to do so.
In essence, we invoke the good parents within ourselves to respond to our parents’ deepest, unspoken desires.
If you can take the lead and free yourself from co-dependence, you will show them what it is like to be a healthy being. In other words, you would love your parents in the best possible way.
“Killers aren’t always assassins. Sometimes, they don’t even have blood on their hands.”
Protecting Yourself from Repetition Compulsion: Using Your Body’s Memories
When you first set boundaries with your parents, you may feel a bit lost and be plagued by the temptation, even compulsion, to turn back to the old patterns, to tell your parents everything that is happening in your life, and to seek their approval, affirmation, and support.
But history is likely to repeat itself unless you change course.
While there is a slight chance that you will get the approval you wanted (which is why you were tempted in the first place), the price you pay and the risk of testing whether your parents would act differently is extremely high.
To protect yourself and eradicate lifelong repetition compulsion, you may need to help your body ‘keep the score.’ Instead of distancing yourself from the pain, you feel, suppressing it and justifying it, let yourself feel it. Allow yourself to feel it not only in your heart but also in your body. Feel the muscle tension, the bruised heart, the sinking feeling in your stomach, the heavy legs, the lump in your throat. Let your body’s memories guide you to walk away. Then take a breath, pause, and find a replacement behaviour (e.g., contacting a friend, taking a hot shower, meditating, or distracting yourself with a book or a video game…) instead of repeating the same cycle.
Nurture your Inner Child
Your adult self knows that your parents are abusive and hurtful and that there is little hope that they will change. However, it is not your adult self that keeps trying. It is not your adult self that drives you into repetition compulsion.
It is your inner child that wants to turn to your parents. It was your inner child who was helpless in the face of a toxic parental bond. It was they who desperately wanted to please their parents so that they would not be incapacitated. If possible, in your mind’s eye, gently hold your inner child’s hand and remind them that the people who are supposed to love them are unfortunately unable to do so. But fear not, for the adult you are here now to take their place, and you are infinitely more loving, stable and consistent than your biological parents will ever be.
Listen to your inner child. What do they need? Sometimes our inner child just needs to be heard. So take a little time each day to listen to what your inner child has to say.
Give your inner child what they need. Give them lots of love, attention and care, so they don’t need to go and knock on your biological parents’ door for it.
Speak kindly to your inner child. Talk to them as kindly and encouragingly as you would a real child. When we learn to love our inner child, we can learn to forgive ourselves when we are not perfect. Spend time with your inner child. Set aside some time each day to just be with your inner child. Play games, read stories, or just sit and talk together. Let your inner child know that you are there for them.
Writing Your own Freedom Statement
To assert the new path that you wish to walk, which is healthy individuation and self-love, you may wish to write a reminder to yourself. A freedom statement, sometimes known as a freedom manifesto, is a document that outlines your personal beliefs about who you are and what you deserve. This could include beliefs about relationships, childhood, and what you rightly deserve. This is a declaration of your decision to stand up for yourself and to fight against abuse.
You can start by saying the following to yourself:
“Today, I am writing my freedom statement against abusive parents. I refuse to allow my past to dictate my future. I am worthy of love and respect, and I will no longer tolerate anything less.
I deserve to be safe and happy, and I will do whatever it takes to make that happen. No one has the right to hurt me or control me. I will not let anyone take away my power.
From this day forward, I am committed to loving myself. I will no longer allow anyone to treat me with anything less than respect. I am worth it, and I deserve it.”
At the end of this article, there is a sample freedom statement you may use as a reference.
Transcending Repetition Compulsion
If you succeed in individuating, you will be rewarded with a deep sense of liberation and freedom. Although it is often difficult at first, if we can reformulate our ideas about the importance of setting boundaries and call upon not only our bodies but also our bodies and souls to help us, we will be able to establish a safe distance from our parents, free ourselves from the compulsion to repeat ourselves and overcome our love for our family.
“Sometimes the people around you won’t understand your journey. They don’t need to, it’s not for them.”
Becoming Free from Repetition Compulsion: Freedom Statement for the Abused and Parentified Child
Dear Father/Mother, I am sorry that you are suffering so much, but it is not my job to save you, nor could I save you.
I am sorry that my “no” is perceived as rejection, the pursuit of my dream as abandonment, and the development of relationships outside our family as a betrayal.
I had no intention of hurting you. I am just doing my best to survive in this world, and I am trying to take responsibility for my one and only life.
I can no longer act like your parent.
You and your sadness, anger and sorrow were there before I came into the world. No matter how hard I have tried – and do so all my life – I cannot save you from your misfortune.
All my life, I have tried again and again to imagine, create, maintain and preserve the image of our “happy family.
I try to calm you down when you burst into anger, break down and cry. When others have hurt you, I have protected you, comforted you, and done all I could to please you. But no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, I could do little because I was only a child.
I cannot tolerate abuse anymore—
Suddenly I see it.
It shocks me deeply that after all these years, I only now realize the cycle of abuse.
I sustained the abuse through repetition compulsion, but seeing it so clearly now, I am learning to say no.
Just because you appear calm one day does not mean I can completely relax and trust you. Part of me has to be ever vigilant, on the lookout for your next outburst, breakdown, blame, or subtle attack.
Hypervigilance is the training I received from birth and the only way to protect myself.
From time to time, I am tempted to forget all my traumas and indulge in the fantasy that I have “good parents.” By that, I do not mean perfect parents, but stable parents who can serve as a safe haven for me. Maybe I just wish for parents more like what I see in my friends’ homes or maybe what I have seen on TV. But every time I do that, I open the door of my heart too wide, and my tender soul is torn out and thrown away.
I have to stop tearing open my wound again and again so that it can finally heal. I will end the cycle of repetition compulsion.
I have no choice but to stop hoping.
Despair may be what can finally save my life.
I am saying no to control and co-dependence —
I am sorry you feel lost and afraid in this unpredictable, vicarious world. I can no longer live under your paranoia and control. You have trapped me in false security in your quest to control the world.
I can no longer allow you to disempower me, remove my independence and autonomy, and rob me of my only chance to grow in this world.
I understand that you cannot separate yourself from me, but I am not an extension of you. I do not live for you, and I can not share every intimate detail of my life so that you can live through me.
You can have your own life or not, but I must reclaim mine.
I choose my partner, my career, my sexual identity, and my self-definition. I choose where I live, where I work, and how I live my life.
I decline your opinion on any of the above.
Let me live with dignity and pride, so I will no longer allow your raised eyebrows, derogatory comments, and unsolicited advice to undermine the path I walk.
In case one day you want to threaten me with an ‘I told you so,’ I promise you right now that.
I take full responsibility for the consequences of my decisions,
And I am responsible for how my story unfolds.
So please, let me go.
And please stop disempowering me.
I am not ‘sick’, ‘too sensitive’ or too fragile for this world.
You may have had to portray me as weak, strange, and dependent so I would not leave you.
You had to do that so you would always have a project to work on, someone to project things onto and never have to face your demons.
I can not play that role anymore.
Please, take back your projection.
I am much more robust, intelligent, capable and independent than you ever gave me credit for.
I know my departure from repetition compulsion will not be easy.
I am sorry that you may not want me to go.
I am sorry that you feel you have lost the only person you could count on.
I am sorry that you feel like you are going to be lonely.
But that’s not my responsibility, and I can not make it up to you.
You can threaten in all sorts of subtle and explicit ways.
You can destroy your own life and blame it on me,
but I have thought about it repeatedly, and I know my conscience is clear.
I came into this world after you. It was never supposed to be my job to save you from your misery.
It was enough that you had controlled me, suffocated me and restricted me. I could not remain your little helper, saviour or servant for the rest of my life.
I can see that you are the way you are because you have suffered so much.
Sometimes I feel deep compassion for you, even though I am not directly subject to your attacks and control.
Sometimes I wonder if you regret bringing me into the world. You act as if you mourn daily for the freedom, independence and big dreams you could otherwise have. I am sorry you lived a life you did not choose for yourself, and I am sorry if it did not turn out the way you wanted.
With compassion, I see that in the parenting dynamic, I have somehow become your mother/father who abandoned you when you were little. I am also sorry that this happened to you. It must have hurt you deeply and made you afraid of what this world offers. When you say the cruellest, most hurtful and vengeful things, when your own grief and abandonment trauma is triggered, I am learning to see that the little girl inside you is protesting.
I am sorry that you are suffering, dear mom, dad. I cannot put you out of your misery.
From now on—
You do not get to decide the meaning of my life.
I am not here to live your unlived life, fulfil your unfulfilled fantasies, or compensate you for the sacrifices you have made.
It is my responsibility to relieve myself of the heaviest burden of my life.
From now on, I am free to do what I want to do, to live out my potential and my unique gifts that are not defined by your religious beliefs or the opinions of relatives.
I know you do not want distance between us, but I know how necessary it is with all my body and soul. Unlike the little confused girl I once was, this time KNOW I am right – a clear, unbroken boundary is necessary between us.
I understand that you are sad and angry about this line I draw.
I know you see it as rejection, abandonment, and criticism of you.
I may not be able to convince you otherwise, but as the adult in this relationship, I have to do what is best for both of us.
I know that if I can not say no to you, I will never be free.
However difficult, I have to be willing to do that.
Children are not born to be an extension, rescuers or advisors to their parents. They are not meant to become their parents’ parents, confidants and advisors.
I can only empathise when your toxic abuse and control do not suffocate me. Please then allow me some space for empathy and compassion to grow. That is better for both of us.
I have to remind myself almost every day that I am an adult.
I am independent. I have my own full life.
I no longer have to subject myself to your emotional roller coaster.
You are no longer a threat to me.
I’ll take my two-year-old self, who was sitting in the corner trembling and fearing for her life. I will tell them everything is okay now. I am finally an adult and can stand on my own two feet.
From now on, I will always have to remind myself: My parents are not who I live for. I do not live for them.
I deserve reason. I deserve peace.
I did not come into this world to heal your childhood wound.
I did not come into this world to live an unlived life, to fulfil what you wanted for me.
I cannot compensate for what is lacking in your life – I cannot bring glory where you have failed; I cannot make up for your poverty with my abundance.
I will no longer allow guilt to keep me in chains.
I did not ask to be born into this ‘family’.
All my life, every day, I have done my best to forgive you.
Even when I was little, I only tried to love, to seek love,
From today, I will remember this truth and free myself from a lifetime of guilt:
I am a strong, healthy, independent person.
I will not let your immaturity and selfish needs tell me what to do.
I owe you nothing.
It is not my job in this life to take care of you by putting myself in a co-dependency with you.
I am free from care, manipulation and blame.
I owe myself a whole, living, independent life.
I am leaving.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.