Repetition compulsion, or trauma re-enactment, describes an unconscious compulsion to reenact past traumatic experiences behaviorally. The drive to reenact these events is believed to be triggered by stimuli reminiscent of trauma in situations resembling the original painful event.
Although there are many different theories regarding this phenomenon, the cause and purpose of repetition compulsion remain somewhat controversial. Freud believed that repetition compulsion resulted from one’s desire to gain control and mastery over the traumatic event that the psyche repressed many times. Another famous theory suggested that these compulsions were behavioral manifestations of an involuntary urge to change the original outcome of the traumatic experience.
However, more recent studies show that this type of compulsive behavior seems to be driven by the search for familiarity, which may lead people to put themselves in painful situations that elicit an already known emotional and physical state of distress. Furthermore, reenactment seems to be a common theme among the behavioral patterns shown by individuals exposed to trauma and have poor coping mechanisms and regulatory capacity.
Typical forms of reenactment include: engaging in toxic relationships with others that reproduce childhood dysfunctional dynamics and style of attachment to parental figures; placing oneself in situations that allow the individual to re-play the role of victim or, on the other hand, play the role of the abuser; and reenacting through dreams and fantasies.