Why We Are So Likely To Repeat Past Terrible Events

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

You should be tired after going around the same mountain, just like this cow is tired.

The following post/article represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

Do you ever witness a friend’s or loved one’s history repeat itself in their life? It could be a vicious cycle of physical violence, accusations, deception, substance abuse, random outbursts and volatility. Maybe they can’t stop choosing romantic partners who punish them with emotional unavailability and intimacy deprivation. You see your friend or loved one going around the same mountain and never learning nor choosing a different path, even when you lucidly inform them about your observations. This could even be you. While these things may be readily discernible in the lives of others, it may not be as such in yours. The neurotic defense mechanism may be more unconscious than you want to concede. It is something that Sigmund Freud called repetition compulsion.

In his book titled 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson writes:

“Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth, or, perhaps when they refuse responsibility for their lives—they choose a new acquaintance of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better—so they don’t go looking for it. Or, perhaps, they don’t want the trouble of better.” [1]

Perhaps some do this, because they want to conquer the past and feel more enabled to defeat the future if it ever threatens them with similar circumstances. They want to make themselves masters over forces that may try to wield superiority, at least Sigmund Freud thought so, though this has been clinically doubted.

“In various kinds of social systems, people tend to unconsciously create situations (in terms of actions, fantasies, object relations and affect) that have occurred in another time and space, such that the later or newer situation may be taken as ‘equivalent’ to the old or previous one.” ~Earl Hopper [3]

The past we seek to modify is often the fractured relationship with our parents, especially the one of the opposite sex. The child is psychologically at risk when the early relationship stages with parents are laden accusations, resentment, shrilling verbal defeats, nonacceptance, lack of care or abuse. In order to survive a parent’s self-absorbed tyranny, children must ignore what is truly happening, including their despondency, and replace that with the childish hope that being impeccable in every way expected or imagined will finally inspire unconditional love from mom and dad. The child can’t realize the problem is not one-sided. The ball is not completely in the child’s court. To think they are empowered to monitor and repair their parents by becoming more acceptable is a misunderstanding of the outside world and is an archetypal thinking in the developing mind. No victory is gained, and in fact the situation is worsened, by desperate repeated attempts and failures to meet idealized expectations. The antidote lies with the parent who must provide the child’s sustenance factors (love, structure, and acceptance etc.) [2]

“The past we seek to modify is often the fractured relationship with our parents, especially the one of the opposite sex. ”

On the other hand, if you observe a child in regular, unwarranted attack-mode you will be uninclined to think he/she is desperate to take on the appearance of acceptableness. Based on the studies of A.H. Green from the 1970s and 1980s, a child’s continual belligerence is linked to a need to identify with a past abuser or aggressor in order to supplant feelings of fear and weakness with feelings of strength and control. But this has been said to be common among males whereas females respond by allowing themselves and their children to be under the authoritarianism of men. [5] Perhaps this is where we see the reenactment of prior bad events.

Aggression is something I can see as the child’s recourse for reestablishing a sense of safety after losing his/her first line of defense (social support, nurturance, food, and shelter from and blind trust in caregivers) against external threats. Adverse physiological hyperarousal is a consequence of rejection and abuse from those designated to be protectors. The loss of familiar caregivers is not conducive to healthy arousal either. Biological maturation, needed for dealing with external threats, can’t be fully met without unimpaired early attachment bonds. The abused child can’t risk losing hope of any possible security by turning against the caregiver, so therefore he/she uses self-blame as another recourse. Fearful attachment and anxious obedience can be observed. Patterned avoidance of the abusive caregiver can be observed vying with the desire for closeness and care, which causes anger to become part of the child’s disposition.  [5]

Fearful attachment!

After facing such victimization, a person’s worldview is penetrated and made to never be the same. New basic assumptions are made about the world’s orderliness and justice. The victim must assimilate a sense of self that has more exposed weaknesses and less intrinsic worth than before. An illusion of control must be useful for battling against the darkness and bleakness of the new perceived world. To prevent fear, rancor, and rage from taking over, the victim must retain a favorable image of the victimizer. Self-implosive anger or anger targeting others is a stubborn, unabating issue in the lives of the violated. Shamefully, according to the 1986 report from PP Reiker and collaborators, victims and clinicians fail to understand such acting out as redolent of an original trauma. [9]

But repetition compulsion not only preys on children. It can be a monster in any stage of life, as I maybe already have made clear. Many trauma victims feel constrained to reenact their past. [5]

Are there any other causes to these reenactments of trauma? First, what is trauma? Trauma is the response to a devastating event, and it is a response that blights an individual’s coping strategies, causes feelings of powerlessness and endless vulnerability, and undermines their sense of self and their aptitude to feel the full variety of emotions and experiences. [4] Based on this definition alone, car accident victims, sexual abuse victims, war veterans, and homeless and displaced people can’t be the only sufferers. A child who routinely faces verbal bullying, not just physical bullying, at the lunch table at school can face trauma. Your parents’ divorce can be traumatic. The loss of a job can be traumatic. Failing to pay your utility bills because of scanty funds and thereby having your gas, electric, water shut off or getting evicted from your apartment can be traumatic. Betrayal from a friend can be traumatic.

But does it really? Maybe not!

But I suppose only conventional, misguided wisdom would say we don’t have to worry about the latter group as much as the former. The emotional disturbances from divorce, litigations, job changes, relocating to unfamiliar places, infidelity and betrayal in relationships all appear to be so easily manageable and resolvable. But trauma is a phenomenon that is very hard to predict, and it is very subjective, which means we should try to focus on understanding it according to the victim’s response to events in the present instead of the preceding wounding triggers.

 According to a 2017 U.S. National Library of Medicine report on World Mental Health surveys, 29 lifetime traumas were analyzed in 24 countries (n = 68,894) with PTSD being tested twice for each respondent.  In full, 70.4% of respondents faced lifetime traumas, with exposure being close to 3.2 traumas per capita, as “interpersonal violence” was the highest factor involved. [6]

This constitutes a lot of people, and if repetition compulsion likes to haunt trauma victims, a lot of people could be battling repetition compulsion. Maybe? That seems like a plausible guess to me.

The emotional signs of fighting trauma are sadness, anger, denial, fear, and shame. Now, I suppose these things are too common in everyone’s life, so therefore we can’t be quick to assume trauma is the cause when we observe these things. But what if they lead to nightmares, insomnia, relationship hardships, and episodes of sudden effusive rage? And then the physical symptoms show up (i.e. nausea, dizziness, appetite changes, headaches, migraines, and gastrointestinal irritations). At this point, with the perpetuation of these symptoms beyond several weeks, a case for trauma is building. I would have to say that the appearance of substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and dissociative disorders appears to be quite affirmative. This is more than just acute stress disorder. Panic attacks and suicidal thoughts shouldn’t have continuance without addressing and diagnosing a serious underlying problem. [4]

Emotional signs of fighting trauma: sadness, anger, fear, and shame.

Bessel A. van der Kolk wrote that a study once revealed that 57% of fresh accident victims had behaviors reenacting the past events while 51% experienced chronic intrusive images. Chronic anxiety that acts as somatosensory reliving of the past has been shown to exist in children who have suffered burns and adults who have suffered from natural and manmade catastrophes, even if they don’t see or hear anything signifying the past trauma. [5]

Emotional sign of fighting trauma: denial

Evidently, it is not unusual for people to repeat a trauma on its anniversary. As an example, Bessel van der Kolk wrote about the case of a Vietnam veteran who, from 1969 to 1986, would use his finger in his pocket to simulate an armed robbery to incite a volley from police on repeated anniversaries of the death of his friend who died by a Vietcong sniper’s bullet detonated by the veteran’s lit cigarette. Once the bedeviled man was able to understand the meaning of his reenactment, he was then able to terminate the compulsion. No offense to trauma victims suffering with anniversary reactions, but this story appears rather doubtful to me. Why would police and officials allow a man to repeat an abhorrent act for 17 years and not arrest him, leaving him to understand the meaning of his actions before desisting? I have tried searching for other sources retelling this tale, and it apparently is not well-documented. If anyone can, correct me if I am wrong or overlooking something. [5]

That aside, we don’t really need that story to substantiate the phenomenon of anniversary reactions. They are documented in some empirical longitudinal studies. Certain sights, smells, sounds, and tastes can spontaneously trigger the memories whether you are at home, work, or engaging in recreational activities. But evidently, for traumatized people, the date which the attack was labeled with has a significance they can’t ignore when that date arrives. [10]

Physical symptoms of fighting trauma: nausea, dizziness, headaches, and migraines.

It is theorized that these reactions occur because of specific information contained in the memories about the peril of an event alerting the person as to how to fortify their defenses, how to perceive certain situations, how to feel, what to think, and what to fear. [10]

“In a series of studies, Morgan and colleagues examined anniversary reactions in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield Veterans two and six years after the end of these conflicts (6-7). The researchers asked the Veterans and their wives to identify the Veteran’s worst month of functioning in the past year. When the researchers compared the worst month identified to previously identified dates of traumatic events that occurred during the Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, they found that 38% of participants reported that their worst month coincided with the month in which their trauma occurred. Veterans with these anniversary reactions had significantly more PTSD symptoms than Veterans who did not have anniversary reactions, and all of the Veterans who met criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD had anniversary reactions.” [10]

Would it be surprising or obvious to you that violence-prone and criminal people have been ravaged by trauma and re-enact their past victimization episodes?

Physical signs of fighting trauma: appetite changes and gastrointestinal problems!

Physical and sexual abuse has been found in the histories of many drug abusers, juvenile delinquents, and other criminals according to the American Journal of Psychiatry’s reported study on 34 young people, a study which took place 6 to 8 years after their abhorrent events, and were compared to 34 non-abused control subjects. [7]

In a report presented to the National Institute of Justice, data from the year 1998 on juvenile and adult arrests gleaned from local, state, federal official sources found persuasive evidence that childhood abuse and neglect have a link with delinquency and adult criminal violence. A sample showed that abused and neglected children are 4.8 more times likelier to become juvenile delinquents, 2 times likelier to become adult criminals, and 3.1 times likelier to be guilty of violence than those non-abused and non-neglected. [8]

From a February 2015 report, George Bach-y-Rita studied self-mutilation in male criminals and established that  “the constellation of withdrawal, depressive reaction, hyper-reactivity, stimulus-seeking behavior, impaired pain perception, and violent aggressive behavior directed at self or others may be the consequence of having been reared under conditions of maternal social deprivation. This constellation of symptoms is a common phenomenon among a member of environmentally deprived animals.” [5]

Paranoia and trauma in no way can be easy to manage and surmount when rape and sexual abuse can always be lurking around the corner to make a reappearance. Prostitution is said to be likely in the future of those victimized by childhood sexual abuse. Few women who have suffered childhood incestuous abuse are said to be able to find a causal link between their childhood oppression and their substance abuse, prostitution and suicidality. Non-incest female victims are less likely to be offered pornography stardom than those incestuously victimized by their fathers. [5]

This post about trauma and abuse is very preliminary to many others on this topic. Stay tuned for later posts.       

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.


[1] Peterson, Jordan, 12 Rules For Life-An Antidote to Chaos, Published by Random House Canada, 2018. Print.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evil-deeds/200806/essential-secrets-psychotherapy-repetitive-relationship-patterns

[3] Freedman, Gary, Psychotherapy Reflections, May 23, 2019

[4] https://integratedlistening.com/what-is-trauma/

[5] http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/vanderkolk/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5632781/

[7] https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/ajp.144.11.1431

[8] https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/192291.pdf

[9] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-42746-003

[10] https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/anniversary_reactions.asp

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