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  • Tony Georgiadis

Repeating the Traumatic Past

Have you ever noticed a tendency for life experiences to repeat themselves throughout your life?

Have you perhaps noticed a tendency to keep choosing the same type of people to establish connections or relationships with?

Have you found yourself in similar situations where you usually play a certain type of role?

Does perhaps some of the sentences below resonate with you?

  • I keep choosing abusive/neglectful/egotistic/narcissistic partners.

  • My friends seem to ignore my needs and I rarely have space to discuss.

  • My colleagues/superiors undervalue my work and I often feel unappreciated.

In this article, I will attempt to demystify some of the intricacies of our mind that often lead to repeating similar - often emotionally painful - experiences throughout life.

Repetition Compulsion

Traumatic experiences from the past often resurface in various forms in our present lives.

Imagine a child who experienced consistent neglect from their caregivers. This early neglect can create an unconscious link in the mind between intimacy/love and neglect. As the child grows up, they may unknowingly seek out neglectful partners, drawn to familiar dynamics without realising it.

This unconscious repetition of past trauma can create cycles of similar, often emotionally painful, experiences that reoccur. This very repetition is what Freud termed "Repetition Compulsion" (Freud, 1914).

You might be wondering: why would I repeat an experience that was both traumatic and painful?

The answer lies in the idea that repeating what is familiar to us is often preferred to choosing the unknown, and all this happens unconsciously, without our awareness. In the example above, the child neglected by their caregivers had no option but to stay within the parental relationship; imagining and opting for a different scenario was not possible. The child could not experiment with the 'unknown' (e.g., asking themselves: "How would it have been to have different parents? Is there anything I can do to change this?"), and could not leave the family as that would have been too dangerous. They unconsciously formed the idea that being loved and having a close relationship with others would always be accompanied by neglect.

As the neglected child grows into an adult, they often lack the understanding that they have a choice when it comes to choosing who to establish a close relationship with - a choice that stems from facing and understanding the original traumatic experience and using it as leverage to make more informed decisions. This is why we often see adults repeating love patterns that are not only similar and familiar but also harmful to them.

Assuming the same familiar roles

When repetition compulsion occurs, we might tend to assume the same roles we originally took during traumatic experiences. For instance, if a child learned that to receive acceptance and be seen, they had to prioritise their parents' needs over their own, they might carry this behaviour into adulthood. As adults, they might assume the same role of the selfless caregiver toward future partners or people with whom they form close relationships.

This tendency stems from the fear of the unknown and the need to survive the original traumatic experience. For the child, prioritising their parents' needs was a way to maintain stability and safety. This method of relating to others, although far from ideal, was survivable and became ingrained as a default behaviour.

As a result, the adult may continue to repeat these patterns unconsciously, not considering that relationships can unfold differently. They might not realise that they have the capacity to set boundaries and prioritise their own needs because their early experiences taught them otherwise. This default position prevents them from exploring healthier relationship dynamics, perpetuating cycles of self-sacrifice and neglect that are both familiar and harmful. The process of breaking free from these patterns involves recognising the original trauma, understanding its impact, and consciously choosing new, healthier ways to relate to others.

Repressing traumatic experiences and emotions

In Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, it is believed that traumatic experiences can cause emotions to be repressed into a part of our mind that ensures they will not be easily remembered. This repression functions as a safety mechanism to protect us from painful emotions that might overwhelm us too much if brought to the surface. By pushing these distressing emotions out of conscious awareness, the mind attempts to shield itself from the immediate pain of the trauma.

While repressing these emotions may have been a necessary coping strategy during a traumatic event, these methods often become ineffective and harmful over time. The emotions and memories do not disappear; instead, they get pushed deep into the unconscious mind, influencing our behaviour in ways we do not fully understand. Our early relationships and upbringing heavily influence how our minds are shaped, predisposing us to certain patterns of relating to ourselves and others.

Consequently, there is often a lack of awareness about the deeper factors driving our behaviour, thoughts, and feelings. This lack of self-awareness can lead to repeating the same dysfunctional patterns in relationships and other areas of life. The safety mechanism of the mind, which initially helped us survive trauma, contributes to why we may unconsciously repeat our past in the present.

Working through the trauma in Therapy

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy aims to bring these unconscious patterns to light, allowing us to understand and confront the underlying issues that drive our behaviour. Through this process, we delve into their past experiences and emotions, uncovering how these hidden influences shape our actions and relationships. By becoming aware of these deep-rooted influences, we gain valuable insights into the origins of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. This new awareness enables us to recognise and break free from harmful patterns that have been unconsciously repeated. As we explore and address these underlying issues, we can then begin to understand that there is always a choice, and develop healthier ways of relating to our own selves and others. We can start setting healthier boundaries, prioritising our own needs, and forming more balanced and nurturing relationships. Over time, this leads to a more fulfilling and satisfying life, as we are no longer trapped by unresolved conflicts of the past.

Tony Georgiadis - Psychodynamic Psychotherapist and Counsellor (MBACP)

Author: Tony Georgiadis - Therapist and Counsellor in London and Online

In person and Online Counselling and Therapy


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