Why Childhood Abuse Survivors Repeat The Past As Adults (And How To Change This Behavior)

Why Childhood Abuse Survivors Repeat The Past As Adults (And How To Change This Behavior)

 by Yumay Chang

Freud coined the term “repetition compulsion” to describe the puzzling phenomenon where an abuse victim repeatedly puts themselves in situations that replicate the distress they experienced in an earlier life.

A typical example of repetition compulsion is many childhood abuse victims seem to choose partners that are physically and emotionally abusive. This strange compulsion to date abusers continues until the victim notices the patterns and consciously works on healing themselves.


I certainly made this mistake before and married someone that resembled my entitled and emotionally abusive mother, and later dated someone that reminded me of my unstable father


Why Do We Choose To Repeat Trauma?


What puzzled me for a long time is what drove me to choose partners similar to my abusive parents. 


The conventional wisdom is that childhood abuse victims grew up trying to “get it right” by being the perfect child for their parents, but nothing they did made any difference. As adults, victims find romantic partners that remind them of their parents, so they get a chance to “give it another go.”


For me, this explanation never seemed to fit right. I don’t believe people can change unless they want to, and I have no interest in dating someone to fix them.  


Maybe This Is The Real Reason


It was not until I read about a fascinating animal study on rat infant abuse that something clicked. In the experiment, scientists proved that when painful electric shocks were administered to rat pups in their mother’s presence along with a unique scent, the pups did not associate the smell with danger as animals normally would in conditioning experiments.


Instead, pups were strangely attracted to the pain-associated odor.


Scientists looked into why this is happening. They discovered that when the rat mom is around, the pup's fear response is suppressed – the secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol does not occur as expected when the pup is faced with danger.


Scientists believe the pup’s suppression of fear response is likely adaptive. On a typical day, even a kindly rat mom could inadvertently step on her pup or accidentally handle it roughly, so nature designed the pup’s brain to suppress fear so bonding can continue with an imperfect mother.


Unfortunately, the pup’s brain works the same way, even in the face of deliberate abuse. Scientists believe the same mechanism could be at work for us humans, and this is why people run back to their parents in times of crisis, often even when the parents were very abusive. 


Perhaps like the rat pup that oddly found the abuse-associated scent comforting, abuse victims are also attracted to toxic people because it feels like home. 


The good news is, as I healed, my taste for partners changed. I find toxic, abusive people repulsive. I am sure they find me similarly indigestible since I have healthy boundaries, and I am not afraid to assert them.


Repetition Compulsion And Self-Imposed Emotional Flashbacks


Until recently, what escaped my awareness is my compulsion to put myself in situations where I felt just as scared and helpless as I was as a child. 


For example, when I cook, I set a timer, and my goal is to prepare the meal at half the recommended time while making no mistakes. The only way I can cut time so drastically is by parallelizing the cooking process as possible. My husband found it hilarious that I could cut vegetables with one hand while stirring the pot with the other hand.


After each of these speed cooking sessions, I usually felt exhausted and frustrated because something inevitably didn’t come out perfectly.


It was not until I read about emotional flashbacks that I realized what I was doing to myself. I was putting myself in a situation to experience the same feelings of fear, helplessness, and hopelessness that characterized my childhood.


As a child, I had to be constantly vigilant, watch my back, manage my parent’s mood, and do everything I possibly could to be perfect. My parents’ rules change all the time, and there is no rhyme or reason as to why a rule is this way today and that way tomorrow. Everything was about them, and my feelings didn’t matter. I was a sitting duck; no matter how hard I tried, I always messed something up. Nothing I did could guarantee safety. 


Like many people that suffer from PSTS/Complex PTSD, I didn’t recognize emotional flashbacks for what it was, because it didn’t have a visual component like nightmares do. It also wasn’t linked to any specific memory. 


It was just a feeling, and I am good at ignoring my feelings.


When I put myself in stressful, no-win situations, I provide my inner critic with ample opportunity to jump in and pummel me — burned that chicken? Well, that’s because you can’t do anything right. Spilled the soup? How could you be so clumsy! 


The put-downs went on and on, and just like that, I was emotionally transported back in time to being a helpless child under my parent’s tyranny.


Recognizing that I was setting myself up to re-experience past trauma gave me a choice. Perhaps I do this also because of past conditioning, just like why I used to choose toxic partners.


The beauty of awareness is that it gives us a choice to choose differently. A rat pup will never get the chance to go beyond early conditioning. But as humans, we can.

  • "Make your existence count." — Abhijit Naskar

And what a blessing this is.

PS: If you want to learn how to remove trauma triggers, review the article "How to remove trauma triggers."

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Yumay Chang

My name is Yumay Chang, and I run Life Is Love School, a global support group for childhood trauma survivors. I had a challenging childhood, and I know what it’s like to feel not good enough and not lovable. I learned through over two decades of research and plenty of trial and error how to heal so I can live a life of joy, love, and purpose. Now I help women that are successful at work but are unfulfilled in their personal lives do the same so they can also shine their brightest.


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