What Is Repetition Compulsion?

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  • Written By: Steven Symes
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 21 February 2020
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Repetition compulsion is a term used in psychology to explain when a patient relives a traumatic past event. The patient does not find the experience pleasant and often feels the same emotions as when the event originally took place, traumatizing the patient afresh. Sometimes repetition compulsion events do not match the original event exactly, but they recreate the feelings the patient felt at the time of the original event.

A patient who experiences repetition compulsion might relive his past experience in a number of ways. The person might have the same dream every night, or several times a week, where he interacts with the situation with the same results. Other people might relive their past events during the daytime, hallucinating as they see the past play out before them. Still other patients relive past events by consistently engaging others in conversation about a topic that touches on the traumatic event, slipping into a narrative of the event.


Other people might be pulled into a patient’s repetition compulsion, filling in the roles of other people who were originally present for the traumatic event. The patient might displace the persona of someone who was present for the event on a person close to him in the present, changing how the patient normally treats the person. For example, a patient might treat his therapist affectionately because he displaces the persona of his mother on the therapist, instead of seeing her as his therapist. Alternately, the patient might project his feelings at the time of the event on other people, for example assuming another person feels angry toward the patient because the patient feels anger about the past traumatic event.

Some psychologists believe that patients engage in repetition compulsion as a way to overcome the past. The patient relives past events in an attempt to overcome what he could not before, such as standing up to an abuser or successfully assisting a loved one who was suffering. Usually, though, the patient is unsuccessful in his attempts.

How a psychotherapist views repetition compulsion depends on his training. A cognitive therapist would treat the compulsions by training the patient to think rationally, instead of reliving past events. Behavioral therapists work to condition a patient to stop thinking of the past events, which the therapist would view as a bad habit that needs to be broken. A psychoanalytic therapist would view the behavior as operating on a person’s unconscious level, and would seek to help the patient change how he copes with traumatic past events.


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