What Is Repetitive Compulsion & How To Overcome It

By: Nadia Khan

Updated November 17, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: EmeliaThygesen

Have you noticed that you have a tendency to repeat behaviors, even though they seem to keep sending you down a painful, irritating, or destructive path? Perhaps it's an addiction, relationship choices, or obsessively counting your steps. No matter what it is, the point is these behaviors turn into a compulsive need over time. This path of behavior is referred to as repetition compulsion.

According to Encyclopedia.com, "[repetitive] compulsion is an inherent, primordial tendency in the unconscious that impels the individual to repeat certain actions, in particular, the most painful or destructive ones."

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These actions can be most apparent in the types of relationships we participate in, particularly those that are dysfunctional. Despite knowing they're destructive, we continue to demonstrate a pattern of these types of relationships. The players are different, but the game itself is essentially the same. If you notice these patterns in your own life, there are ways to get help; you don't have to break the cycle alone.

Explaining Repetitive Compulsions

The problem for many individuals who suffer from repetitive compulsions or behaviors is the lack of one singular explanation or cause for them. In many cases, the issues behind these behaviors are so deeply rooted within that they have become a subconscious response, which undermines any relationship.

One contributing part is a fear of intimacy. With that fear, we tend to put up defenses that are meant to keep others at arm's length. Over time, it means the relationships in your life lack intimacy because of the roadblocks your behavior created. While we may make choices on a subconscious level that influence our behavior and relationships, repetitive compulsion goes deeper than that. It is a neurotic defense mechanism, an attempt to rewrite our history by redrawing key relationships and denying our feelings of frustration, hurt, disappointment, anger, and depression.

Think about the relationship you have with your opposite sex parent. If your early relationship was full of rejection, abandonment, abuse, or neglect, you would have needed to find a way to survive that rejection on a psychological level. For children, the main coping mechanism involves denying your current reality and feelings and focusing instead on how you can win the love of the rejecting parent. This can mean changing who you are as an individual or suppressing your real feelings and thoughts all in an attempt to have a loving relationship. When your efforts don't yield the desired result, you create a set of behaviors to deal with that disappointment and continue using those behaviors in relationships going forward.

Impact Of Repetitive Compulsions

The need to get it right means that these individuals tend to gravitate to relationships and circumstances that mimic the ones where they didn't feel acceptance and love. There is a subconscious thought process that seems to say that if they keep at it, eventually they will get it right and finally have the love and acceptance they crave. However, the behavior related to the emotional wounds gets replayed as well, so there is never really a resolution. Instead, the emotional wounds get compounded, as the relationships fail. They are then likely left feeling abandoned and at fault…again.

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Since we continue to believe that we can find the right way to satisfy the other person, we refuse to acknowledge that our emotional wounds keep us from finding peace in our relationships. Because we can't let go of the inner child who believes they are at fault for the choices of someone else, we perpetuate that damage into the lives of those around us as adults. In short, it's a seemingly endless, vicious cycle.

Emotional Responses

One of the key realities of repetitive compulsions is that they are often a form of self-soothing, a way to ease the anxiety or tension we may feel in a relationship. When you find yourself repeating a behavior, ask yourself some key questions:

  • What is your emotional state at the time?
  • Do you fear being punished or rejected?
  • Are you testing the situation, trying to determine if this time you will be praised for your behavior?
  • Are you anxious and tense during your interactions with this individual?

You may find that your response is partially motivated by a need to self-soothe, much in the way a child does when they suck their thumb or snuggle next to a teddy bear for comfort. Part of the reality of these repetitive behaviors is that you are attempting to revisit a past emotional condition and relive it to gain a positive emotional experience. Or you may be trying to rewrite it, hoping to achieve a different emotional response or outcome this time around. Of course, this result isn't possible, so you find yourself not dealing with the original emotional wounds, and instead continue to inflict more emotional wounds upon yourself.

Understanding Your Defenses

While it might seem that we have healed and attempted to grow, in reality, when under pressure, we may easily find ourselves in a position where our current anxieties become overwhelming. Once that happens, it is easy to go back to square one and regress into those repetitive compulsions that are familiar and comforting. However, these behaviors can be very destructive and are represented by our poor choices or physical behaviors that put us in harm's way. Here are just a few of those destructive defenses and how they can negatively impact our current relationships.

  • Harm To Others Re-enactment of violence that was done to us is one way of dealing with past hurts. For instance, studies have shown that criminals have often been physically or sexually abused as children. They were victims once, and when they became adults, they perpetuate that victimhood onto others.
  • Self-Destructiveness: Those who have been abused as children tend to take their hurt and anger out on themselves. These behaviors can include cutting, biting, or addictions to drugs and alcohol, as well as eating disorders. Essentially, self-destructive behaviors can be related to primitive behavior patterns that often came from painful or abusive experiences with caretakers, such as parents, in early childhood.
  • Re-Victimization: In one study, findings indicate that children who were victims of sexual and physical abuse tend to be re-victimized in adulthood. Additionally, they are more likely to end up in situations where they are faced with abuse again.

Violence In Marital Relationships: Different studies of family violence have found a direct relationship between the severity of childhood physical abuse and marital violence later on in life. Essentially, those people who are exposed to violence in childhood find their way back to it as adults. They expect it, seeing it as a normal part of life. The reality is that without taking the time to address the traumas in your childhood, it is entirely possible that your subconscious will prime itself to repeat the negative behaviors learned from the trauma. For example, a girl who grew up in an abusive household may be more attracted to controlling partners and find herself trapped in an abusive marriage.

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Addressing The Trauma And Repetitive Compulsions

For those who have dealt with trauma or relationships that were less than ideal, it can be easy to slip into the world of victimhood in which you just assume this is your destiny and living this way is a fact of life. However, it does not have to be this way. Part of the process is working to address those past hurts, acknowledging what happened in your past, and making a conscious choice not to allow those hurts to impact your future decisions and relationships. At the same time, you also have to address any coping mechanisms or negative behaviors that you engage in. These self-destructive behaviors can have far-reaching negative consequences if you do not replace them with healthier coping mechanisms.

If you have used addiction or self-harm to address emotional issues, then it is important to seek help in order to address and understand the underlying causes behind the addiction. Working with a licensed therapist or certified counselor, you can begin to address those underlying concerns, including those past relationships and how they continue to impact your current relationship choices.

Repetitive compulsions are a coping mechanism, but they are a band-aid solution only since they mask a deeper issue that needs to be addressed if you want to heal and get better. Working with a licensed therapist, you can deal with those compulsions and the things that serve as triggers. Recognize that part of moving forward is finding a way to re-parent yourself to a degree. It means permitting yourself to love who you are with all your flaws, whether they are real or perceived.

Part of the process is also admitting that you are not the reason your parents or a significant other chose to be distant or abusive. You must acknowledge that they made their own decisions and emotional responses. Recognize that your actions had little to do with the choices they made. It is important to understand that you have value and that you deserve close relationships with intimacy, just like anyone else. For those who have dealt with abuse, it is important to recognize that you did not cause the abuse. There is no way that you could have behaved better or said the right thing to make the abuse stop. It can be easy to remain preoccupied with the trauma at the expense of other life experiences.

Seeking Professional Help

Recognizing that you need help can be scary and reaching out and asking for that help can be nerve-wracking. The first step towards changing your circumstances and turning the page to a brighter future begins with treatment and with healing. Part of the healing process is rebuilding your self-confidence and acknowledging that the unknown is a part of life, and not necessarily a bad part.

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If you want to seek help, try online therapy at BetterHelp. Online therapy options like BetterHelp have been found to be overall more effective than in-person therapy with treating behavioral conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD, all things that can lead to repetitive compulsions. 98% of BetterHelp users have made significant progress in their mental health journeys, while 94% prefer it to in-person therapy.

Counselors at BetterHelp are licensed professionals, who are available around the clock. They can help you to address repetitive compulsions or childhood trauma and abuse, and you can talk to them from the privacy and comfort of your own home. And since they don’t have to pay to secure office space and you don’t have to commute to sessions, BetterHelp is rated as being nearly 20% more affordable than in-person therapy. Below are some reviews of our licensed therapists from people who have reached out for help with overcoming past trauma and behavioral compulsions.

Counselor Reviews

"Busola is amazing, I've only had a few sessions with her but she makes me feel listened to. She understands what my primary needs are for each session and addresses them. Moreover, it doesn't feel like just time to talk and unload everything on someone, but she addresses negative behavioral patterns and helps create an action plan for them."

"Lindsey is very good at putting things in perspective. She is a great listener and offers realistic, loving advice without being judgmental or harsh. I feel like she has helped me to see things in a way that makes me able and willing to change my negative behaviors without feeling like my life is going to end and I'll never get over the loss of my old ways. It's the way she phrases things and makes me see it in a new way that makes me able to have a light flip on that was out before."


If you're dealing with repetitive compulsions and you find it's beginning to disrupt your life and block your growth, then it's time to get some help. Remember, other people have been where you are; every day, people ask themselves the same questions you are asking yourself at this very moment, but it doesn't have to be that way for the rest of your life. Make a conscious decision to change, start fresh, and grow into the person you want to be. Speak to a doctor or a therapist and regain your sense of self, your self-confidence and self-worth. Take the first step today.


What Is Repetition A Sign Of?

When someone does the same thing over and over again, this act can be referred to as a behavioral sign of a chronic disorder called repetitive behavior. From empirical studies, it is confirmed that repetitive behavior is a fundamental sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other types of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What Does Repetitive Pattern Mean?

Repetitive pattern refers to repetitive action, behavior, or a task which is engaged in over and over again, sometimes without thinking about it. Repetitive patterns exist in different forms within the following patterns:

  • Repetitive movements such as hand flapping, spinning, or rocking
  • Self-harmful activities such as head-banging or biting
  • Developed specific routines or rituals
  • Preferences for specific food
  • Not engaging in imitative or make-believe play
  • Fixation on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus

Why Do I Keep Repeating The Same Patterns?

If you find yourself repeating the same patterns, there are factors responsible for this. These factors may include:

  • Anxiety Or Pain: There is a possibility that your fear of being under a painful situation can result in repetitive behaviors.
  • Medications: There are some medications with side effects that can make you repeat a physical movement.
  • Inability To Say What You Need: You may keep repeating the same patterns if you find it difficult to express your needs.
  • Expressing An Emotion: If you are not calm, you may keep repeating yourself when you are angry or scared.
  • Past Experience And Dementia: If your past experience involves separation from people you love, you may keep repeating some things about them such as their names, especially if you have dementia.
  • Stimming: overstimulation, under-stimulation, management of emotions, and self-regulation can lead to you repeating yourself and behaviors. Common examples of stimming behaviors including tapping a pencil on a desk, clicking a pen, or wiggling a foot or leg while sitting.

Why Do We Repeat Trauma?

If you find yourself repeating trauma over and over again, you may be battling with complex trauma. Complex trauma is a type of trauma characterized by repeated and cumulative traumatic events or experiences within specific contexts and relationships, usually over a period of time. There are situations that may be responsible for this disorder. These include:

  • long-term domestic violence
  • long-term childhood physical or sexual abuse
  • prostitution, brothels, or sex trafficking
  • concentration camps or prisoner of war camps
  • organized child exploitation rings

What Disease Makes You Repeat Yourself?

There are different diseases that can make you repeat yourself. Some of these conditions include obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), palilalia disease, and other types of neurodevelopmental disorders.

What Do You Call People Who Repeat Themselves?

People who repeat themselves medically can be referred to as TS (Tourette Syndrome) patients. TS is a disorder characterized by repetitive movements or unwanted sounds that are difficult to control. TS is a condition that is associated with other conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism spectrum disorder, and so on.

What Is Considered Repetitive Behavior In Autism?

Autism can also be referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is a term used to describe different medical illnesses relating to repetitive behaviors, social skills, and verbal and nonverbal communication.

Repetitive behavior is one of the common symptoms of autism. With autism, conditions involving saying, asking about, or thinking about the same thing repeatedly are considered as repetitive compulsions. Repetitive behavior can be frustrating and challenging, and may affect individuals at different places such as school or the workplace.

Do Repetitive Behaviors Always Mean Autism?

Repetitive behavior does not always mean autism. It can also be a compulsive behavior that relates to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that refers to an anxiety disorder where you tend to experience repetitive compulsions and thoughts that are irritating to you.

Is Repeating Words A Sign Of Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that involves medical challenges such as repetitive compulsions, cognitive impairments, social impairments, and communication difficulties. If you have autism spectrum disorder, there may be an issue with your communication skills leading to echolalia or palilalia (repeating words, phrases, or sounds over and over again), delayed speech and language skills, reversing pronouns, giving answers that don't correspond to questions, inability to understand teasing, jokes, or sarcasm, and so on.

Can We Repeat The Past?

There is a possibility of repeating a specific event that takes place in the past. Repetitive compulsion as a psychological concept can make you repeat your past (the event itself or the circumstances involved) over and over again. You can live once again in your past life. This may come in the form of hallucinations or dreams where your past feelings and memories are repeated.

These feelings and memories may be traumatic, so repeating them is born with the intention that things will be different this time. Sometimes, compulsive repetition of trauma may offer a tentative sense of mastery or good times; however, it can result in pessimism and negative self-awareness.

What Happens When An Experience Is Repeated Many Times?

Repetitive compulsion is a neurotic disorder that can make you repeatedly experience traumatic events just for you to achieve the goal of belated mastery. You may decide to repeat your past experiences many times in order to deal with the problems involved. Doing this many times may lead to you believe that your new experiences will be more painful than the present situation or too new and untested to imagine.

What Is Trauma Mastery?

Trauma mastery refers to a specific way through which trauma can be healed by reforming situations or revisiting past traumatic events with the hope of getting a different result. In other words, trauma mastery may relate to how you may take some unconscious attempts to go back to your past trauma in order to achieve what you wish you could have done before.

What Is Traumatic Reenactment?

Reenactment is a repetitive compulsion that involves the repetition of attitude, thought, and behavioral patterns. Reenactment aims to identify and heal past experiences of trauma. It emerges from your past and, typically, negatively influences your present relationships and life. Children whose parents were divorced and resulted in the child feeling abandoned may reenact similar experiences in the future. Such children later in life may intentionally plan their own rejection or abuse by entering relationships that they will later leave, discard, or reject. This can provide a false sense of control, as they are leaving before anyone has a chance to leave them.

How Do You Know If You're Mentally Unstable?

Sometimes, you may have some feelings or symptoms that could be indicators of a deeper medical condition. These feelings may be that of irritability, anxiety, or low mood. If you have several of these symptoms, it may mean that you have a mental condition. The following signs should be noted:

  • Sleeping problems
  • Recurring mood swings
  • Dementia or difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Feeling teary and easily melancholic
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Being paranoid or suspicious
  • Problem with the proper management of daily activities
  • Hallucinations

*Note* If you or someone you know are experiencing thoughts of suicide, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached anytime at 1-800-273-8255.

What Are The Signs Of A Mentally Unstable Person?

The following are ways to know if someone is unstable mentally:

  • Unexpected Reactions
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Inability to calm down
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Inconsistent thoughts or emotions
  • Strained relationships

What Is Palilalia Disease?

Palilalia is an uncommon speech disorder featuring spontaneous and involuntary repetition of words or phrases. These words and phrases are often repeated with increasing rapidity and decreasing volume. Palilalia disease can occur in other genetic disorders such as Asperger syndrome, autism, post-encephalitic Parkinsonism, Tourette syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, pseudobulbar palsy, schizophrenia, and others.

Do Liars Repeat Themselves?

There are different signs that may indicate that someone is lying. These signs may include rapid change of position, changes in breathing, covering instinctively some vulnerable parts of the body, covering or touching the mouth, shuffling of the feet, providing more information than is needed, pointing a lot, difficulty speaking, staring without blinking much, perspiration, fidgeting, and repetition of words or phrases.

Liars often do repeat themselves. You repeat yourself when you lie because you are trying to convince others of something. To buy time or appear more convincing, someone who is lying may repeat words or phrases over and over again.

Is Repeating Oneself A Sign of Dementia?

There are different possible symptoms that could lead to dementia, which include impairments in communication, language thought, and loss of focus and memory. These can further be broken down into other obvious symptoms such as impaired short-term memory, difficulty in expressing thoughts, mood swings, loss of interest in activities, difficulty completing tasks, confusion, difficulty adapting to change, and repetitive compulsion.

If you have dementia, you are at risk of repetitive compulsion because of general behavior changes and memory loss. Here, you may repeat tasks or what you've said before over and over again.

How Do You Deal With Repetitive Dementia?

Repetitive dementia can be a very frustrating and emotionally painful medical condition. However, there are available ways to deal with it. The following steps should help you:

  • Remain Calm: You won't want to do something that may worsen your mental or physical health by reacting in a negative way.
  • Eliminate Triggers: Sometimes, certain things around you may bring up some repetitive compulsions. You don't want to keep these things around you.
  • Consistency: You may want to keep your daily routines consistent
  • Memory Aids: Memory aids may be of great help by bringing to your attention things that you may repeat. Memory aids include a calendar, notes, signs, and clocks.
  • Redirection Or Distractions: Getting involved in a different activity than usual can be a helpful way to break and redirect repetitive behaviors.
  • Seek Medical Assistance: Sometimes, repetitive dementia may be caused by medications. Your doctor may be able to help you assess and deal with this.

What Is Abnormal Repetitive Behavior?

Abnormal repetitive behaviors (ARBs) refer to a group of behaviors whose basic process is difficult to understand. These behaviors are seen to be obsessive-compulsive disorders, compulsive disorders, and stereotypes. Abnormal repetitive behaviors may neurobiologically involve some different neurotransmitter systems.

What Is High-Functioning Autism?

High-functioning autism is a medical diagnosis that is unofficial. It is a term used to refer to individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder who speak, write, read, and manage skills without much stress. Generally, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is seen as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by communication and social interaction difficulties. The symptoms of autism can be mild or severe. High-functioning autism falls under the mild category of ASD.

Can You Stim And Not Be Autistic?

Stim is a short form of self-stimulation. It is observed as most commonly related to autism, but this isn’t always the case. Stimming relates to self-stimulating behaviors that usually involve repetitive words, sounds, or physical movements. Scientifically, stimming is known as stereotypies. It is one of the diagnostic criteria for autism.

People who stim can lose control and become disruptive to others. However, stimming behaviors aren’t necessarily all bad. They can be a way to palliate anxiety and other negative emotions. Stimming can be caused by overstimulation, under-stimulation, management of emotions, and self-regulation. In fact, many of us stim without even realizing it! Clicking a pen, wiggling a leg or foot while sitting, and tapping our fingers repeatedly on a surface are all examples of common stimming behaviors.

What Type Of Repetitive Behavior Is Common With Autism?

Autism as a medical illness is characterized by some repetitive motions which may be referred to as stereotypies, stereotypic movement disorder, or repetitive behaviors. The common repetitive behavior with autism is self-stimulation, which can also be called stimming. Stimming refers to stereotyped, repetitive, and in some situations self-injurious behaviors. These behaviors may include teeth grinding, hand waving, nail-biting, rocking movements, self-biting, self-hitting, head-banging, and so on.

What Are Some Autism Behaviors?

Autism spectrum disorder is a medical challenge relating to behavior and communication. If you have autism, you may engage in behaviors including:

  • Repetition of words, phrases, sounds or physical movements over and over again
  • Inability to maintain eye contact
  • Reduced interest in activities or topics
  • High sensitivity to smells, touches, sights, or sounds may appear ordinary to others
  • Difficulty concentrating or loss of focus
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Problem with adaption to changes

Is OCD A Form Of Autism?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that involves repetitive behaviors and thoughts. There are two important parts of OCD. These are obsession (thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors). OCD can affect your daily activities and influence your relationships with other people. OCD is characterized by disturbing thoughts and intense or uncomfortable feelings. It should be noted that the signs of OCD can overlap with the signs of autism, but having one is not necessarily indicative of having the other.


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