What Is Repetitive Compulsion & How To Overcome It

Updated February 15, 2021
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."

Repetitive Compulsions Cause Destruction and Pain, Don't Let It

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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.

Repetitive Compulsions Cause Destruction and Pain, Don't Let It

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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.

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