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Blog Short #193: Why Do I Keep Getting Involved With the Same Toxic People?

Photo by JulPo, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Sometimes, in spite of being careful, you keep getting involved with and drawn to the same type of toxic person.

It’s easy to blame yourself, but there are reasons this happens. It’s complicated.

It involves something called “repetition compulsion,” which we’ll discuss today.

Let’s start with a definition.

What is Repetition Compulsion?

It’s a theory that says you repeatedly seek out situations that mirror experiences you had growing up, especially traumatic ones, and repeat the patterns associated with them.

Okay, that’s a little wordy. Here’s an example: Let’s say you grew up with a distant, stern, cold parent, and you could never get their approval.

You might find yourself repetitively getting involved with romantic partners who have similar characteristics.

And each time when you realize it, you blame yourself for not being more selective in your choices.

This pattern is a form of repetition compulsion.

It’s a compulsion because it’s mostly an unconscious process. In other words:

You don’t knowingly or consciously choose someone or a situation that mirrors past traumatic or abusive experiences.

The victim—in this case, you—is not at fault. Other factors are involved in making this happen, but not because you knowingly sought it out.

That brings us to why it happens.

What Are the Causes of Repetition Compulsion?

There are several possibilities, and more than one may apply.

1. A Desire to Rewrite the Experience

Using our example of the distant parent, you would choose someone with that same dynamic and then try to win them over, thereby correcting the relationship and rejection you had from your parent.

If you’re good enough and do just the right things, you can win the love and affection you didn’t get growing up and transform your partner into someone who values you.

This particular scenario is common and not easy to repair.

You might find that you pick that same person more than several times, and even though you recognize that these behavior patterns are not in your best interest, you still have the unconscious drive to make good by changing the partner’s responses to you.

One reason this type of repetition compulsion is so strong is that it was lodged into your psyche during your developing years.

Even if you consciously rejected that parent and their neglectful behavior, you may find yourself attracted to someone with similar psychological dynamics and not be attracted to partners who openly accept and love you.

2. Staying Close to What’s Familiar

A second reason for repeating these experiences is sticking with what you know.

You, I, and just about everyone seek out what’s familiar.

It’s our emotional home, even if it’s a highly dysfunctional and broken-down home.

What we know is deeply ingrained in us, and we return to it automatically because of its familiarity. That’s just the way we work.

That doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to discriminate what’s healthy or not healthy for you, but that capacity can get blurred or lose the competition between becoming aware and returning to what you know.

This is especially true when what’s familiar is something you experienced repeatedly during your early years. It’s embedded on a cellular level.

You’ve been conditioned.

3. The Trauma or Experiences Have Become Part of Your Self-Image

In the first case we discussed, you thought you could correct the trauma by winning over the neglectful, aloof parent in a current relationship.

In this case, the opposite occurs. You’ve unconsciously accepted the repetitive messages that you aren’t lovable, acceptable, interesting, valuable, or worthy of someone’s attention. These become part of your self-image.

This drives you to seek out similar partners and situations where you receive identical treatment because, on an unconscious level, you believe you deserve it.

How Do You Change These Patterns?

Treating repetition compulsion is not a short-term process. It takes time and is gradual.

That makes sense because the formation process occurred over time and during formative years.

Another reason time is required is that trauma has sticking power in your memory, even subconscious memory, because of its strong emotional impact.

It’s like a deep cut with a big scar as opposed to a scratch that disappears with no scar. And, emotional triggers reopen the wound easily.

The primary work of changing a repetition compulsion embedded in your sense of self is reconstructing who you think you are.

That doesn’t mean becoming someone else, but rather going through a process of releasing yourself from the trauma or experiences you had.

It’s kind of like an exorcism. That’s a strong image, but the idea applies.

You pull the trauma out and revise how you see yourself outside of it. Instead of seeing yourself as a victim, you see yourself as someone who was victimized but not permanently damaged.

This transformation is a significant shift because it frees you from the need to repeat the experience.

You may need to revisit or at least identify the original experiences that brought you to where you are. You don’t have to go through every incident that occurred, but define the overall impact of the experience.

How were you affected by it, and how is it showing up in your life right now?

As you do that, you make progress. The pain is released, and you can let it go. It’s still there, but more as a faint memory.

Four Elements Are Necessary

Four elements are required for the process to be successful:

1. Awareness

You must be willing to become aware of the links between your current repetitive behavior and its original source or sources. That means diving into history to see where the problem originated and how it’s manifesting now.

2. Patience

Recognize and be willing to allow the time necessary to work through the process.

The good thing is that as your sense of self changes, you lose your attraction and drive to revisit the trauma or hold on to that familiar emotional home that’s unhealthy.

You move into a new home.

3. Avoidance of self-destructive behavior

You need to halt any self-destructive behaviors that are contributing to your unrest.

That doesn’t mean jumping out of a relationship you’re unsure about. It means avoiding behaviors such as substance abuse, overspending, or any unhealthy habit that’s sabotaging your well-being and would also sabotage the process of healing.

This requires learning how to set boundaries for yourself and others.

4. Therapeutic Assistance

You can work on this process by yourself if the compulsions you have are not that severe or are not causing you great distress.

But if the problem is long-standing and you’re at a point where you’re unable to break up the compulsive patterns, get help from someone who can assist you as you do the work.

Therapy generally increases your awareness and insights because someone is guiding you and asking you the right questions.

Other Types of Repetition Compulsion

There are other expressions of repetition compulsion. Some examples are:

  • Repeating rituals you don’t enjoy but you do them anyway
  • Being overly perfectionistic
  • Placing yourself repeatedly in the same negative situations or environments
  • Self-sabotaging habits like avoidance, procrastination, or beating yourself up

All these patterns are similar in that they’re driven by compulsion instead of by choice.

That’s the differentiating factor, and that’s what makes them more challenging to overcome.

It helps to look at them without self-blame yet take responsibility for changing them.

If you approach them from a place of shame, you’ll fall further back.

You know the saying, “What’s done is done. Now what?”

It’s the “now what” you have the power to influence and control, and you can, but take it slow and be patient with yourself. You will succeed!

Next week, I’ll show how to identify toxic behaviors in other people.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,

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