The Reenactment of Trauma

Have you ever thought that you are doomed to be in one toxic relationship after another? Have you sometimes thought that kind, caring and stable people are just not exciting enough for you? These feelings and experiences may be because you have a history of childhood trauma.

Many survivors of trauma allow themselves, often compulsively, to be put again and again in situations that are similar to their original traumas. For those that have survived a traumatising childhood, chaos is normal and familiar. Unbeknown to most trauma survivors, an addiction to the feelings the abuse stimulated can often ensue. This addiction can cause you to become intensely attached to others who replicate a similar feeling of chaos within you. You ‘feel biochemically attracted to those who resemble [your] early childhood predators because they mirror the severe highs and lows [your] bodies went through in childhood.1)Arabi, S. The Invisible War Zone: 5 Ways Children Of Narcissistic Parents Self-Destruct In Adulthood. https://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2017/11/the-invisible-war-zone-5-ways-children-of-narcissistic-parents-self-destruct-in-adulthood/

It’s unusual however that traumatised individuals will be conscious of the fact that they are repeating previous life experiences. Freud recognised certain repetitive behaviours in his clients and called it, “repetition compulsion”. Today you may also hear it being called the effect of childhood conditioning or “trauma reenactment”. 

There have been many theories suggested to explain why trauma survivors reenact their past trauma, ‘Freud thought that the aim of repetition was to gain mastery, but clinical experience has shown that this rarely happens; instead, repetition causes further suffering for the victims or for people in their surroundings.2)van der Kolk, Bessel. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. The Psychiatric clinics of North America. 12. 389-411.’ Others have suggested that survivors of trauma can be easy targets for predators because of their poor coping strategies and ego deficits and these typical psychological vulnerabilities that trauma survivors often have is what causes the reenactment3)Levy MS. A helpful way to conceptualize and understand reenactments. J Psychother Pract Res. 1998;7(3):227–235.. In Judith Herman’s book, “Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror”” she says that trauma survivors are ‘burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships.4)Herman JL: Trauma and Recovery. New York, Basic Books, 1992 as discussed in Arabi, S. The Invisible War Zone: 5 Ways Children Of Narcissistic Parents Self-Destruct In Adulthood. https://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2017/11/the-invisible-war-zone-5-ways-children-of-narcissistic-parents-self-destruct-in-adulthood/

When trauma survivors reenact their past trauma, they may take on the role of either the victim or the perpetrator. More often than not, criminals have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused as young people. In numerous studies and papers, Dorothy Lewis has examined the links between adverse childhood experiences and subsequent violent acts towards others. In one study ‘she showed that of 14 juveniles condemned to death for murder in the United States in 1987, 12 had been brutally physically abused, and five had been sodomized by relatives.5)Lewis D, Pincus J, Bard B et al: Neuropsychiatric, psychoeducational and family characteristics of 14 juveniles condemned to death in the United States, Am J Psychiatry 145:584-589, 1988 as discussed in Lewis D, Pincus J, Bard B et al: Neuropsychiatric, psychoeducational and family characteristics of 14 juveniles condemned to death in the United States, Am J Psychiatry 145:584-589, 1988’ 

As well as causing violence to others, trauma survivors often cause themselves violence. They will use many forms of self destruction when still children such as head banging, biting, and burning or cutting themselves. In a controlled doubled blind study that Bessel van der Kolk did looking at trauma that may have occurred prior to the development of borderline personality disorder, he found  ‘a highly significant relationship between childhood sexual abuse and various kinds of self-harm later in life, particularly cutting and self-starving.6)van der Kolk B, Herman J, Perry J: Childhood trauma and self destructive behavior in adulthood. Unpublished data, 1988 as discussed in van der Kolk, Bessel. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. The Psychiatric clinics of North America. 12. 389-411.

As previously mentioned, trauma survivors also frequently take on the role of victim again. ‘Victims of rape are more likely to be raped and women who were physically or sexually abused as children are more likely to be abused as adults. Victims of child sexual abuse are [also] at high risk of becoming prostitutes.7)van der Kolk, Bessel. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. The Psychiatric clinics of North America. 12. 389-411.

The hope for many abused children is that they will be able to grow up, escape their abusers and therefore be free of the trauma that bound them. Sadly, very rarely is this the case. As Judith Herman says in her book, “the survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative [and as such] she {or he} is still a prisoner of childhood; attempting to create a new life, she re-encounters the trauma.”


Stop the cycle of merry-go-round treatment and find the solution you’re looking for in trauma treatment. Through effective residential treatment, Khiron House helps you find the path you need toward health and wellness in recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

References   [ + ]

1. Arabi, S. The Invisible War Zone: 5 Ways Children Of Narcissistic Parents Self-Destruct In Adulthood. https://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2017/11/the-invisible-war-zone-5-ways-children-of-narcissistic-parents-self-destruct-in-adulthood/
2, 7. van der Kolk, Bessel. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. The Psychiatric clinics of North America. 12. 389-411.
3. Levy MS. A helpful way to conceptualize and understand reenactments. J Psychother Pract Res. 1998;7(3):227–235.
4. Herman JL: Trauma and Recovery. New York, Basic Books, 1992 as discussed in Arabi, S. The Invisible War Zone: 5 Ways Children Of Narcissistic Parents Self-Destruct In Adulthood. https://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2017/11/the-invisible-war-zone-5-ways-children-of-narcissistic-parents-self-destruct-in-adulthood/
5. Lewis D, Pincus J, Bard B et al: Neuropsychiatric, psychoeducational and family characteristics of 14 juveniles condemned to death in the United States, Am J Psychiatry 145:584-589, 1988 as discussed in Lewis D, Pincus J, Bard B et al: Neuropsychiatric, psychoeducational and family characteristics of 14 juveniles condemned to death in the United States, Am J Psychiatry 145:584-589, 1988
6. van der Kolk B, Herman J, Perry J: Childhood trauma and self destructive behavior in adulthood. Unpublished data, 1988 as discussed in van der Kolk, Bessel. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. The Psychiatric clinics of North America. 12. 389-411.

Leave a comment