My Repetition Compulsion
The copy and paste scenario that failed me again and again
On my healing journey, I have learned that parents who give children an upbringing filled with trauma force them to acquire unhealthy survival strategies. One of these strategies is called the repetition compulsion. Freud explored this concept in his 1920 essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and identifies “the desire to return to an earlier state of things,” by recreating history in an attempt to change the outcome, and fix what we could not control as a child. Parents who have not healed from emotionally abusive childhoods, pass on poisonous family systems and create a distorted world for the next generation.
Emotionally abused children view the world as a dangerous place and grow up to be hypervigilant adults that navigate daily life from a fearful perspective. I was raised by toxic parents in an environment littered with shame, rejection, rage, criticism, manipulation and guilt.
My parents were angry, emotionally immature, bitter people, I sacrificed my soul trying to please them and I was raised in a climate filled with mistrust, anxiety, and coercion. It was comfortable for me to wallow in the negative, drown in frenetic thoughts, have chronic over-reactions, and employ self-sabotaging behaviors.
My biological father was not around much during childhood and chose a new family. Fear, shame, and rejection were fully ingrained into my mindset and drove all my bad decisions. I became an anxious, depressed adult who was plagued by hyper-productivity and perfectionism in an attempt to reconcile the emotional abuse by falsely believing I will “get it right this time”.
I am not a therapist and have no clinical training. I am simply sharing what I have learned about living a life of recycled traumas and how I healed in hopes to help others.
How it starts
My mother has narcissistic personality disorder as well as a physical impairment. Both very powerful weapons for delivering debilitating guilt, the burden of over-responsibility while destroying individuality and authenticity. At a very young age, I inherited a no-win situation. What choice did I have? Squash me or disappoint her. My stepfather is an enabler with an antisocial personality disorder so that added to the pain and chaos as there was no support or validation there and. The unspoken expectation was that I was accountable for their anger and their happiness.
Parents are a mirror. If those parents are abusive, children look into their parents’ face, and do not see themselves, they see only the parents’ reflection, and so begins the compulsive cycle that crushes the true spirit and gives birth to the false self and chronic fear.
Abusive and rejecting parents
Babies are hard-wired and totally dependent on their parents for a sense of safety, meaning, power, and control. When parents are rejecting and abusive, children are likely to become anxious and fearful and quickly adopt coping mechanisms in a futile attempt to establish some sense of safety and security. Instead of turning on their “god-like” parents and losing hope for protection, they blame themselves. We feel responsible for their happiness and their misery and often spend our adult lives believing that we can control how people feel and can become addicted to external validation. It was my job to fix everything. Linda Esposito, LCSW a psychotherapist in Pasadena, CA states in an article for Psychology Today that, “Consciously or unconsciously, we believe we are omnipotent in a person’s life and we have the power to satisfy them, thereby unlocking their love and acceptance.”
Because I had parents that physically and emotionally abandoned me, I was deluded into believing I have the power to control everything and change someone in order to feel safe. This is a very destructive (and common) view for people who have grown up in toxic homes filled with verbal and emotional abuse. I spent most of my life walking on eggshells and thought if I was good enough, performed well, and solved problems before they became problems, I would finally receive validation, attention, and love. That never happened. I was trapped by the compulsion to idealize and protect my parents, especially my physically challenged mother.
I now understand that as children, we have no idea whether the template or family patterns we were given will enable us to function healthily. They are often handed down, consciously and unconsciously, from previous generations enslaved by toxic behaviors and damaged templates. We believe our template because we don’t know better and, tragically, we believe our parents.
I was so enmeshed and fixated on proving my self-worth I developed defensive coping mechanisms to deny reality and focused on how I can receive love and acceptance from every situation. This involved disconnecting from my true self, building a false self, suppressing feelings and thoughts all in an attempt to connect authentically.
Repeating the Past
An article I read on the PyschCentral web site emphasizes that 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 (repeating the past) as an adult. We believe that if we work hard enough we will find a way to satisfy the unsatisfiable. We put ourselves in impossible situations as adults by refusing to acknowledge that our unhealed emotional wounds keep us from finding inner peace. I could not let go of the inner child who believed I was at fault for my parents’ problems and poor choices.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW, a Certified Transformation and Recovery Coach Part, explains that the reasons behind this common coping strategy are that it feels familiar to revisit a past emotional condition and re-experience it in a desperate attempt to gain a positive experience with the subconscious goal of achieving a different outcome this time around. In reality, we avoid dealing with the original emotional wounds, and end up inflicting more damage upon ourselves.
Many of us never escape from this trap and that damage spills over into the lives of those around us. In short, it’s a seemingly endless, vicious cycle
Breaking the Cycle
Part of the healing process is working to address those past hurts, acknowledging what happened in your past, and making a conscious choice to stop giving your toxic parents power over your emotions. My emotionally immature parents put themselves first and as a result, I blindly engaged in self-destructive behaviors that had severe consequences.
Over these past several years, I have acquired self-awareness, developed an emotionally intelligent mindset, and an understanding that repetition compulsions are band-aids masking very painful issues that need to be faced and resolved.
One important way I moved forward was finding ways to re-parent myself, accepting my real or perceived flaws and celebrating what makes me unique. This is deep work and requires the cultivation of self-compassion and acknowledgment that you are not the reason your parents chose to be distant and abusive. It was their choice to remain miserable and unware by chaining themselves to dysfunctional family patterns.
Not My Fault
I now understand there is nothing I could have said or done to make the rejection and emotional abuse stop. Until I hit rock bottom, it was easy to focus on being a victim without realizing I was constantly self-sabotaging myself. By reading, writing, researching, discovering, and applying new coping techniques, I have learned to temper hyper-reactivity with realistic thought processes, identify and eliminate defensive patterns and prevent old unhealthy habits from re-occurring.
All the experts point out that unlearning old ways and developing new productive, rational, and positive patterns leads to inner peace, authentic connections, and better choices. It’s never too late to be who you were supposed to be.
Your stuck can stop here.
About the Author
Tami Atman is the founder of The Stuck Stops Here. A website, podcast and musical album devoted to healing from parental emotional abuse and neglect. She is also the author of the memoir of “The Stuck Stops Here – How I broke the cycle of generational dysfunction one AHA! moment at a time”. After years of suffering from high functioning anxiety and depression, she hit rock bottom in 2014 with debilitating suicidal thoughts, at which point she decided to “change instead of die.” Tami experienced her first AHA moment when she discovered Lisa A. Romano’s videos and was shocked to learn that her mother had narcissistic personality disorder.
She proceeded to watch about dozens of Lisa’s videos and discovered how much daughters of narcissistic mothers suffer. Hundreds of other AHA moments followed after reading the works of Dr. Karyl McBride, Peg Streep, Dr. Susan Forward and Dr. Jonice Webb. Tami dug deep into family history and realized “the cycle of shame, blame, greed, grief and rage can be traced back over 100 years and that this cycle had to end with me”. The healing journey involved grieving for the childhood she never had while mourning the loss of people who are still alive.
Her sole goal is to be the resource she needed during those very dark days and help others disentangle themselves from the familial chains of fear, obligation and guilt. Her podcast, book and lyrics are dedicated to all the wounded souls who have spent their lives seeking happiness and fulfillment outside themselves. “Inside all of my work, I hope you uncover AHA moments and rediscover your true self.”