It seems like a riddle: those who have experienced past trauma often put themselves in situations to experience similar trauma.
It’s not a conscious decision either. They don’t think to themselves: I will put myself through more pain on purpose.
These people may continuously find themselves in toxic, abusive relationships. They may become violent, chronically depressed, or deep into financial problems. They may seem to go in a positive direction for a while and then seemingly choose to do something to sabotage themselves.
Maybe you know someone like this, or maybe this describes you. Perhaps you feel that you cannot find a healthy relationship.
You are drawn toward those who are toxic to you, but you cannot seem to stop landing yourself in these situations. When you think about it logically, it may make no sense.
However, if you understand the reenactment of trauma, you will see why this happens.
Differentiation Between Now and Then
Those who suffer from trauma reenactment often cannot differentiate between what is happening now and the past emotional pain that still envelopes them.
This means that past emotional pain keeps accumulating through reenactment, new experiences, new circumstances, which leaves the sufferer unable to tell the difference between what is truly happening now and what is not.
It is important to understand that trauma reenactment is usually unconscious.
Past abuse and traumatic reenactment
Trauma victims were used to living in chaos and toxicity. They saw the world through a dysfunctional lens, and chaos became their “normal.”
Sometimes these victims may become addicted to the feelings that the trauma ensued. Similarly, some trauma survivors become intensely attached to those who resemble former abusers.
Many theories exist on why those with past trauma reenact their trauma. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920) called certain repetitive behaviours in his clients “repetition compulsion,” and that the reason people repeated traumatic events was to attempt mastery and control.
Since Freud, many researchers have observed that trauma reenactment is an underlying theme for a person’s inability to mentally and emotionally escape from the traumatic experience.
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Dr. Sandra Bloom, author of Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, states that
“The memories of the traumatic experience are dissociated, nonverbal, and unintegrated. Over and over, people find themselves in situations that recapitulate earlier trauma and lack any awareness of how it happened much less how to prevent it from happening the next time. The lack of awareness is due to the dissociative blockade that places the behaviour out of the context of verbal and conscious control.”
Others suggest that childhood trauma survivors have poor coping strategies and low self-esteem, which makes them easy targets for predators.
We do know that trauma survivors are “burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships,” according to Judith Herman’s book, Trauma, and Recovery.
When trauma survivors reenact their past trauma, they may take on the role of either the victim or perpetrator. Dr. Dorothy Lewis’s research has focused on some of the world’s most violent criminals.
She states that while the most damaged people do not turn into killers, almost every killer is a damaged person, and the pain and damage began in their childhoods.
Trauma survivors may also reenact trauma by causing harm to themselves. Some common examples of self-harm are eating disorders, self-mutilation, avoiding medical care, addiction, putting oneself in danger, and unrealistic, self-attacking beliefs.
There is hope
While the trauma reenactment is a serious effect of unresolved trauma, there is hope.
For those wanting to help a trauma victim, it is helpful to know that someone who seems to be repeating destructive patterns may be incapable of reversing this behavior because of the unresolved trauma they have locked in their minds.
They need professional help that allows them to come to grips with the original trauma and process it in a healthy way. In addition, because of the core beliefs they have adopted about themselves, they will need therapy in order to correct these beliefs and thoughts.
If this sounds like you, seek help. Many times, those who suffer from trauma reenactment are too ashamed to seek help.
The professionals at White River understand trauma and will help you uncover your past pain and process it healthily so that you can live a productive, free life.