Reenactment as a Response to Trauma

young woman covering her face and looking scared

Have you ever known someone who seems to repeat the same relational mistakes over and over, even though it seems clear that he or she should have learned from previous painful results of these relationships? This could be someone who seems to get involved with the same kind of unhealthy person: someone who is violent or chronically depressed or unable to remain faithful. Or it could include someone who continually gets themselves into financial problems, overspends, goes into debt, puts their family in jeopardy because of their impulsive spending patterns.

How can someone seemingly go in a positive direction and then do something to sabotage a winning outcome? Or someone who chooses to put themselves in danger or situations that perpetuate chaos?

Unresolved Trauma

A fascinating expression of unresolved trauma is the tendency a person can have to reenact some aspect of their original trauma. Levine and Kline in Trauma through a Child’s Eyes share that, “Reenactment can be defined as an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the intense survival energy mobilized for defense against a perceived life-threatening experience.”

They also state that: “The drive to heal trauma is as powerful and tenacious as its symptoms. Youngsters traumatized by physical and sexual abuse or emotional neglect are inextricably drawn into situations that replicate the original trauma. The urge to resolve, through reenactment can be severe and compulsive. The adolescent prostitute or sexually promiscuous teen usually has a history of early sexual abuse. Children who have been beaten or witness battering may repeatedly seek abusive relationships or become perpetrators. Students from abusive backgrounds seem to be drawn together like magnets on the playground: bullies and their victims often suffer the common denominator of trauma’s grip.

The Tendency to Repeat the Past

Dr. Sandra Bloom, in Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, explains that Sigmund Freud drew attention to the tendency of patients to repeat the past. Since Freud, many researchers and their tests have observed that trauma reenactment is often an underlying theme and outward expression of a person’s inability to escape from his or her traumatic experience.

Dr. Bloom states, “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 behavior out of the context of verbal and conscious control.”

And, “But without access to the dissociated material, the rational mind flounders helplessly, interpreting behavior in a simplistic, often stupid way, while the person helplessly re-exposes himself or herself to further trauma. This lack of control over the repetition of trauma, combined with an insistent, albeit unconscious need to repeat the traumatic scenario, is called a compulsion.”

She notes, “People have a strong compulsion to repeat traumatic experiences, sometimes overtly but more frequently in a disguised, often highly symbolized, way. These reenactments consist of the repeated establishment of the traumatic scenario that then gets relived over and over and can come to dominate a person’s life.

Reenactment Compulsions

John Bradshaw in Healing the Shame that Binds You describes the horrific reenactment compulsions of child murderer Jurgen Bartsch, who brutally murdered four boys between 1962 and 1966. Each time his process was the same. I will spare you of the details of those crimes. This turns out to be an example of the power of reenactment. He was beaten as a baby, often found to be black and blue. This occurred in the same room that his father, who was a butcher, cut up carcasses. At some point in addition to beatings, he was locked in an old underground cellar. He was also horrifically abused by his mother and later others. Bradshaw explains, “His crimes bore the imprint of each detail of his life. He ‘acted out’ his pent-up hatred on the little boys.”  

Obviously not every child who was abused in this way becomes a serial killer. However abusive treatment that leads to unresolved trauma often evokes reenactments of the original trauma.

Alice Miller states, in Pictures of Childhood, “Every crime contains a concealed story which can be deciphered from the way the misdeed is enacted and from its specific details.” (Pictures of Childhood)

“…traumatic reenactment can also appear in a subtler, internalized form and be expressed as obsessive thoughts, nightmares, illness or recurring physical sensations. The original, repressed childhood trauma may be overtly violent, such as incidents of sexual abuse or severe beatings, or it may be more covert. [Source: Cheating Fate: Healing the Trauma of Childhood Reenactment by Lynn Grodzki]

Getting Help

It can be helpful to know that someone who seems to be repeating destructive patterns may be incapable of resisting compulsions to do so because of unresolved traumatic experiences that lead to reenactment. Someone who suffers from these compulsions needs serious professional help that allows them to finally come to grips with the original trauma and discover ways to express that trauma and all the resulting grief around it to free them from reenactment.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Have you ever known someone who seems to constantly repeat destructive patterns in their relationships? How has it made you feel? Confused? Frustrated? Exasperated?
  2. How successful have you been in trying to help someone stop these destructive behaviors?
  3. How might the possibility that their behaviors are a form of reenactment help you better understand those behaviors?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute


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