When I see my children play, I see them recreate/mimic things they have just experienced or stories that they have heard or read. As a therapist, these patterns interest me because I wonder how much of our psychological processes, i.e., attitudes, beliefs about the world, behaviors, and personality structure are a product of recreating or reenacting our earliest experiences. Repetition is also fundamental to how we self-sooth, socially interact, play, and is also a key ingredient in how we heal. Healing is a critical aspect of survival. By taking a deeper psychological look at what forces are at play in repetitive behaviors we can better understand what makes us tick as human beings.
Have you ever wondered what forces drive you to repeat something that is bad for you (or good for that matter) and why you repeat it? Maybe you are repeating negative behavioral patterns that involve eating, drugs, sex, work, parenting, or romantic relationships. I hope that you have noticed these patterns because identifying these provide the opportunity to learn from your behavioral patterns.
Like with any form of learning, we need cues, prompts, or reminders to reference previously acquired information. These reminders are often emotional in nature and come in the form of cues from the body (i.e., butterflies in the stomach, heart pounding, hands sweating) and are prompted by the recognition of these emotional and behavioral patterns. If we don’t recognize emotional or behavioral pattern consciously then we can’t apply the message. Why don’t we recognize the message? Maybe it is because we consciously don’t know the language or why the body (which unconsciously holds all of our past experiences) is communicating to us in the first place. As a result, the experiences of not knowing leaves us consciously feeling “surprised” as to what is going on, which is also a reason why our behavioral patterns repeat.
Repetition is a form of communication and is essential to everything we do. To answer what is going on with repetition and why we do it, we first have to explore our motivations: We do everything and anything (and even nothing) for survival reasons. Our survival system, which include our action systems, help moves us/stop us depending on what is needed in a given situation. It references what has worked and not worked in the past through an associative and procedural process that utilizes our emotional/implicit and procedural memory systems. Oftentimes just hearing what works and what doesn’t/isn’t enough to solidify our understanding so we have to try it ourselves to know what it feels like. Our actions, or lack thereof, do not always make sense rationally. However, there is a logic to our emotions if we consider them from the perspective of this procedural process.
For example, I once caught my toddler son putting a plastic bag on my infant daughter and trying to feed her small pieces of Lego’s, which both my wife and I explicitly warned him against doing before he had done it. I believe that from our prompting, he played it out and without correction he will come to know that he can express himself in such ways without consequences. But the key to understanding his behavior was when he decided to involve the plastic bag or Lego’s. It was when she was touching his toys for the first time or was hurt by the fact that she was getting more attention then he was. This is my son’s emotional side developing. I know in his heart he does not want his sister to die or be the one who kills her but in the moment when she is touching his toys he may feel threaten and it is hard to not react like this. I interpret the behaviors not as malicious or with murderous intent but with emotional logic.
Emotional logic can be found in one-liners that capture the paradoxes of life. “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” “Sometimes less is more.” “You don?t know what you got until its gone.” “No pain, no gain.” “The end is just the beginning.” “Creating pain in order to have relief later.” “We are living and dying at the same time.” “What feels good to you is bad for you and what feels bad is good for you.” To the extreme, emotional logic rationalizes all problematic behaviors: “I hit you because I love you.” “I need a cigarette/drink/sex/materialism.” “I cut myself to get relief.” “I had to drive drunk.” “I had to kill her so she would know how much I loved her.”
These are statements are emotional truths that are felt in the moment, are usually an end that justify the means, and are felt wants that are labeled as needs. When emotional logic is put to the extreme, it provides the philosophical and emotional grounding for problematic behaviors like abuse, overanalyzing, worrying, enabling, stealing, self-harm/abuse, murder, addictions, and suicide. All these actions are based on short-term survival thinking and can be linked to earlier developmental ages or states of the ego. These ego states are based on our reference material (i.e., memories). Underlying all of these behaviors is an unconscious and dissociative process of reenactments (more on this point later.)
In the survival system, staying alive and safe is paramount. This includes not only our defense reactions like fight, flight, freeze, and appease but also locating food, relating with others, engaging in play, feeling open to seek new experiences with curiosity, and respectful lust. If these latter experiences are not happening, we can feel as if something is not right and this makes us feel threatened or in danger. When we feel threatened or in danger our bodies internally and biologically organically produce symptoms of traumatic stress that include the desire to fight, flight, freeze or appease by triggering butterflies in the stomach, heart rate increase or decrease, or palms sweating. Psychologically and emotionally, we register these experiences by what we have experienced before and if our external world is continually triggering our internal world, our internal world starts communicating with external world through reminders by way of intrusive symptoms (and the element of “surprise,” dramatic expression, or extreme presentation ensures that the message is received but does not guarantee that it will be interpreted, comprehended, and/or applied). Intrusive symptoms of traumatic stress are flashbacks, thoughts, images, or body sensations but the “intrusive” nature of traumatic stress is a matter of perspective i.e., “who is intruding on whom?”
The answer to “who is intruding on whom?” lies in our temporal understanding because our past is playing out in our present. Rational logic that says “the past is in the past” doesn’t hold up because emotional logic says “Bullshit, that feels like it is still happening now so let me show you that it is by showing images of the past while you are in a conscious state or asleep.” The external emotional circumstances are triggering our internal survival programming because they are being felt as a matter of survival due to their needs not getting met. It is not that people want to consciously be doing these problematic behaviors but they do not want to unconsciously be living under these conditions either.
Our survival programming is the main platform for maintaining homeostasis both physically and psychologically. Psychologically, we have different sides to us that we use to keep ourselves balanced just like biologically we have different systems for different bodily functions. For example, psychologically, we have a side meant for daily functioning and an emotional side which guides us on how we feel about what we are experiencing based on what we have experienced before. In the theory of structural dissociation (Van der Hart, Nijenhuis, & Steele, 2006) these are identified as Appearing Normal Part(s) (ANP) and the Emotional Part(s) (EP). These parts of us can also be seen as correlated to functions in the brain i.e., the left-brain (ANP) predominately is oriented to time and space, logical, linear, and forms verbal language and the right-brain (EP) predominately is oriented to symbolism, affective responses, non-verbal communication, and facial recognition. The ANP and EP ego states are “states of being” “brain states” or “states of the brain.” meaning that are internal states of consciousness that are presenting externally. They also relates to our brain from a bottom-up/top-down perspective i.e., EP is related to the older reptilian brain and mammalian brain as they are emotionally-based and because our emotional world developmentally first chronologically and then ANP is related to the newer cognitive brain.
The question becomes, “How are these created?” and the answer is: “through experience.” The stronger the experience, the stronger the ego state created. An ego state is related to traumatic stress and memory because the ego state represents the part of us that is encapsulated in the trauma or emerged as a result. Meaning that an ego state is a manifestation of an unprocessed memory or what it learned from the experience. Furthermore, what is held in that ego state is a level of awareness, developmental level, and worldview of the age when the trauma happened. This is what we revert back to when we regress psychologically as a result of stress.
Now, back to the question at hand… Why would you keep doing something despite obvious negative consequences? On the surface, logic says that doing anything that could potentially have negative consequences like smoking, drinking, sex, or relationships is bad for you. Emotional logic says, “Wait! You cannot say you are alive if you don’t try new things so let me do more of that bad thing to prove a point because you need to learn that there are no absolutes in life and that everything has a consequence dependent upon the time and space that it is viewed!? The question again becomes, “who is talking to whom?” but also, “What part of the brain is talking to what part of the brain?” This is the proverbial scene where the devil and the angel are fighting over who is driving the bus i.e., the conscious (prefrontal cortex) and the unconscious (reptilian) brain or the left and right brain negotiating control over the action systems. True, negative consequences are going to be in the eye of the beholder and relative to when they are viewed, but when we breakdown the logic of why we do anything repetitively we see a deeper meaning emerge and access a deeper wisdom of life.
People often come into therapy to stop doing a behavior that they have consciously recognized as problematic, socially been pointed out as an issue, and/or because they feel some negative way of which they cannot explain; let alone change. Basically, they are seeing negative patterns repeat and trying to bring it to the attention of conscious brain so it can do something about it. When we feel a certain way because of what we do or what has been done to us, it leaves an impression on our survival reference material i.e., our memories.
This leads back to repetition: our unconscious processes repeat in order to learn/to increase awareness or consciousness. This is our survival brain trying to educate the conscious brain to what is an unresolved issue, which often presents in having mixed emotions. Our emotions are often mixed because they come from different experiences that we have had or different sides of us or from different times of our life when we held different views. When things from our past remain unresolved, the unconscious survival brain has a unique way and often indirect way of motivating our conscious brain to address the conflict through a process of reenacting previous experiences. From a more adaptive point of view, reenactments are attempts to make an experience conscious so that they can be resolved. Resolution is desired because it maintains homeostasis and when an experience can be stored properly in the memory systems i.e., memory resolution through a process of memory reconsolidation (Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012), symptoms of distress is reduced; if not eliminated. Symptoms of distress include: anxiety, panic, depression, dissociation, anger, emotional cycling, and physical ailments.
In traumatology, recreating our traumatic experiences is known as trauma reenactments. Reenactments can happen in real time i.e., they unconsciously recreate unresolved relational dynamics, events/situations, or aspects of your life in order to draw attention externally to what is being experienced internally. Bessel van der Kolk (1989) provided a clear example of this phenomenon where he describes treating a Vietnam vet from a night when the soldier lit a cigarette at night and caused the death of a friend. “From 1969 to 1986, on the exact anniversary of the death, to the hour and minute, he yearly committed “armed robbery” by putting a finger in his pocket and staging a “holdup,” in order to provoke gunfire from the police. The compulsive re-enactment ceased when he came to [consciously] understand its meaning (pg. 393).” I added [consciously] in the last line as an editorial statement to support the point I am making.
If reenactments are the survival brain’s way of performing memory reconsolidation, then what the survival brain is trying to do is heal our memories/experiences. This would make sense as the reptilian part of the body/brain (cerebellum, medulla, brain stem) that sends out the white platelets to clot a physical wound so psychological they would be involved too. This part of the brain has survived on the planet for at least 500 millions of years and the ability to heal is essential for survival, however, cognitive/rational processes or societal expectations (stigma) are often blocking healing. From the psychological perspective, memory resolution and appropriate storage of memories are critical to healthy brain functioning, personality integration, and our overall mental health.
Integration is a sign of optimal state for our mental health (Seigel, 2011) and when memory reconsolidation cannot be performed naturally then it remains stuck and produces symptoms of distress i.e., dissociation, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and rigid personalities. With symptoms like these, it stands to reason that anxiety, panic, depression, and addictions (which I would include eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive behaviors) would result. However, despite the internal conflict that results in these symptoms, the cause for them continuing and not resolving is often external. We make meaning by being able to share our experience with a safe person by telling our story or expressing it non-verbally through artistic means. Oftentimes people are not able to express what has happened to them because they don?t have that safe person to share their emotions with.
Emotional logic is not without it flaws because it is often the ends justifying the means and rational logic often negates it. When our needs and wants are not objectively balanced out, there is conflict and disorder. Social stigma of mental health adds to the conflict because people are made fun of or suppressed if they express their emotions and expose their vulnerability. This often stems from our family and culture of origin. We all have an emotional side to our biological and psychological make-up, but like a muscle, if it is not used it weakens over time. In family or societal structures where our emotional experience is suppressed: subversion, deviance, and defiance persist.
Philosophically, all addictions are based on emotional logic, which is rationally disconnected but that does not mean that they are any less valid. Emotional logic is based on procedural memory, emotional survival, defense mechanisms, traumatic and dissociative reenactments, and ultimately our stories. When there is a disconnection between logic and our emotional world, which is often represented as disconnected from heart and mind, then it stands to reason that addiction is dissociative and dissociation always accompanies trauma, to what degree or measure is debatable. This is why Dr. Marich and I started our Addiction as Dissociation Model (O’Brien & Marich, 2019). What has been presented here are some concepts that are foundational to seeing Addiction as Dissociation and I believe that knowing these would benefit clients, families, clinicians, treatment centers, policymakers, and government agencies.
Until we recognize the different sides to us, we will be beholden to their survival needs. However, we are not condemned to repeat our past if we remain in a process of learning, applying said learning, and continue healing from our past. However, as Billy Preston asked, “Will it go round in circles?” Yes it will, Billy, yes it will…
Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. New York, NY: Routledge.
Mate, G. (2003). When the body says no: exploring the stress-disease connection. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
O’Brien, A., & Marich, J. (2019). Addiction as Dissociation Model by Adam O’Brien and Dr. Jamie Marich. Retrieve https://www.instituteforcreativemindfulness.com/icm-blog-redefine-therapy/addiction-as-dissociation-model-by-adam-obrien-dr-jamie-marich
Scaer, R. (2005). The trauma spectrum: Hidden wounds and human resiliency. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.
Van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: The structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Van der Kolk, B.A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 389-411.