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Traumatic Reenactment

Excerpts from Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic, by Peter M. Bernstein, PhD


Today I want to introduce the concept of traumatic reenactment. Reenactment is a process that includes compulsively repeated thoughts, attitudes, and patterns of behavior. The goal of reenactment is to resolve and heal a past traumatic experience or series of experiences. Reenactment arises out of our past and can seriously disrupt our present lives and relationships.

In a further excerpt from my book, I offer the following example of reenactment:

“Children who were abandoned by a parent or who went through the divorce of their parents may also reenact this experience in future relationships. They will often set themselves up to be abandoned or abused by seeking out friendships and romantic attachments in which they are destined to be left, discarded, or rejected.

“Men will become attached to women who are certain to leave them, or they will adopt behaviors that drive women away. Women will form attractions to men who are unattainable, abusive, or noncommittal. They approach life with the mentality that they are always doomed to be abandoned and create real-life situations in which that belief is validated.

“Another patient, Lucy, for example, grew up in a home in which her father left her mother for another woman when she was a little girl. Her parents divorced, and Lucy was raised by her mother who did her best as a single parent. When Lucy was old enough to date, she developed a pattern of pursuing boys who weren’t really interested in dating her. She would manage to persuade them to date her for a while until they finally, inevitably, broke up with her. She would be devastated every time.

“As an adult pursuing more serious relationships, Lucy continues to be involved with men who don’t value her, who cheat on her, and who eventually leave her. She doesn’t understand why her dating life is this way. Lucy attributes it to the immorality of men and to her worth as a woman. The truth is that there are plenty of men in the world who could love and cherish Lucy, but she is blind to these individuals because of her experience with her father. He was supposed to love and cherish her, but instead, he left her behind. Lucy doesn’t know how to build a healthy relationship with a man. She only knows how to experience the pain of her father’s leaving over and over again. 

“It is important to remember that reenactment does not occur on a conscious level. Rather, these patterns surface as a result of the pain and turmoil felt on a subconscious level. And because we do not actively choose these patterns, we are unable to actively choose something different. For the most part, reenactments rarely succeed in completing the energy discharge so desired; instead, they cause additional despair and pain in our lives. Usually after much pain, we discover they are false solutions.”

                        From Chapter 2, “Emotional Blueprints and Developmental Trauma”