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4 Ways to Break Free From Abusive Parents

3. Rely on your body's memories to avoid repetition compulsion

Key points

  • It often takes years and many attempts before we finally free ourselves from our abusive, undermining, and bullying parents.
  • Repetition compulsion is our unconscious attempt to make sense of and fix things.
  • Take a step back and defend yourself if you are undermined or traumatized each time you turn to abusive parents in times of need.

Why do we keep going back to the parents that mistreated us?

It often takes years and many attempts before we finally free ourselves from our abusive, undermining, and bullying parents. We can’t stop returning to our parents, even though we are aware of how they continue to degrade, hurt, and humiliate us. We go to them seeking acknowledgment and praise but instead get disrespectful degradation and insults.

Our instinctive response to traumatic events is to try to understand them. We want to know how and why something so dreadful and unthinkable has occurred. Ironically, our mind uses this defense mechanism–referred to in psychoanalysis as repetition compulsion–to shield ourselves from more harm.

We frequently find ourselves in relationships that mirror recurring themes from our upbringing. Perhaps our domineering partner behaves in a similar way to our alcoholic father. Perhaps we stay too long in a poisonous work environment and put up with abuse because we feel powerless in the face of any potential change. These relationships can feel familiar and, in a strange way, “comfortable,” even if they are demeaning, humiliating, and abusive.

We hope for a different result this time, which is one of the causes of repetition compulsion. We may still go outside ourselves for relationships, employers, and teachers who will give us the attention, care, and acceptance we need because our parents may not have provided us with what we emotionally require. Even though we know it is impossible, we unconsciously attempt to make things right.

Repetition compulsion is a result of our unconscious resistance to grieving.

We all have a child inside of us that will not give up. As children, to preserve our sanity and survive, we naturally try to find excuses for our parents and justify any maltreatment. Even though this tactic is no longer effective in our adult lives, we still act similarly. Therefore, we keep trying and knocking on the wrong doors until we are so damaged and wounded that we are paralyzed in life, refusing to acknowledge the most significant anguish and suffering–that our parents cannot love us as we deserve.

Regrettably, a repetition compulsion is rarely effective in helping people recover from trauma. It frequently makes matters worse. If our parents cannot show us the love we deserve, our continuous attempts simply serve to harm us further. We would eventually lose all self-respect, and there would be no turning back.

They might not be “evil people,” but they are parents who cannot fully love you as you deserve. It’s time to take a step back and defend yourself if you are traumatized each time you turn to them in times of need.

Becoming Free From Repetition Compulsion

Clearly see their limits. Why do we always go back to the parents that mistreated us?

Deep down, we might hope they will eventually behave differently and treat us fairly. Another possibility is that we are so accustomed to abuse that it seems normal to us. Most significantly, we persevere because we all deeply, innately yearn to be understood, heard, and appreciated.

If possible, give up on hoping your parents can meet your emotional needs. “My parents are not my (emotional, spiritual, psychological) parents” can be a potent mantra for some people. Even if you share a biological bond with them, they cannot serve as your "true" parents. They may give you material support and have the finest intentions. However, they are unable to comfort you when you’re feeling down, offer you wise and responsible life advice, or show you sympathy when you’re in pain.

As a Chinese saying goes, you shouldn’t try to borrow a comb from a bald monk. They can only do what they can, which does not include emotional support and a mature relationship. Because of this, you may want to avoid the urge and temptation to open up to them about delicate issues in your life and instead turn to other people for support, such as therapists, close friends, loving spouses, and your own inner parent.

This does not mean you must distance yourself from them or never see them again, but you should probably stop looking to them for empathy, company, consolation, and unconditional love.

Redefine what breaking free means. Some of us feel guilty when we distance ourselves from our parents because we perceive it as abandonment. Our values of loyalty, love, and devotion may cause us to feel like we are betraying our family.

But this isn’t really “cutting the cord. This is a mature way of moving your relationship to another level.

We can learn to reinterpret what setting boundaries mean. It is a more mature form of love rather than desertion or betrayal. Sometimes it helps to imagine our parents as children, especially if they are emotionally childish.

They might not love us how they ideally want to because of their immaturity and psychological constraints. Instead, their trauma and insecurity dictate what they say and do. Their insecurities cause them to be envious of their own children, dreading their children’s success and attractiveness, seeking to control how they live their lives, and projecting their anxieties and concerns onto them.

Although they try, they are unable to control their destructive behaviours. Therefore, it is up to us to take the initiative as long as we can set boundaries and say no.

Like young children, our parents secretly want to have our “no,” our disobedience, and our independence. Instead of continuing to be a puppet or an extension of their neuroses, the wise part of them wants us to develop into our own unique selves and find our place in the world.

Since we are responding to the healthy and sensible part of our parents rather than the sick and dysfunctional part, we must keep in mind that saying no and walking away, despite what they may say on the surface, is also a method of honouring and loving our parents.

It is not a betrayal to refuse our parents’ requests for co-dependence. Instead, we are giving our parents the assistance they need to accomplish things they otherwise could not.

Use your body’s memories to defend yourself against repetition compulsion. You might need to use your body’s memories to help yourself. Allow the pain of interacting with your parents to be felt rather than pushing it away, denying it, or rationalizing it. Allow your entire body to experience it in addition to your heart. Feel the tightness in your muscles, your broken heart, your sinking stomach, your heavy legs, and the lump in your throat.

Then, pause when you feel compelled to reach out to your parents, telling them everything about your life. Rather than continuing the cycle, take a moment to breathe, halt, and find a substitute behaviour (such as calling a friend, having a hot shower, meditating, or occupying oneself with a book or video game).

Keep your inner child nourished. Your adult self is aware of how harsh and hurtful your parents are and that there is little reason to believe they will improve. But it is not your adult self that drives you into repetition compulsion, but your inner child.

It is your inner child that wants to turn to your parents. Your inner child was helpless in the face of a toxic parental bond. They desperately wanted to please their parents so they would not be incapacitated. If possible, in your mind’s eye, gently hold your inner child’s hand and remind them that the people who are supposed to love them are unfortunately unable to do so.

But fear not, for the adult you are here now to take their place, and you are infinitely more loving, stable, and consistent than your biological parents will ever be.

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Chu, J. A. (1991). The repetition compulsion revisited: Reliving dissociated trauma. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 28(2), 327.

Levy, M. S. (2000). A conceptualization of the repetition compulsion. Psychiatry, 63(1), 45-53.

Loewald, H. W. (1971). Some considerations on repetition and repetition compulsion. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 52, 59-66.

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