Triggering Yourself on Purpose

Why do we knowingly, willingly trigger ourselves when we know that it will make us feel worse?

Zeynep Demirelli

8/22/20210 min read

You come home. It was a long day. You feel exhausted. It wasn’t your worst day but it wasn’t your best either. It started off well, you were hopeful and motivated. Maybe it was your first day, trying to go binge-free. Maybe you were trying to eat more nourishing foods. Or maybe, you were simply doing your best to change a behavior that you did not like. That day, some things went wrong and you were annoyed but you did not ‘‘break’’, at least not during the day. You were waiting for the moment you could be on your own so that you could finally relax. And now the day is finally over, all the stress you have experienced is behind you. You don’t particularly feel bad, but you don’t feel good either. You feel empty.

However, you suddenly feel the urge to do something. Something that you know won’t feel good. Whatever that means for you. Although you clearly know that you don’t feel upset at the time, you want to trigger yourself. Maybe binge eating to the point that your stomach hurts. Restricting yourself so excessively that you feel hungry all the time. Purging so you feel relieved. Maybe exercising for so long that your whole body hurts. All on purpose.

Why would anyone want to hurt themselves on purpose? Or do something that they know they will regret after? Something that will make them feel bad about themselves for sure?

The act of triggering yourself may feel very embarrassing to even think of. These are things we don’t want to say out loud, let alone share with anyone. Because in the end, there is a difference between getting triggered and triggering yourself on purpose. But let me tell you, you are not the only one who triggers oneself on purpose. There is a reason we keep doing so. And in order to stop doing so, we need to understand why we are doing this in the first place.

One may think, ‘‘It only brings me sadness and causes problems, why can’t I let go of such behavior?’’. Behavioral psychologists have the answer: Every behavior, whether wanted or unwanted, comes with multiple consequences. There are negative consequences, which are the reason we would like to avoid them, but they are also positive consequences. Thus, all of them have some sort of function, whether you are aware of it or not. So what can maintain your unwanted behavior of triggering yourself on purpose?

1. It (maladaptively) helps with emotion regulation.

If for some reason we could not acquire the adaptive emotion regulation skills we need while growing up, we might have had to come up with our own ways to regulate our emotions. Eating disorder behaviors may be one of them.

When we are in pain or going through a stressful period, triggering ourselves on purpose gives us ‘something else’ to focus on. We may find it easier to binge eat our feelings instead of confronting our mother on the topic we have been avoiding our whole life. It could be less difficult for us to diet to the point of starvation instead of dealing with our boss who is giving us a hard time at work. We may rather exercise for hours instead of finally telling our significant other how much we feel neglected by them. It feels more comforting to engage in these behaviors, to focus on the feelings aroused by them, even if this ‘something else’ is going to do more damage in the long term (such as having an eating disorder, our body shutting down because of malnutrition, diseases that may arise from excessive weight, our esophagus being permanently damaged because of purging,…).

2. It is a way of self-harming.

This is another taboo topic that no one likes to talk about. While growing up, if we were raised in an environment where we felt like we weren’t worthy of love, where we felt like we had to be punished for every little mistake; we carry that point of view with us throughout our life. Thus, no matter how old we are, when we feel like we need to be punished for whatever reason, we find ways to harm ourselves. Triggering yourself on purpose is a very ‘‘elite’’ way of doing that because we get to choose how, it gives us the feeling that we are in control of what is happening and it is in line with what we think we deserve.

3. It feels safe.

We, humans, are animals of habit and stability, change is a stressor for us. We love being in a stable environment because it is less stressful when we know what the day will bring. If not, our alarms go off and our stress levels rise. But we are good at adapting to any situation. When we struggle with something for long enough, and we cannot find a way out of it, it sadly starts feeling safe for us. No matter how painful, how agonizing, it becomes the only ‘‘normal’’ we know. It becomes what we are used to. Safe does not always mean pain-free, but it always means ‘‘familiar’’. And we prefer things that are familiar to us over any other.

But… how can you cope adaptively?

  • Do not repress your thoughts and feelings.

    When you keep everything to yourself, when you do not react when something bothers you, you are repressing your feelings. If you do not answer back when something unfair happens to you at work or tell your partner how you have been unhappy with their behavior, it all comes crashing down when your feelings catch you off guard. When you repress those unwanted thoughts and feelings, your body still looks for a way to let them out. You either get triggered by them, or you trigger yourself on purpose. That tension cannot stay trapped inside you. It is going to come out either way. So why not learn more adaptive ways to deal with them?

  • Identify your emotions.

    Identifying your emotions was proven to immediately reduce physiological stress. It will also help you understand what is happening and why it is happening.

    Emotions come with physical sensations in our body caused by physiological changes, such as increased heart rate, sweating, etc. What sensations do you recognize? Where do you feel them? On a scale of 0 to 10, how intense are they? Which thoughts are attached to them? What color do you imagine them to be? Can you name what you are feeling? If not, imagine your emotional state as the ever-changing weather. What does the weather forecast say?

  • Do breathing exercises.

    Doing breathing exercises when you are triggered or feel like triggering yourself can help you calm down. Try the 4-7-8 technique, where you inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 and exhale for 8 seconds. Doing breathing exercises regularly can help you stay mindful and reduce your stress levels. You can do them anywhere and everywhere, alone or with other people, without them noticing.

  • Ask for professional help.

    My dearest followers who are reading this, I want to end this newsletter by adding that I believe in each and all one of you. You are strong enough to ask for help, it is not a weakness to seek professional help. You are strong enough to try and fight back against your disorder. The mere fact that you are following my posts is proof of that. Please take your time to reflect and understand yourself. So that the next time you feel like triggering yourself, you can do your best to intervene with it. - Zeynep, Realistic Body Therapist.