things you know if you’re a skin-picker

(and things you should know if you’re not) 

i've spoken about compulsive picking before, but never in much detail. it definitely resides within that privileged 'acceptable' sphere of mental health disorders alongside depression & anxiety (let's not pretend that schizo spectrum disorders aren't still stigmatised on a whole other level) but, nevertheless, any disorder that contains an element of self-mutilation is always going to earn you the side-eye from some people. so here are some facts that you definitely already know if you do it (but it's nice to hear you're not alone) and that you should know if you're lucky enough to not do it (because being supportive of someone by actually understanding what they're going through makes all the difference).

  1. it isn’t self-harm. there’s a distinct lack of sympathy for mental health conditions that see sufferers doing things to harm themselves. something about doing yourself physical damage stirs up real disgust in a lot of people, and i think this is why so many sufferers of BFRBs (body focused repetitive behaviours) - especially skin-picking due to the drawing of blood - are ashamed to talk about it. skin-picking is, actually, from a clinical perspective almost the opposite of self harm - which is generally inflicted as a way of dealing with difficult emotions/thoughts/situations/experiences. the urge to pick, however, is so strong that it actually overrides pain sensations and lets you finish the job, so to speak.
  2. it’s a vicious cycle. while the definitive cause of skin-picking is still unknown, the cyclical nature of the process gives us an insight into the psychological aspect of the disorder. what starts with an urge or ‘itch’ to pick at something - usually because you feel your fingertip skim over a bit of dry skin or you catch sight of a spot as you pass a mirror - soon mutates into an exponentially increasing feeling of tension that you know can only be resolved by picking/squeezing the particular culprit. doing so, however, simply opens the floodgates and before you know it you’re excavating the nail bed of the neighbouring finger or you’ve tied your hair back for a proper go at your face. while the act of picking/squeezing acts as instantaneous relief from the urge, you’re then left with the inescapable feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing that contribute to the stress/anxiety which makes you want to pick/squeeze in the first place. 
  3. it takes different forms. most of my finger-picking is automatic, while my face-picking is focused. my fingers ‘pick themselves’ often without me noticing until someone (usually my always on-watch boyfriend because he’s wonderful) tells me to stop OR when i realise i’m bleeding. as long as my fingers can feel each other, and therefore feel the crevices left by previous picking, i won’t be able to stop myself. if i can feel the bits ‘needing’ to be picked, i’ll pick them. there have been occasions when i’m literally saying the words ‘ok i’m gonna try so hard not to pick’ only for bf to point out that i’m doing it as i speak. my face-picking, however, is a whole other monster. i’ll scan every square millimetre of my face to find the bits ‘needing’ squeezed. no pore is safe. and when there are aren’t bits to be seen, i’ll run my fingers over my skin until i find a bit that *feels* problematic. and, of course, squeezing perfectly fine pores with, by this point, not particularly clean fingers only leads to actual spots in said pores, just begging to be squeezed.
  4. it feels like gambling. this is how i often describe it for people who can’t relate. for me, the process is addictive. when i come across a ‘good’ pore that’ll yield me something to squeeze out, i feel like i’m on a winning streak and that the next one will be as satisfactory. when i get a disappointingly empty pore, i feel like i owe myself one more go at another one to make up for missing out. interestingly, gambling used to be listed in the same category as impulse control disorders like skin-picking in the bible of psychological disorders before being redefined as an addiction with the latest edition of the manual (DSM5). squeezing my face feels like a treat that i shouldn’t really be having. sometimes i find myself thinking ‘ok you’re allowed 3 more shots to find a good one’. …then you low-key hate yourself.
  5. it's a black hole. the normal passage of time ceases to exist when you get in the zone. i’ve rocked up to the mirror to get a particularly troublesome spot that’s causing me actual pain and does legitimately need popped. suddenly it’s 2 hours later and my face is puffy, my skin is red raw, and the mirror’s steamed up from me having to get close enough to see the damage i’m doing in better detail. of all the disturbing aspects of my impulse control disorder, it’s this genuinely trance-like state that both scares and shames me the most. i honestly don’t know where the time goes. i have lost a lot of time to compulsively ripping at my own flesh. 
it’s hard for me to approach this disorder from anything other than a clinical perspective. psychology is what i’m versed in and how i understand the world. writing about my own experiences, therefore, is something that is hard for me because i want to present myself as a case study, when - really - i know that each struggle is unique and complex and cannot be explained purely in the same terms as mine. 
truth be told, when i sat down to write this i thought i’d reach a sort of zen conclusion with which i’d leave you with some sage and comforting advice. but, like, that’s not what this is. i don’t have an answer. or a solution. i’ve been so busy and flitting all over the country for the past few months to tackle this in a constructive way. but if the objective was to make even one single person feel less alone in this horrible, frustrating, infuriating whirlpool of compulsive picking then i hope that i’ve succeeded. i’ve obviously ripped my fingers to shreds while writing this because i can’t type with my life-saving false nails on, but hopefully it’s been of some use to somebody. having someone say the things that you’re feeling, and thought you were alone with, is one of the friendliest experiences in the universe. ‘i do that too!’ is one of the most comforting thoughts you’ll ever have. 
as always, i’m an email away if you wanna talk. 
let’s try & do what’s best for us, at least just for today.

older Post newer Post

  • Erin on

    Yay! I’m so glad someone has written a proper heart felt blog on skin picking. Reading this was like listening to a friend tell me about it. I skin pick too. I feel that weird ‘kid stealing a cookie from a jar’ when I find one that was hidden. It’s hard because my mum always told me to stop and I was like “shut up it’s my face” haha. I love these posts!

  • SR on

    p.s im looking forward to reading your other 2 articles “roobs vs the physical health bias” and “roobs goes cold turkey”. :) SR

  • SR on

    Thanks so much for your article. I thought I was the only one who did this. Ive been doing it since my teens. I am now 45 and still do it. Its like a frenzied attack on my face and neck and chest that can go on for hours. At different times in the past ive also picked at my hands and between my upper inner thighs, however ive not picked these areas for years (this was not a conscious decision; it just happened). Unless i wear heavy makeup for the next few days i cant go out because of the mess i make. when i was only 20 i had to get a cosmetic skin surgery on my cheek because id damaged it so badly. so this is a long-standing problem for me. My psychiatrist who i see for other mental illnesses is at a loss as to how to deal with my skin-picking. He advised me to take some of my anti-psychotic meds in the evening to try and stop it (because i tend to pick at night)…but it hasnt helped. i can see no way out of my picking. I also pull out my eyelashes and eyebrows. i may try the false nails. i heard of “grlclb” in an article entitled “tearing your hair out” which featured in the free magazine “The Stylist” at the end of October 2018. It is handed out for free on the streets of Glasgow City Centre. i see that the address for your returns is in mansewood, glasgow; i stay not too far from there !!! :) thanks again. SR

  • Amy on

    Objective achieved! I feel really comforted by this post, thank you. I also have frenzied skin picking marathons that usually end with my boyfriend poking his head round the bathroom door (he’s wonderful too) and ushering me to help him with some thing or another. I’m ginger so you can imagine the levels of redness my skin gets to. I definitely relate to it feeling like gambling. It’s just the worst when you’ve been attacking one that you’re absolutely sure is ripe and ready, but its not, and instead you end up giving yourself what looks like carpet burn on your face.

    All this talk has really made me want to go to the bathroom though…

  • Holly on

    Thank you for writing this! You did a great job of balancing your personal story with your explanation of the psychological pathology. I have picked my face since my teen years, and I am now 30. Hearing “I do that, too!” DOES help so much! Much love and comfort to you.

leave a comment

please note, comments must be approved before they are published