I basically called my mom for help. Except when I say mom, I mean an esthetician.
When I read Alyssa’s piece last week on dermatillomania, I couldn’t stop nodding my head. And judging from the comments on that article, many of you couldn’t either. I’m not totally surprised that a group of women who read a beauty website daily could be obsessive about their skin, but I think many of us take it to an extent that interferes with our health and happiness. And for that reason, I want to share my story.
Like Alyssa, my skin picking was a learned behavior. When I started breaking out, around 11 or 12, my mom would sit me down weekly in the bathroom, wielding a metal extractor, and press out my pimples while I pouted and squirmed. I know now that she had the best of intentions--she didn’t want me to suffer the embarrassment of acne; she wanted me to feel pretty and confident, but what really happened was that I became endlessly preoccupied with my skin.
As my breakouts got worse and worse, I researched skin treatments endlessly. At 15 years old, I presented my mom with a spreadsheet of salycilic acid treatments, categorized by price, pH level, and average online user rating to convince her to buy yet another product I thought would finally fix my skin. I was in and out of dermatologists office, posting my ever-changing skincare routine in message boards for critique, trying to nail down the perfect combo that would make all those terrible spots go away.
And I picked.
God, did I pick. When I woke up, I would pick. When I got home from school, I would pick. Before bed I would pick. When I was angry or worried, I would pick to punish myself. When I was happy, I would pick to reward myself. When I was bored or tired or lonely, I would pick to fill the time. I can’t count the number of family dinners or dates I was late for because I had made a bloodied mess of my face and I was waiting for the welts to go down before I would let anybody see me.
My behavior was mostly limited to my face (save for a couple times where I plucked out every single leg hair one by one with a tweezers), and I left myself with scars that have taken years to fade--some of which still linger. But for the most part, I’m out of the woods.
If mine or Alyssa’s stories sound like you, here are some tips that might help you get your compulsive picking under control, too.
Deal with the root causes.
For many, compulsive skin picking stems from another, more pervasive mental health issue. For Alyssa, it was OCD. For me, it is anxiety. As I struggled to quit skin picking, I was at a loss to why I couldn’t just stop touching my face, like all the magazines (unhelpfully) recommend. I even tried and failed an online twelve-step program for skin picking (yes, really) to try and stop.
It wasn’t until a particularly panic-ridden first year of college landed me into a therapy group (free, at my university--thanks, y’all) that I began to understand why I was compulsively picking. I used picking my face as a self-soothing technique, and getting help for the root issue taught me a variety of more productive techniques, like exercise, meditation, journaling, even watching my favorite sitcoms on Netflix, to quiet my mind.
If you suspect there is something deeper to your skin picking, you won’t be able to make the picking stop until you address it.
Once I started dealing with the driving force of my picking, I had to start unlearning the habit. During the day, I was constantly practicing a behavior called “scanning”: unconsciously running my fingers over my skin to locate all the flakes, bumps, and scabs that need picking; and then after my class or work shift was over running to the nearest mirror and eradicating those suckers.
To stop that automatic process of hunt and pick, I learned to create barriers to get in the way of scanning.
I started doing a lot of facial masks when I was home by myself (also excellent self-care) because you can’t touch your face when there is a layer of goo on top of it. Failing that, I would even wear gloves around the house so that if I reached up to touch my face I wouldn’t be able to feel anything. If there was a particular spot I was dying to pick and couldn’t stop thinking about, I would put a band-aid over the top. This all helped distance me from constantly picking and thinking about picking.
You may also find that you need to distance yourself from things that trigger your skin picking. That means throw away the extractor, or the tweezers, or the magnifying mirror. I try to avoid the upstairs bathroom at my parent’s house because my brain just automatically equates that space with picking. If I’m having a particularly stressful time, I have my husband call “don’t pick” through the door if I’ve been in the bathroom to long. He usually catches me scanning, just pre-pick.
Be kind to yourself.
The most difficult part of the process was to replace my picking with self-acceptance. I still struggle with wanting perfect, perfect skin. But for a long while, I had to swear off of skincare message boards and replace them with visiting Stop Picking On Me, a website and forum that is a great resource on Compulsive Skin Picking and strategies to stop it.
I found the less time I spent thinking about improving my skin, and the less time I spent picking it, the more comfortable and happy I felt. Eventually, I gave up foundation altogether, and this year, I even stopped wearing concealer. What you see is what you get.
My skin may not be perfect, but leaving it bare every single day helped me feel like it was good enough as-is--that it didn’t need to be covered to be good enough for the world, and that the little imperfections that exist don’t need to be aggressively excavated.
I won’t pretend that I never ever pick--I still backslide sometimes--but coming from a time where picking consumed much of my life, I feel pretty good about where I am, scars and all.