Trigger warning: mental health, self-harm and blood.
When acne or other skin problems get you down, it’s easy to feel like you’ve lost control. Especially if you don’t know the cause, or if it feels like you’ve tried every last ‘solution’ on the market. One of the ways people try regain that feeling of power over their circumstances and skin is to pick at it.
I’m gonna be honest with you guys: I’m a huge hypocrite. I’ve mentioned before that picking at your skin is a great way to get infections, inflammation, irritation and scarring. But even so, I do it to myself. While I know logically that it’s bad for me, I struggle a lot with squeezing and picking at any and all lumps or bumps on my skin. And it’s not just limited to my face, but my whole body. I’ll squeeze sebaceous filaments on my chest, closed comedones on my face, and ingrown hairs on my legs. For me, it feels oddly purifying – as if I’m removing the root of the problem and making my skin feel smooth again. But of course that’s not the case.
Plenty of people deal with the impulse to squeeze their acne or scratch off that scab, and they’re coping just fine. But what if it’s more than just occasional? When does skin picking become a compulsion?
What is Compulsive Skin Picking?
When it becomes an activity that interrupts your daily life, is on your mind 24/7 and causes you emotional upset or genuine damage to the skin, this can be called Compulsive Skin Picking/Excoriation Disorder. According to WebMd, it’s a disorder that often develops after the onset of a skin condition or intense emotional stress, and is sometimes classified as an Impulse Control Disorder under the umbrella category of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. It is one of many Body Focused Repetitive Behaviours that are about ‘fixing’ a perceived imperfection or imbalance. Another well-known example is Trichotillomania, also known as hair-pulling. These conditions can also occur as a part of or in tandem with Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
My experience with CSP
My experience with CSP has been a mixture of all the above. As someone who suffered from (and to an extent still suffers from) mixed mania and anxiety, I had the capability to become hyper focused and inflict some serious damage to myself. Often this involved digging at imaginary flaws that nobody else could see, making them a hundred times worse.
For me, I experience a nagging sensation that there’s something just under the surface. I think that if I could just get it out, then that feeling would go away. After I’ve done some damage, I kind of think “well, may as well keep going” and try to “make it better”. Before I know it, I’ve spent hours in front of the mirror picking at one spot. I’ve self-cauterised bleeding wounds and dug nail clippers so far into my hand I accidentally nicked a blood vessel and passed out.
This isn’t all to say that I hate myself or that I’m struggling – at the moment, I’m actually really happy with my life. But I can’t seem to shake these lingering habits. It’s not about causing myself pain or improving my imperfections, but rather getting that feeling of satisfaction. I don’t want to do it but it can be so hard to stop, because of the ingrained behaviour and emotional release it offers.
The consequences of skin picking
This is dangerous is a couple of ways. Firstly, from a mental standpoint, the inflammation and scarring brought on by skin picking is itself a trigger to pick more. It becomes a cycle of picking and damage, leading to more picking. You’re creating further skin issues to add to your repertoire of mental triggers. Moreover, making open wounds with dirty fingernails or other objects poses a serious health risk and leaves you open to infections.
Learning to leave your skin alone
But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I’m getting so much better; I recently went a whole week without picking at my face (we bought burgers to celebrate).
Obviously, not everyone who picks their skin has a disorder. But whether you’re like me and find it a daily struggle, or just want to curb your occasional habit of squeezing pimples, there are some ways I like to discipline myself. Here are the things I’ve tried and found helpful:
1. No mirrors. If it’s your acne that’s a trigger, don’t let yourself lean in close the bathroom mirror, and cover up any unnecessary ones in the house. Dim the lights when you’re washing your face too. The less you see your skin, the less you’ll be reminded and tempted to touch your skin.
2. Leave notes to yourself in places you usually go to pick. For me, I often do it absentmindedly while sitting at my laptop. Others sometimes perch atop the bathroom counter. Try leaving a sticky note there reminding you not to do it!
3. Hands off. Pickers have been noted to exhibit ‘scanning’ behaviours. That’s when you run your fingers across your skin, feeling for your next target. Make a strict rule not to touch your face, and not only will you pick less but you’ll improve your facial hygiene!
4. Like my burgers, offer yourself an incentive to stop picking. Make it your favourite snack or going somewhere you love – but only if you don’t pick for X amount of days. Every time you go to do it, remind yourself of how much you want this goal.
5. Ask a friend to hold you accountable. Let them know of your goal and that they should call you out if they catch you picking. It’s much easier to stop a habit if you know that others are noticing you do it too. It’ll also stop you cheating 😉 My boyfriend is a skin picking overlord – he could tell I’m doing it from a mile away, and he’ll come and tell me what’s what.
6. See a professional. Sometimes, these things won’t fix your issue. If you’ve read this and think you might seriously be suffering from CSP, seek help. A mental health specialist or even a GP can help get you the diagnosis and treatment you need to stop. Trust me, it’s not as scary as it seems!
I know I’m not alone in my battle against skin picking, and I know it’s not going to last forever.