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What I've Discovered About My Skin Picking Since Learning Its Name

Editor’s note: If you struggle with a body-focused repetitive behavior, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.

I didn’t even associate the two things until I read the word. Until I learned that word, I wasn’t even sure these two things coexisted in the same place, much less that they were the same thing. Dermatillomania — that was the word; the word that cleared up so much for me and my recovery process. It laid it all out for me, using words like perfection and the idea of eliminating blemishes. It linked what I thought was a bad habit with my anxiety. Skin picking, as it turns out, is not my bad habit; skin picking is my to-do list.

By this, I mean skin picking is the moment when I work toward change, but not in a healthy way — not in the way we should work toward change. It’s the device, the planner, I need to think through my life and put together my plans. Writing down short-term and long-term goals never worked for me; harming my skin was a goal that, in my mind, would last.

This concept of a to-do list didn’t register when I crept my nails to an afflicted area, but that is what happens. My nails creep either consciously or not, and my mind begins to turn. When I begin to pick, I begin to plan.

The list is always the same as far as end goals go — “How do I become better? How do I become perfect? How do I become a person I can love more easily?” Scratches became sentences, sequences of a life I would prefer. Flakes of skin became “I should be healthier, I should be more stylish, I should be more social, I should be more interesting.” Each occurrence of skin picking became what I expected to be a “concrete plan” — “five vegetables each week, I’ll buy new clothes, I can plan a roller skating day…” but when the next morning arrived and I saw bulging bumps, these plans rearranged themselves as stupid ideas and I was back to seeing myself that way too — no one smart or interesting or admirable does this to themselves, I would think. OK, sometimes I still think this. During skin picking though, I absolutely celebrated my commitment to improvement. “Nobody,” I would think as I picked, “worked as hard as I do.” My to-do list was my body. I began my commitment to being the best person I could be by getting rid of problems, of blemishes, of pimples and infected scars. Once I picked them away, I would be that much closer to my perfect self. I would be that much closer to crossing an item off my list. And I believe we all know how good that feels.

But since reading that word — since linking skin picking and a need for perfection and anxiety — I’ve been bombarded by waves of shame and an awareness of all this self-hate I’ve been ignoring. Just now, I’m realizing how ridiculously high my standards are for myself and realizing my disgust at myself when I don’t meet them. The shame is the same as a to-do list. “You didn’t cross anything off your list; you scratched at yourself and gave yourself these scars. You failed.”

I don’t suspect the shame of failure when I’m making a to-do list. When I’m imagining my improvement, I am in a blissed out future where the present does not exist, where raw skin does not exist. I imagine a place where I can skin pick in a blissed out state — no consequences. Well, that place does not exist. Since reading that word — dermatillomania — I’m grown aware of just what it is I’m dealing with; standards, and judgment, and perfection, and image and self-disgust. Learning these things has been difficult, but knowing them and acknowledging these feelings will help me move past them. This will help me move past skin picking and this will help me to live my goals instead of jotting them down. These goals will not live on my body.

If you or a loved one is affected by body-focused repetitive behaviors, you can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.

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