Emotional [_______]ing

Following #7daychip, one comes to realize that the struggle over emotional eating is not merely day-to-day, but even sometimes minute-to-minute.  Each minute is a chance to address and overcome what's really going on in our life, heart, and/or mind.  And still other times we use the minute to pick ourselves up and start over at square one again.

One also comes to realize that we don't just emotionally eat, but we also emotionally __________.  For some people, it's emotional binging, and perhaps a subsequent purge.  Some people emotionally exercise.

For sixteen years I've been a skin picker (dermatillomania).  This is not an easy admission for me to make, though it's not something I necessarily hide (I've mentioned it a few times in passing).  If you're not familiar with skin picking, you might be familiar with some of its sister disorders such as trichotillomania or other anxiety/self-harm/body dysmorphic disorders such as cutting.

When I was younger, my mother would have me lie down on the living room couch, face-up on a pillow on her lap.  She would scrutinize my face for pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads.  She would use her fingers/nails, tweezers, and occasionally a pin to exorcise the little demons on my face.  Excitedly, she'd show me what she was able to excavate and then tell me to run to the bathroom and wash my face with hot water.  My skin would fade from red to its pasty white before I had to go to school the next morning, but my skin was none-the-less traumatized by what happened.

After my mom died, the habit continued.  Often when I'd feel my anxiety level rise, I'd find myself picking at scabs, or popping pimples.  Over the years, the skin picking would evolve to a point where there wouldn't even need to be something tactile or visible for me to pick at.  I would dig into my face until I was bleeding believing that there was something there that didn't belong.  I would pick at my face, my scalp, my arms.  It has evolved into some aspects of trich as well.  Just anything to feel the pain/release of the action.  (The irony is that I can plunge a safety pin a quarter inch into my own skin without flinching and yet I'm petrified of needles and will often faint.)

I tried to address it on my own -- removing my "tools" from the bathroom, cutting my nails short, wearing gloves to bed, covering my mirrors.  I even tried hypnosis mp3s.  But doing those things never really got to the heart of what was going on.  There was something inside of me (emotions) that were buried under the surface.  The picking was just a coping mechanism for dealing the emotions, or having an emotion (guilt, shame, horror) that was more readily accessible. 

I've been to a cognitive-behavioral therapist to help me stop skin picking.   Though after I first told the story, he told me he had never heard of anything like it (part Munchausen by Proxy, part grooming gone too far).  The first step is that I had to realize (and eventually forgive) that what my mom did was not out of care, but was an extension of her own anxiety disorders (agoraphobia with panic attacks).  The second step was me cultivating the ability to stop, which was threefold:  (a) acknowledging when it happened; (b) wanting to stop; and (c) developing coping mechanisms to help ease the anxiety.

After a year of twice-a-week therapy, the picking had tapered off, but was still present in times of duress.  During one session, I had barely sat down before I started bawling -- saying "I think it's time to talk about medication."  It was the point I didn't want to reach.  The night before I had spent a good hour scrutinizing my face, crying the whole time, wanting to stop but unable.  I hated what I was doing to myself.

I tried a few different SSRIs with a specific purpose:  alleviate the anxiety long enough to deal with the emotions, then get the fuck off the SSRIs.   One kind made me shake constantly.  Another gave me migraines.  One made me lethargic to the point of barely being able to get out of bed.  After discussing it with my doctor (who proscribed the pills) and my psychologist, I ended my foray into medicating my problems (as it was right for me -- though I will not judge people who find relief -- just wish I had been one).

About the same time, I had started reading Thich Nhat Hanh at the recommendation of a coworker.  I started with Being Peace and moved on to other volumes of his (such as Anger).  He often repeats a familiar story, a story I needed to hear:
Thay [Vietnamese for "teacher"] often compares our anger to a small child, crying out to his mother. When the child cries the mother takes him gently in her arms and listens and observes carefully to find out what is wrong. The loving action of holding her child with her tenderness, already soothes the baby’s suffering. Likewise, we can take our anger in our loving arms and right away we will feel a relief. We don’t need to reject our anger. It is a part of us that needs our love and deep listening just as a baby does.

After the baby has calmed down, the mother can feel if the baby has a fever or needs a change of diaper. When we feel calm and cool, we too can look deeply at our anger and see clearly the conditions allowing our anger to rise.

It was the permission I needed to actually feel what I was feeling.  For too long, I had been expressing my anger, hurt, confusion, abandonment by hurting myself -- either with food or with skin picking.  Here, I very clearly understood that all emotions (not just anger, and not just the positive emotions) have their place, have their time, and have their own needs.

What I learned was almost like the difference in Spanish between "soy" and "estoy" -- the former being more about identity and the latter being more transitory (i.e. estoy borracha means "I am drunk"; soy borracha means "I am a drunk").  I learned that I could be angry without being anger itself.  I could feel hurt without being mortally wounded.  I could let those feelings exist and not feel like they were steering the ship.

I still skin pick in times of extreme anxiety, insecurity, or duress.  But I stopped judging myself about it.  I didn't do it because I was weak or lacked control.  Something took me out of the moment, got me off balance.  I stop when I can, and always go back to ask myself "okay, what's really going on here?" All too often I'm looking for something to be wrong, something to pick at as a distraction from feeling negative emotions.

If I can stand at the mirror, catch myself scrutinizing, and say "Insecure" or "Anxious" -- I am practicing the dharma.  I'm inviting Mara to tea.  I'm acknowledging that I see or feel the insecurity, doubt, or anxiety.  I invite those feelings in and hold them a while until they pass.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.  But the journey of a bodhisattva is one of practice and forgiveness.

To quote Jack Kornfield:
In the end, forgiveness simply means never putting another person out of our heart.
 And yes, that means our very own self as well.  We must inhabit our own heart in a meaningful way -- it is vast and accommodating of even your worst mood or emotion.  Jack Kornfield later goes on to suggest a meditation on forgiving one's self:
Just as I have caused suffering to others, there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself.  I have betrayed or abandoned myself many times in thought, word, deed, knowingly or unknowingly. 
Feel your own precious body and life.  Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself.  Picture them, remember them.  Feel the sorrow you have carried from this and sense that you can release these burdens [my emphasis]. Extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one.  Repeat to yourself:  "For the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, or confusion, I now extend a full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself. I forgive myself." 
Or to quote the Buddha himself:

You can search the whole universe
and not find a single being
more worthy of love than yourself.

Since each and every person
is so precious to themselves,
let the self-respecting
harm no other being.

I forgive myself.  I forgive myself......
I am loveable.  I am worthy of love. 

[Side note to all of this -- for as hard as it has been for me to go through this, I personally know of three people now that suffer from this.  I know just how hard it is to put a brave face in light of something that is very misunderstood (no, we don't have acne or rosacea)It breaks my heart to know other people suffer from dermatillomania, especially people I love and care about so much.  But I don't think I could have written this without knowing I'm not alone.  So thank you for being brave enough and trusting enough to share your personal stories with me. <3 <3 <3]


If it makes you feel any better, I pick the skin on my fingers (not just hangnails), I pull out my hair, bite my nails and I scratch my scalp until it bleeds when I am feeling anxious or stressed.

And it's all gotten worse all because I am working on NOT biting my fingernails...


You are not alone.

Also, my birth mom LOVES to pop zits and even when my Grandpa gets BOILS... she pops those too.


FAB: people do weird and fucked up things, eh? And I do the whole skin-around-the nail thing too -- usually just in the winter, though. The worst part is how mindlessly we do it. It's habit.

And your birth mom.... wow... that's gross.


I love these moments of clarity. They're so important.


Thank you for sharing this, with us. I have a generalized anxiety and finally found a medication that helps with the anxiety induced insomnia, which is my worst symptom. Most people don't understand this or how an anxiety disorder effects your life. I too need to learn to forgive myself as well.


Whoa...you just described me. My mother did the very same thing! She is a picker, as well. I have thought about blogging about this very issue but haven't...not sure why. At one time my picking was very bad and I had huge scabs all over my shins (and I am realizing that I was at my very heaviest when this was going on). I think they started from mosquito bites that I then scratched and they got worse and worse. I can't stand the feeling of a scab and just have to pick it.

And then, of course, there's my face...I can't stand seeing blackheads and pimples and they must be removed, gotten rid of, excised...at all costs.

It's only been recently that I've connected this behavior to anxiety...things I used to do to numb my anxiety (eat, drink to excess) I can't really do any more and so my anxiety seems to be worse. I am seeing a therapist and am considering asking for medication.

But in the end, it is forgiveness and self-acceptance that heals us...I know that to be true for other things, so why not this?


LFB: I think before the clarity, there's a whole lot of resistance and fear. Making it public seems easy in comparison.

Jennnnnnifer: Anxiety is a bitch. I kinda touched on it in a different entry, but I'm deeply offended that fear and anxiety has decided I'm hospitable. I mean, look at us -- we are awesome. Why do qe quiver?

KareBear: OMG what is it with our mothers? Ugh!! So make that 4 people I know that suffer from this. It's absolutely horrible. I mean after I wrote the post I went and popped a pimple, looked at myself in the eye and said "Seriously, WTF?"

I think the hard part about stopping is the whole "well, who am I hurting" mentality. We see the open wounds heal time and time again. So, why not? But we forget all the times that our picking leaves a scar.


Thank you Robby for being so brave to talk about this. This post really brought me to tears. It was something I needed to read as it made me think of the things I do instead of feeling my feelings and how I need to work on those things to succeed in my journey.


Bambi, dear -- I didn't mean to make you cry! But I hope you can turn those tears into happy ones. The ability to feel your feelings and have them validated is liberating. The people who truly love and support you will give you a safe space to feel them without fear. Even if you just start blogging (I have a separate journal for private stuff) get the words and feelings outside of your body. Don't let them poison your life.


Thank you for sharing! You hit the nail on the head - the most important thing anyone with any disorder can do is love and forgive themselves. None of us are perfect right? xx


Robby, thank you for sharing this with us. It is very touching and has opened my eyes to some of the things that I may be doing that I had never thought of in this capacity. I am glad that you have learned to forgive yourself....thank you.


ACB -- I hope it helps :P
If we can forgive ourselves just a little bit each day, it eventually adds up to forgiving ourselves a lot over time.


Oh my word! I've been doing it since I was a teenager. I knew it was a bad habit, but I never connected the dots and looked for an emotional component to this. No, let me clarify. I have realized that when I look in the mirror, I am always looking for blemishes, instead of loving myself unconditionally. This is so interesting!


Hanlie -- there's most definitely an emotional component to this. For most skin pickers, it is an anxiety disorder. What might've started out as normal grooming takes an unexpected turn for the worse when it is used to help numb/placate/dissociate from other emotions.


Where to start...It is the first post I read from you, but it seems like we'we been through a lot of the same things. My mom used to pop my dad's pimple, and scratch her arms and legs to the blood. I always picked on my face, really hard when you've got a big case of acne. And I've been dealing with trich (eyebrows, pubic air and legs) for years before I discover there was actually a term for this and wasn't alone. But you are right, you can get out of there, and sometime, we need to visit it when it is too hard. It is funny how Thich Nhat Hanh and this particular story also helped me a lot to conquer trich and my depression.
Good luck on your journey, you are a beautiful writer and I'll definitely come back here!


Scratcher and nail biter. I always just feel itchy, like I can't just be comfortable in my own skin. Its when I am just sitting, existing and not allowing my brain to rest. My body always feels like it needs to be doing something.
I have diagnosed OCD so I know there is a connection with emotions and anxiety. I'm on an SSRI and I'd much rather just have therapy. Working on yourself alone is tough. I'm reading Surviving a Borderline Parent right now. My mother was always cleaning out my ears when I was a kid, always. She was more of a "no man's going to love you if you're fat hun" pusher, always with the verbal crap. She put me on a diet at an early age. I guess the scratching and picking was an outlet. Still is.
A big sigh of "I'm not alone!" :)


Mylene -- trich, dermatillomania, cutting, they're all anxiety disorders. Some people like to call them body dysmorphic, but the more i think about it, the more I think that's wrong. It's not about not liking our hair and skin, it's about not having a healthy outlet. I'm glad that you've found relief for both your trich and depression <3

Christa -- you can fidget without being destructive. I think that's how people started to realize that spoons could be musical :P I tried three SSRIs but each one gave me a horrible side effect (migraines, racing heart, lost appetite). I stayed with each long enough to know they weren't for me and got to the same point you were at -- that I'd rather just not be on them. Cognitive/Behavioral psychology helped a bit, but the bottom line is that when I'm happy and mindful, I just don't do it. When i'm stressed out and depressed I do. No big secret there.

I think parents really need to realize the damage they can do to their kids in the spirit of being helpful.


I know that my parenting has been dramatically effected by how my mother framed things.


You know, my mom used to do the same thing. I have a form of keritosis on my upper arms (which I can never remember the name of) the presents itself as pimples, and I pick at them all the time. I remember sitting on the couch with my mom when I was little and she'd just reach over and start picking at my arm. Sometimes I tried to stop her, sometimes I didn't. I pick at my face too.

It may sound odd, but I've honestly never thought of it as an emotional problem until I read this. I didn't know it was a condition, something that had a name all to itself. It was just something I did, something physical, because there's something *physically* wrong with me.

On the other hand, I have often thought that perhaps if I "clean up" my diet (no idea what that means, specifically, even though it's my thought) that perhaps my skin will clear up as well.

But, just as I have believed all along with regards to being overweight, the physical part is just a symptom. The real problem is in our head, in our emotions.

Thank you for opening my eyes to this. Perhaps now I'll be able to find a way to deal with it.


Elisha--I don't think parents always pick their kids' skin for emotional reasons -- it might be some weird grooming behavior. But for people that have dermatillomania, it's usually associated with anxiety of some sort. There are people who sometimes pick their skin with no emotional component, and I'd venture to say that their behavior isn't related to anxiety/OCD, it is weird grooming.

Just take note when you do it -- and what your emotional landscape is. For people with dermatillomania there doesn't need to be something physically wrong (a pimple, scar, ingrown hair, etc.); they can create something wrong (i.e., by digging, pinching, etc.).


I exclaim in a quiet voice, to interrupt what I'm doing, "HALT, YOU F'IN SOB!"

This is a mnemonic technique for me to then ask myself,

Ashamed can be added to the list, too.

This is part of the Emotional Toolkit I developed to emerge from this devastating habit.

Our body doesn't like for us to rupture again and again our largest, and critically protective organ.

See the Toolkit at PowerSourceUnlimited.com


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<3 Robby