True Story: I Can’t Stop Picking At My Skin

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things.  This is the story of Sara and her struggle to overcome her habit of compulsively picking at her skin.


Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m 27 and live near Manchester, England. I work in a special school helping teenagers with learning disabilities to communicate; it’s insanely rewarding and tends to spill over into my personal life, with volunteering and study. I’m a old fashioned girl; my favorite things to do are drinking tea with my friends, sewing, reading & caring for my pet chickens! I’m also a total clothes junkie; I’m a Style Icon on Chictopia and write & take photos for my blog.

How did this disorder start?

It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. I grew up with a mother with massive untreated mental health problems, and was a very anxious child. One of her quirks was to always keep the house cold, and I can remember lying in bed each night picking the goosebumps off my legs.  It gradually grew more serious and pervasive as I grew older, and as life got more complicated.

What exactly do you do?  And how does it make you feel?
I use my fingernails to scrape and dig at my skin. It often starts with something normal like an insect bite or an ingrown hair; I pick at that, then I want to pick more. Even if there’s nothing else to scrape at, I’ll find something. Any unevenness of skin texture or tone becomes a ‘flaw’ and I have to remove it. In my head, I’m removing the problem and creating super-smooth, flawless skin. Obviously in the real world, I’m making scabs and sores, and the next day they’re bigger and uglier, and I feel the need to pick at them all over again.

Once an area has my attention, I’ll pick at it more and more, sometimes using tweezers or manicure tools. Sometimes I will spend several hours a day picking, and so it very quickly becomes a vicious cycle that never heals. I’ll usually have one area I’m struggling with at any one time, and then I’ll find a ‘flaw’ somewhere else and the focus suddenly shifts. An area I’m picking at very quickly begins to looks like a really bad case of chicken pox.

It’s something I do on a semi-conscious level.  Usually I don’t know I’m doing it – I’ll be watching TV or reading a book and recognize the stickiness of blood on my fingers.  Other times I will notice I’m doing it but can’t stop, because I know I’m not ‘finished’. There’s definitely a compulsive aspect to it, and medical professionals link skin-picking to OCD and Trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling) for this reason.

Even though it’s gross and it hurts, I find it incredibly calming and soothing. I can almost be trance-like when I am picking, and lose track of all time.

Unfortunately, eventually that feeling fades, and I’m left with horrible ugly, scarred, painful skin and huge feelings of regret.

Have you sought treatment? Has any treatment been effective for you?
I take medication to manage my anxiety, have had a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I’m also on the NHS waiting list for psychotherapy to address some underlying issues. At the moment I don’t think I have my symptoms completely under control, and find myself compulsively picking whenever I’m feeling anxious.

Do the people in your life know about this?  How do they react to it?
The people closest to me know and accept it – we can even laugh about it! My boyfriend hates it, but tries hard to understand.  A surprising number of my female friends can relate; picking at  ingrowing hairs in particular seems to be a past-time for a lot of girls, and what I do is sort of just an over-extension of that.
Sometimes my friends or boyfriend will ask me to ‘just stop’, and I really wish I could. The best analogy I can think of is good posture; you know why you should sit up straight, you don’t want to slouch, but you can only hold yourself in that unnaturally upright position for as long as you think about it. As soon as you’re distracted or relax, the old habits sneak back in.

How does this affect your life on a daily basis?
The most difficult thing is trying to keep it under control when I’m in public. If I’m feeling anxious, the urge will creep up on me unnoticed. Sometimes I’ll be in a meeting at work, or in a cafe having lunch, and realize I’ve been picking in front of everyone for the last half hour. Awkward.
I’m often sore, have some scarring, and sometimes have to dress around it, but mostly I’m just frustrated that it is so beyond my control. I love to look my best; I spend so much time and money on my clothes and makeup, I run and eat healthily and keep in shape, and then I do this mindless thing that defaces my body and harms my self esteem. It’s a constant tug-of-war inside of me and it’s hard when there’s only yourself to blame.

That advice would you give to others who are struggling with issues like these?
Look after your skin – regular exfoliation and moisturizing can limit the ‘pickability’ of your skin and stop you damaging it.

Identify the times when you are picking, and try to occupy your hands in other ways.

Keep problem areas covered up with tight clothes if possible, to try and limit ‘accessibility’.

Most of all, speak to your doctor. It’s way more common than you think, and you deserve to be free of it!

Any questions for Sara?  Do any of your struggle with something similar?

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  1. Han

    Thank you for sharing with us – I know it takes guts to stand up and say this is what I do – I don't always know why but I do it.

    I send you a hug!

    I did this on my leg – I have a scar on the shin of my right leg now where there was a spot or something and now there's a scar instead. I used to get like bobbles on my knees and elbows and I'd pick at them.

    I'm the worst for picking at scabs or squeezing spots. I have a prominent birth mark/mole on the side of my knee – I was convinced at one point that if I picked at it enough eventually it would turn to a scab and then heal over as normal skin – now I'm 25 and it's still there. I'm sure if I was that worried about it I could see my doctor and get it removed but for now it's there – most days I don't think about it (then again I have managed to cut the top off it while shaving – not so good!)

  2. penn

    Yes, thanks for sharing. I used to pick my face a lot, and I would joke about having smallpox for all the scabs I put on there. I really regret it now — luckily, I still have pretty good skin, but my skin was great in high school. I picked at the few blemishes I did have (and maybe even invented some). My picking was also a response to anxiety.

    I picked a lot less in college, but I started again in grad school. What finally helped me was therapy plus a picking detox. I gave up picking for Lent, and I journaled about my stresses every time I had the urge to pick. Now, every once in awhile (like, when I have a real blemish), I might pick a little, but I am tons better. I wish you good luck on your process of healing!

  3. Little redhead

    That must be really difficult to deal with, I can imagine it's really hard to stop, it's just something that you do automatically. I do something similar to my nailbeds, when there's a bit of skin lose or other irregularities I'll pick and pick at it, leaving my nailbeds red and sometimes bleeding when I go too far. When it starts healing, I pick at the scabs. Happens mostly when I'm nervous or anxious. I've tried to stop, but it's easier said than done!

  4. Chelle Lynn

    Wow, I didn't think anyone else did this. My case isn't nearly as severe, but I've always picked my cuticles and scabs. If there is any bit of dryness or flakiness, I will pick at it, often unconsciously. Sometimes when I am anxious (I struggle with anxiety as well), I will pick even when there isn't anything to pick. I've often not noticed until I'm bleeding profusely. As I've gotten older, I've been able to control it much better, but I still sometimes can't keep from picking at large scabs and have given myself some crazy nasty scars.

    Thanks so much for sharing, I with you the best in developing the control you seek!

  5. Rachael

    I had a pretty severe case of picking when I was a kid and dealing with a lot of health (unrelated problems) that made me very anxious. My legs still get comments on them about the "old chicken pox scars" that are really insect bites that I had picked obsessively when I was a kid. I remember being in class and picking at them so badly my socks would grow bloody and I'd have to go to the nurse. It was that bad. Luckily over time I seem to have overcome most of it but I still struggle to stop biting my nails!

    Thanks for sharing your story, I think so many people can relate 🙂

  6. Lorra Fae

    Yep, pretty much my whole life I've dealt with this.

    The only thing that worked was changing my diet DRASTICALLY – this changed my moods/anxiety so much that the urge to pick went away – mostly – I went from 1/2 hour+ a day down to maybe 10 seconds a WEEK of picking – I would only do it if there was something really visible, I wouldn't go searching for more.

    It has come back again lately but that is because my depression has come back a bit – I am diet treating again and my urge to pick is subsiding yet again. Also my skin looks better when I eat this way so there is less to pick at.

    I remember when I first found out other people do this and that there is a NAME for it – it was relieving. I always thought I was some disgusting freak – it's nice to know that other people struggle with it, too.

    • Anonymous

      How did you change your diet?

  7. Lorena

    I had heard of the hair pulling disorder but not about this one.
    I have friend who is always, ALWAYS picking her scabs and they never heal. She has some on her head and they are permanent, she picks them everyday.
    AND i am not joking, if she does not have or is done picking her scabs and sees you have one, she will go for it.
    Now that I think of it maybe she has a problem that needs to be treated.

  8. Caroline

    I can relate so much! I used to have lovely skin in high school but somehow my hormones got out of control when got into college and that mixed with the stresso and anxiety made an awful combo.
    Now I have the cheeks of a person who must have had severe acne during her whole life and I don't know how to handle it. However, I'm picking less and less as time goes by.

  9. Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing your story! I am a compulsive skin picker as well and am embarrassed by it but cannot stop. I have never talked to anyone about it and never really thought about it as an actual compulsion just constantly wish I would not do it. You sharing your story is very helpful to me in identifying what I am doing and I want to see if I can get help to over come it as well.

  10. Anonymous

    I have the same issue, along with other compulsion issues. Mainly I pick my face, my right upper arm and my back. If there are any irregularities (i.e. dryness, pimples, bumps, etc) then I will pick at it…and pick at it…and pick at it. It is mostly subconscious. I find myself doing it while I'm otherwise distracted (at work or in the car) but anxiety is a huge factor. I believe the key to stopping lies with dealing with anxiety in healthier ways. I have yet to manage that, however. Thanks for an article that brings this issue to light.

  11. Samarkand

    I have the same problem, but not to that degree. I try to not pick at my face and rather pick places I can cover up. It's not a solution, but it's better.

  12. Haddock

    That is a difficult situation.

  13. Anonymous

    I am so pleased right now that I stumbled across your story.
    I can't believe I am going to admit this but I pick my skin and I had no idea any one else would do this. It has been a horrible secret of mine for a long time and I can not explain how relieved I am now I know I am not the only one.
    I know I shouldn't do it but it gives me such a sense of calmness. I don't know how to stop but I will keep trying.

  14. Anonymous

    Ah, dermatillomania! I'm a 'trichster' (trichotillomania) by myself. It's weird because certain levels of skin-picking and hair-pulling are considered acceptable, so people feel they can relate (and maybe they can?). But one of the worst things is spending hours telling yourself not to pull/pick…and you just can't not.

    And "I'm also on the NHS waiting list for psychotherapy to address some underlying issues" that breaks my heart. Waiting to have mental issues addressed sounds awful.

  15. Lib

    Sara, I salute you for sharing this. I've had a pretty severe case of skin-picking since I was a pre-teen (I'm 30 now), and I always felt like a freak (it didn't help that other people didn't seem to have heard of this disorder, including my psychologist). When I finally looked online a few years ago and discovered how many other people do this, I cried for an hour with relief. I particularly recommend as an online support group and resource.
    I also go through the "trance" mode and have scars all over my body; I've managed to stop for short intervals, but being under stress frequently, I always regress and feel pretty crummy afterwards. I'm very lucky to have found a husband who, though he wishes I didn't hurt myself, accepts me as I am and gives me love and support after I've been picking.
    And I relate to the awkwardness of discovering you've been picking in public. I try to keep my hands occupied, but somehow I always go back to picking at something, usually my scalp or my face (since these are the areas most exposed).
    Anyway, good luck in your struggle with picking! And kudos for speaking out about it.

  16. Meredith

    I appreciated the honesty in this post. I have an issue somewhat related to Trichotillomania – just, instead of pulling the hair out at the root, I compulsively break off my split ends. My hair keeps getting shorter and looking more and more damaged, but I can't stop. I too have people that tell me to "just quit". We all know if it was that easy, we would. I struggle with how something that is harming my looks and damaging my self-esteem is so hard to stop. It is just that habit I cannot break. Believe me, I want to, and I do continue to try. The most helpful advice I have found is similar to what you mentioned. If I notice I am doing it, I consciously tell myself to stop, and try to find another way to occupy my hand. I wish you well, and just want to let you know you are not alone, Sara. Hang in there!

  17. Kate

    I'm so relieved to read this. I have a picking problem but I guess I didn't know it. For years, since I was a girl, I've picked at my feet. My mother and I have always had dry feet, so I think it's in the genes somehow, but when I get dry skin on my toes or heels, I will pick at it trying to pull off dry skin. Sometimes I will peel off almost my entire heel and then it hurts to walk because they are sensitive and sometimes bleeding. It's really embarrassing and I've never told my friends or family about it. This is so "first world problems" but when I go to get a pedicure, the woman working will always ask me out loud why my feet are so cut up, and I lie and say I must have stepped on something sharp. Over the past year I've really tried to stop by — kinda gross — putting vaseline on my heels and then wearing socks as often as possible. However, i slip up when I'm stressed and sitting at my computer with my legs crossed.. sometimes even taking nail clippers to my skin.
    Anyway, it feels like therapy to type it all out, so thank you for your courage in sharing this story. I know I'm not alone!

  18. Mel

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am also a compulsive skin picker. I'm trying to get better, but sometimes I cannot help it. I also can relate to the trance like state. I find that watching my diet and focusing on other things like planning my work out helps. Thanks for the tips!

  19. Crystal

    I am a 35 y/o w/f married and have 2 children. I can't tell you when I started picking because I have done it so long. When I was a small child my parents were
    neglectful and my mother to had mental issues she would never recieve TX for and was a cleaning addict. I am not sure how it started but like I said before I have done this for as long as I can remember. I can be sitting or laying thinking of the days work and not even know contiously that I am picking until I feel the blood pooring from my skin most of the time its the back of my arms my thighs or my bottom all there has to be is the slightest dry spot in my skin or rise of the skin and Ill pick at it until it becomes a huge hole. Then the next day I will pick again or when I don't even realize I'm doing it. I even do it to my husband who I must say is a wonderful man and trys very hard to help me. I will not even realize I'm doing it while rubbing his back or arm I will fill a flaw in the skin and go into a trans like state of mind and start picking and dont even realize I'm doing it until he says that hurts stop it. I have even woke myself from sleep picking at spots. I have had my bottom so sore I could hardly sit on it. It looks as if I have been shot with buck shot or have chicken poxs as mentioned above. I had no clue there were other who had the same problems nor did I know there was a diagnosis for it. I take anxiety and depression meds. I to have never shared it with anyone but my husband. I have been to ashamed to tell my doctor or let alone show him as I am a nurse and work for my doctor. Thank you for sharing and being so brave. How do you stop something you don't even realize you are doing its like being addicted to something. I don't understand how my mind seperates from the pain of the digging a hole in my body then the next day I'm beating myself up "why do i keep doing this to myself" I know the health issues that run hand and hand with skin infectons and still can not stop this self mutilating thing I do. Good luck to all.

  20. Anonymous

    I have the same problem, I feel this deep deep anxiety on my chest and it only leaves when I'm picking. I had to stop my fibers because people were noticing so now I do my heels, often I will have to tear through normal skin because it is uneven with the new skin growing back. I can't walk on my heels now and often leave bloodstains in my shoes from it. I cannot stop, I'll spend hours unable to tear myself away from it. Is this anxiety or OCD? What's wrong with me?

  21. Anonymous

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