I’ve Picked My Skin for Over 20 Years: Here’s What I’ve Learned

by Emma Michelle Williams

For the majority of my life, picking my skin has been a major issue. Whilst the sensation of picking is, for the most part, therapeutic, the aftermath is quite different. 

Over the years, my mind has subscribed to the unwavering belief that if I can remove every single hard surface from my face, I’ll have the smoothest, clearest skin in the world. Of course, when I am faced with the reality that I have in fact achieved the complete opposite, I am riddled with overwhelming guilt, shame and self-loathing. 

At this point, I magically enter a state of self-care mania; a costly and timely experience I endure most days. I’ll whip out my healing clay, rinse, dry, tone, cleanse, double cleanse, grab the rosehip oil, roll, spritz, ferociously wave my hands to air dry my face and then fight the urge to start picking all over again. 

This exhausting cycle is painful, but I’m addicted to it. 

In recent years, my skin-picking has caused me to step away from my social life, largely because I can’t predict how much I would have picked during the time leading up to any event. Can I trust the latest full coverage foundation will do me right on the night? Will I spend two hours achieving my full coverage to suddenly find myself bleeding in front of the mirror once again as I’ve unknowingly entered a trance where I begin to pick? Most likely. Will I search the freezer for an ice pack as my face swells from obsessing over blemishes that exist only in my mind – very likely. Yet with all the therapy, skincare and EFT techniques in the world  – I have not yet been able to stop picking. 

So what the f*** is with all the picking and why can’t I stop? 

Skin Picking disorder, also called Dermatillomania or Excoriation Disorder is where a person cannot stop picking at their skin. It’s related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and can be triggered by boredom, stress, anxiety or negative emotions such as guilt or shame. For me, my skin picking is closely linked to my Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

It would actually be easier for me to sit and write ‘5 Ways to Stop Picking’ or share my ‘5 Fave Skin Care Tips for Skin Pickers’ in a desperate attempt to deny myself the biggest truth I’m terrified of realising – but honestly, I’ve come to realise that the very thing I need in order to help myself stop picking, is, quite possibly, the very same thing that triggers my desire to pick and it’s largely to do with being vulnerable.

Vulnerability, for me, has long been something I’ve avoided. It sits comfortably, hidden in the cracks of my quiet moments, the moments I have to myself – the moments I usually prefer to avoid. According to my therapist, avoidance is totally my thing and therefore, vulnerability is totally not.

Researcher Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is about having the courage to show up and be seen”, for someone who picks their skin, chronically despises the way they look and experiences relentless social anxiety as a result, this feels near impossible to achieve. Those of us who live with Body Dysmorphic Disorder find it incredibly hard to show up as we quite literally experience a chronic desire to stay away, hiding our perceived flaws. However, after watching Brene’s The Call To Courage on Netflix, I felt encouraged and have since been desperately searching for small ways to show up for my life. 

The correlation between showing up and learning how to stop picking has become refreshingly evident to me. I’ve realised that being seen, being truly seen, is to be vulnerable enough to authentically show up for life and accept that failure may await me – and that’s okay. Skin-picking has been a successful mask I wear to stop people from truly seeing me (or judging me), just because the real me doesn’t feel like she’s ever enough. A freshly picked face somehow offers a buffer for me, just in case I fail when I do show up. The thought of being judged for my skin picking is somehow less anxiety-provoking than being judged for who I truly am, and my Body Dysmorphia will have me believe that who I truly am, is vile and should be hidden away. 

The fear of failure is something that has long anchored me to staying safe for most of my life and for the longest time I’ve needed that. As I slowly learn that failure should be welcomed and not feared, I recognise the power in allowing myself the opportunity to show up, perceived flaws n all. 

I won’t lie to you, the thought of ‘showing up in the arena’ fills me with the anxiety I spend most of my life trying to shift elsewhere, but here’s what I’ve learned; if I can master the art of sitting in my quiet moments to welcome my vulnerabilities, perhaps there is room for me to accept that where there is vulnerability, there is truth, and perhaps it is that truth that will finally set me free.

Sidenote: I totally picked my face the entire way through writing this and by no means offer the idea that being vulnerable will “cure” a skin picking disorder. Whilst I’m here, I’d also like to apologise for the cringe, non-smiling selfies (SO awks) in the title image above but felt the contrast was important to show for those who have no idea how intense skin picking really is.  

If you are struggling with skin picking, some of the following resources may be helpful for you to check out: The TLC Foundation for body-focused repetitive behavioursPickingme.org and The BDD Foundation

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