March 11, 2020

A Picker's Perspective On Self-Picking Behavior During The Corona Virus Pandemic

Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are all well and staying safe.  This month's post is intended as a follow-on from my previous post about how to fidget and 'get away with it", albeit with a twist to reflect the growing concern around the corona virus.  Quite understandably, there have been numerous articles with suggestions about how to limit being vulnerable to acquiring the illness, not to mention the hundreds about being a vector for the disease.  Many of these articles have a focus on limiting touching parts of the body, particularly the face, which are quite reasonable and valid.  While I fully support, and actively encourage these practices, as an inveterate self-picker, it is my hope that this month's post will provide A SELF-PICKER's PERSPECTIVE and bring some attention to some of the more significant challenges likely faced by self-pickers in their efforts to adapt their behavior to the demands of the times.   I also hope it will help increase empathy around this particularly physical fidgeting behavior.

      Before getting into suggestions for how to work with picking instead of against it, it may be helpful to explain it in "everyman" words.  Quite simply picking is a physical action where the hands are used to grab onto an object and by applying force in the opposite direction (pulling, tugging, rending, tearing, etc.) seek to remove the object from what it is attached to.  A self-picker, such as myself is someone who picks at their skin, hair, nose, or other part of the body.  Self-picking is considered to be a fidgeting behavior because of its repetitive motion and use during times of assumed discomfort.

      Historically, self-picking has been viewed as a very observable and destructive behavior with no foreseeable goal except futile repetition.  The idea of using one's hands to destroy their skin or hair has historically been viewed as aberrant ie. socially inappropriate to the point where those who picked at themselves were stereotyped as "spazzers" or having some form of severe mental defect.  While, self-picking may seem random and pointlessly repetitive, there are many reasons why we pick and even more so, why WE HAVE DELIBERATELY CHOSEN TO PICK, instead of utilizing other behavior alternatives.  You may end up being surprised at the complexity behind our behaviors


NOTHING BETTER-The vast majority of us self-pickers DO NOT PICK BECAUSE WE ENJOY PICKING AT OURSELVES.  We often do not believe we have suitable alternatives to picking; in fact most of us have relied on self-picking since a very young age.  We made the association early on between self-picking and relief from any number of symptoms that it was quickly reinforced.  I pick because it meets my sensory and mental/emotional regulatory needs during high stress/high energy times.  Self-picking has happened to be the most effective tool I have historically had available throughout my younger life, especially since behavior alternatives did not provide the necessary wrap-around relief to meet my different needs. 
Just like when behavior plans don't work, picking alternatives are most effective when they provide a way to get the same rewards while also meeting a goal.  Often times the alternatives to picking and fidgeting do not provide all the components of relief we get by engaging in self-picking.  For many of us, I myself included, self-picking ended up being the replacement behavior for more visibly obvious behaviors such as hitting, tantruming, making noises, random movements, etc. that often resulted in our shaming because of their social inappropriateness.  In a way you might say that a big (not all) aspect of self-picking, in all its ferocity, is a result of being driven to conceal what was the most effective way to release emotion.

IT IS EASY-first, foremost, and so far not acknowledged in any of the articles about encouraging less frequent face/body touching.  Self-picking does not require multiple steps to engage in as would be involved in reaching for a stress ball or other object.  We are our own source of relief, self-contained Swiss Army Knife of self-soothing.

IT IS QUICK-Many self-pickers struggle with impulsivity, often times because we also have some other diagnosis associated with picking behaviors such as severe ADHD, anxiety, and/or depression.  Our impulsivity is not only rewarded with a quick solution, but it gets reinforced, especially when we get such quick relief for the symptoms we are seeking to alleviate by picking.  This is especially true for us who perceive blemishes or "aberrant parts" that feed into illusions of control, when we perceive we have none, and need to be removed.

UNCONSCIOUS-I am usually not aware I am picking until I either hit some form of physical resistance or I happen to see myself picking.  Picking has been so ingrained into my brain that, even though I have effective alternatives now, I go to it first out of habit.

REWARDING (NOT NECESSARILY POSITIVE)-Self-picking provides sensory stimulation to many parts of the body, particularly to the parts doing the picking and those being picked.  Picking can be ruminative (repetitive) and as such not only the physical input we are receiving through our skin, but the repetition of the behavior creates a consistent and controllable flow of sensory input.  Also, it is a quick way to distract oneself or avoid negative emotions.  Self-picking is a repetitive cycle.

ILLUSION OF CONTROL-As a self-picker, with severe ADHD and social anxiety to boot, being out of control whether by anxiety or some other external situation outside of my control very dis-regulating, which itself can be extremely uncomfortable physically, emotionally, and mentally.  With picking I can control the speed, intensity, pressure, movements, and the physical sensations that come from picking.
Many of us also pick at ourselves when we are very anxious as a means of trying to control the disruptive anxiety that is coursing through us.  We may also engage in self-picking behaviors as an unconscious way of projecting our lack of control onto our physical selves to give the illusion that we have some control by how we interact with our bodies-picking and depression go hand in hand.

So what would self-picker me like for you to know when working with me and other self-pickers?  What do we want you to know about what's going on for us even though there is a pandemic being spread by transferring germs through touch?

DO NOT SHAME US! Self-picking may be largely unconscious but it is a behavior that most of us would not choose to have if we had other viable alternatives that actually worked.  Do not draw attention to our self-picking as if we are commenting a selfish crime fully knowing about how the corona virus is spread.  Again, many of us self-pick because we have been shamed into it from a very young age. 
With respect to getting us to become more "mindful" of our self-picking, paying attention to how many times we touch ourselves can serve the negative purpose of reinforcing that we are doing something wrong and that we have really weak self-control.  Not to mention the way negative terms like "impulsivity" and "lack of awareness" get roped into such self-examinations, there is the increased likelihood of identifying the behavior as "bad", and therefore a negative reflection on us.

CHANGE IS HARD!  It's all well and good to take into account how often we might touch ourselves, but actually doing something about it is extremely difficult.  Remember that self-pickers have had a life-time of learning that picking serves many purposes and meets many different needs.  It is impossible to simply decide that many years (in my case 34) can simply be pushed aside and overridden by adopting new techniques.  We need compassion and patience.  Even one less incident of picking on a less than consistent basis would be a victory, especially in the beginning, for a behavior that is as entrenched as it is.

PRIMARY NEEDS MUST BE MET FIRST!  When I get dis-regulated, whether by anxiety, or some other stressor, particularly those of a sensory nature, my first focus is going to be on getting myself back to center.  That does not mean that I have no regard for others or how my actions affect them.  Simply put, I am going to respond first to what is easiest and quickest to fix before going to the more complex stuff.  I am not capable of engaging higher level thought processes about cause and effect if my more basic biological needs are not met. 

PLEASE BE PATIENT!  The corona virus pandemic is very new to us and likely as anxiety/fear provoking for us as it is for you.  That will likely contribute to our becoming more dis-regulated and needing to utilize our self-picking as a regulating tool until we have found something that works as well and is more appropriate.  We are not self-picking to be willful or send a "screw you" message, despite what you might think after having told us a bunch of times to stop picking.  Remember we're being asked to change a particularly deep-seated behavior on short notice.

ALLOW US OUR FRUSTRATION!  We do want to comply.  We do not want to be targets for other peoples' negative reaction or bullied.  However, while we are working on changing the behavior and finding a replacement, we will get frustrated!  Allow us to experience it and share that experience.  You can rest assured that we will put ourselves under tremendous pressure to avoid further threats of shame.  We also want to be respectful and succeed despite the guaranteed numerous failures we will encounter along the way.  Those failures will contribute all the more to our own negative self-assessment; for those of us who already struggle with negative self-concept (which self-picking can be a strong indicator) these failures will be internalized and likely weaponized against ourselves.

REPLACEMENT ALTERNATIVES MUST MEET NEEDS!  As noted above the reasons why I pick are many and serve many important purposes simply beyond being an anxiety reducing behavior.  Replacement behaviors for self-picking need to be easy, quick to access, and capable of meeting not only extra energy needs, but sensory ones as well as emotional/mental needs.  For many of us, the underlying quilt of co-existing challenges requires us to utilize more than mindful meditation or another fidget.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  I hope it provides some insight into what goes on behind the scenes for a self-picker and what we need in order to be able to make changes.  Please check back soon for my next post, which will focus on self-picker identified behavior alternatives for picking behavior! 


  1. Another awesome angle on a current topic!

  2. This is a great article, Jonathan. Thank you. I'm sure it's helpful to many!

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