I have been sharing my view that hair pulling & skin picking are most like “addictions” for many years. I was not taken seriously by other professionals at first, but in recent years I’ve seen the term used more and more when other professionals talk about Body-Focused Repetitive Disorder (BFRD). In fact, TTM & Dermatillomaia fit the criteria of addiction quite well. Think about the way we respond to an addiction like substance abuse (food, drink, drugs). We develop a craving, we try to talk ourselves out of it by saying: You don’t really want to drink again, you’ll lose your job. Don’t eat that whole box of cookies, you’ll feel sick and diagusted. Don’t keep pulling your hair out, there won’t be any way to cover it up.
The addict in you rebels against this kind of feedback. You want to do it, and all the consequences you are thinking about happen in the long term. You feel bad NOW. Gaining weight or losing hair happens later. You just want to feel better. So finally you say, “Screw it. I don’t care about the consequences,” and we block out the fact that we missed work last time we drank, lost custody of our kids, took any number of actions that cause us shame, pain, financial loss or worse. You say, “I don’t care, I had a bad day and I’m going to do it.” Or “It doesn’t matter, I already ruined my hair, I’m already almost bald, That is how we give yourselves permission to pick or pull.
1) (Screw it.) It’s hopeless.
2) I don’t care
3) It doesn’t matter anyway.
And by convincing ourselves for just a few minutes that those lies are true, we rebel against what we really want. We pretend that we “don’t care” about pulling, that we’ve done so much damage it doesn’t matter if we pull or not, and finally we feel so hopeless about the idea of stopping forever, we don’t see the point in stopping NOW. (It’s quite similar to the process of procrastination which is often connected to BFRD behaviors: Denial, Delay (now we’ve waited so long it will never get done), Hopelessness)
Rather than trying to “FORCE” yourself to stop, the key is to understand and change the pattern of addictive thoughts. It doesn’t matter whether you are a picker who is aware that you are about to pick or a puller who has already pulled for ten minutes before you become aware of what you are doing. There will be a moment when you ARE aware of what you are doing and think to yourself: “I don’t care!” This thought comes in response to earlier thoughts like, You “shouldn’t” be doing this OR I can’t believe I’m doing this again. We think “I don’t care!” as a way to tell our inner bully to shut up, leave us alone & let us pull. Because let’s face it, pulling & picking are made less pleasurable when we simultaneously are attempting to shame ourselves for engaging in the behaviors. (And SHAME does not help one bit, of course.) So we say to ourselves by way of making the shame stop: I DON’T CARE! (In other words, leave me alone, Bully, I want to pull!)
The problem is we have dis-identified with the real reason we want to stop these behaviors, which is not that they are morally wrong or that we “shouldn’t” do them. Rather, it upsets us *THAT* we do them. And it is crucial to acknowledge that, but at the same time, not shame ourselves.
Here’s what I mean. See if you can become aware when you start to think to yourself: I don’t care! Once you do, apply what Mindfulness practice teaches us is the “observer” within and “note” the thought.
You: I don’t care
The Observer (You): Ah, there’s that addictive thought. Telling me I don’t care. Giving me permission to pull.
The problem is, you DO care. You care very much. If you didn’t, you sure as heck wouldn’t be reading this blog. You just want to forget that fact for a moment, an hour, two hours, so you can go to that familiar (and comforting) sense of “Numbness.”. So what I’m asking you to do here is this: DO NOT bully or shame yourself into stopping. (What are you DOING?! What’s wrong with you?! You’re “pathetic”!) But DO acknowledge that the behavior is causing you pain. The example I give to my clients is this: Imagine an alcoholic who is living in a one room apt. after having lost his (or her) share of custody with his kids. He has to get sober and stay sober for 6 mos to get the issue revisited. Six months seems like FOREVER. So every night, to numb the pain of not seeing his children, he pulls out a bottle of whisky. He may say, You moron, what are you doing? But he feels compelled to continue. So he takes the pictures of his kids and turns them around. Puts them away. It’s too painful to look at his kids. He’s already “blown it” he thinks.
Now I would tell that guy, Go ahead and drink. But do NOT put away the pics of your kids. At the same time, you don’t get to berate yourself for doing something you feel so compelled to do despite all it has cost you. What you do is this: You look at your kids and think to yourself, wow, this drinking has cost me a lot. And it’s not because I don’t care about my kids cause I do! How powerful this addiction must be if it makes me ignore what truly matters. Now this makes the drinking FAR less enjoyable & shifts this man’s thinking from “I’m shit. I’m a loser.” to “This is a serious problem & it’s costing a lot.” That latter voice we can call the “Supportive Friend.” The friend you can be to yourself. The friend who wants to HELP you, not SHAME you. It’s a completely different way of relating to the self.
Here’s how it translates for sufferers of TTM or Dermatillomania:
Your Inner Bully (You): Stop pulling you pathetic loser!
BFRB* Addict (You): I had a lousy day. I just don’t CARE right now!
NEW-Observer (You): Ah, there’s the inner addict trying to convince me I don’t care.
NEW-Supportive Friend (You): You know what? That’s not true. I DO care. I care very much. It causes me emotional pain to do this. It makes me feel bad about myself. I just want to acknowledge that.
Now at this point, I am not saying that you can (or should) instantly stop. Not at all. I am suggesting that you go ahead and pull or pick, while simultaneously acknowledging that you DO care. Not that you’re an idiot or weak or pathetic. Rather, that you are a human being who’s desire or urge to do this is so strong that it eclipses the fact that the behavior causes you so much pain. Now that’s a HARD spot to be in, and until you can empathize with yourself, you remain stuck in a cycle of Blame, Shame, Addictive Thought, Numbness, More Shame, Emptiness, Self-Hatred.
Please note that I am suggesting you tell yourself that you DO care, NOT because of hair loss or scarring but because you will feel bad about yourself. That’s very important. We all know how long it takes for hair to grow back or skin to heal. It takes so long it’s hard to feel motivated. That’s why it is crucial you motivate yourself based on how you feel about yourself. That can become your immediate payoff. And when you consider the crippling shame and self-hatred that appears sometime after a pulling or picking session, perhaps you can see that there is another kind of cost to this besides hair loss and skin scars. And when that can be replaced by actively telling yourself that you made an effort (even if the effort at first is just changing your thoughts), you will become a real support to yourself, a cheerleader, a caring friend and more able to continue on the path of recovery. A bully, a critic, a shaming, finger-wagging inner “bad parent” WILL NOT HELP YOU. That kind of thinking will tear down any efforts you make toward your goal. That kind of thinking SUPPORTS the addiction. And you do not deserve it, as one day you will surely know.
As I said for the “I don’t care” thought, the same goes for “It doesn’t matter,” and “It’s hopeless.” The thought “It doesn’t matter” is generally linked with the fact that you’ve done so much “damage” that it doesn’t matter if you do a little more. It’s the same irrational thinking behind, “I went off my diet and ate some cake! I ‘ruined’ everything. Well, I may as well eat everything in the house.” Because that makes sense, right? You ate an extra 500 calories so you may as well eat 5,000.
First of all, even when you break it down literally, I can tell you that it DOES matter. In the practical physical world, even though you may not see the difference right away, any lessened amount of pulling, (55 minutes and not an hour, 3 hours and not 4) is PROGRESS. And progress is what will help you reach your goal. But going back to my earlier point, it’s about shifting the focus in this moment away from what your hair or skin looks like and acknowledging that the shame and anger toward the self you feel is hurtful. It not only doesn’t help you pull less, it absolutely causes you to pull more. Please hear this: All attempts to attack, shame or SCARE you into less pulling or picking, whether done by you or someone else, do the OPPOSITE. Every “I can’t believe you’re doing that!” “Stop it, you’re making a mess of your face!” “Why can’t you.. STOP doing that??!!” and “What’s WRONG with you!!” will push you FURTHER from your goal. Please stop and think about that. You don’t want to “let yourself off the hook.” You falsely believe that loving yourself or, yes, accepting yourself, even while you are still pulling means you are “giving up” and just accepting this is how it is. That’s just plain wrong! Just like you love your kids even if you don’t love the behavior, just like you accept them (vs. rejecting them) when they make mistakes, so too you must accept yourself. Accepting and loving yourself NO MATTER WHAT is the ONLY way you’ll recover.
So you see, it does matter. New dialogue:
Inner Bully (You): Stop pulling! Stop picking! You’re pathetic.
BFRB* Addict (You): I’ve already messed up my hair (skin) so much it doesn’t matter anyway.
NEW- Observer (You): Ah, there’s the addict trying to snow me into believing it doesn’t matter.
NEW-Supportive Friend (You): You know what, it DOES matter. It matters because how you feel about yourself matters. It matters because it’s about small steps, and even if your skin or hair won’t shift right away, it will eventually if you take those small steps. And it MATTERS because this pulling or picking makes you feel like shit, and recovery only happens a moment at a time.
That same point must be made when recovery feels hopeless. One can imagine that that’s very much how someone who has 100 or more lbs to lose might feel. Because no matter what one does, change doesn’t come overnight. Also, you cannot stop pulling “FOREVER” all at once. You can only improve a little in each moment. Those moments will add up, and believe me, they can become a total cessation of pulling or picking, or a nearly total cessation of pulling or picking over time. But any efforts you do make must be made for TODAY only. Forever feels too big. Forever feels hopeless. Today (or even “right now”) need not feel hopeless. You will be able to DO today. And it’s ok if you can’t quite do that right now.
Changing the dialogue is the first step. Working on self-acceptance and self-love, letting go of negative reinforcement and focusing on positive reinforcement, that must be done before any other efforts are made.
And, NO, you won’t have to fight the urges forever. If you change your thinking and change your relationship with yourself so you can support yourself and love yourself through the process, the urges will start to subside. Just like with any addiction, the urges and the desire takes time to subside, and once in a while may show up out of the blue. That’s why you’ll need that “Supportive Friend” with you. The part of you that encourages you and believes in you, just as you do for your friends who aren’t you. Imagine if you could be as helpful to yourself as you are to others.
With practice, you will see that making just a little progress on this (which is all you CAN do) will eventually get you where you want to go. Just like a person who needs to lose 100 lbs. Yes, they won’t be where they want to be after a day or a week of progress toward healthy eating. But they will have taken a step. And it’s one step, then another, then another, and then maybe a step or two back. That’s how it goes. If you can find a way to accept that, if you can find a way to encourage yourself based on “progress not perfection” (AA), you CAN recover. If you continue to believe that it’s all at once or nothing, Your inner addict wants you to believe this so you will give in and pull or pick. Your inner bully wants to tell you it’s hopeless. But your inner Supportive Friend knows the truth. It’s one day at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time. It’s taking one small step and focusing only on what you can do, not what you cannot. THAT, I can tell you, is one of the most important things to know about the journey of recovery from BFRB*s. The second is, You CAN do it!
*BFRB = Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors