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Breaking Bad Habits: 5 Tips to Help You Learn to Stop Picking at Zits

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We are all told not to pick at our skin.

We know that we aren’t supposed to do it. Picking at bumps inflames the skin and just makes the bump even worse. I’ve had breakouts for most of my life. I had acne as a teenager, then bouts of hormonal acne over the years. I’m a trained esthetician. I know that when I pick at my skin, it only pushes bacteria deeper into the skin and makes the bumps worse, which means they get bigger, last longer and leave red spots for weeks after they’ve healed. So…I set out to figure out how to really break my bad habit, once and for all.

If you are prone to picking at your skin and want to break that habit, it’s important to figure out what the motivations are that compel the picking. In the process of trying to break my own habit of picking, I did extensive research on habits and this is the culmination of that research.

I’ve put together a list of questions to help illuminate how we can learn to outsmart ourselves and take control of behaviors that undermince us and prevent us from being the absolute best version of ourselves. This just means that picking is a behavior that isn’t corrected by products or diet or genes. It’s a type of compulsive behavior, which we can learn to control.

1. Is there a time of the day that you are more likely to pick at your skin? Has picking at your skin become part of your daily skincare regimen?  

When I picked at my skin, it was typically part of my night time regimen. It was such a normal occurance, that it had really become an unacknowledged part of my routine, like my skin just didn’t feel clean until I had squeezed blackheads or checked my skin thoroughly for clogged pores that I could go after. Yes, there was something absolutely satisfying about squeezing those blackheads, but it was leading to a sort of hypervigilance about squeezing anything that looked like it had potential. Since, ultimately, it was trying to achieve the feeling of “clean” that was the biggest motivator for me, I started doing little things to interrupt this pattern of behavior at the crucial moment. I would clean the sink or wipe off the mirror or straighten the shelves in the cabinet. These “interventions” never took more than a minute or two, but it was a much more productive (and far less self-destructive) way of fulfilling that need for “clean”. After a week or 10 days, there was a noticeable change with me in that I didn’t feel as if I was forgetting to pick.

An important thing to remember here is that the more tired you are, the harder it will be to break a habit. So, if you were like me, and picked at your skin at night, try doing your nightly routine earlier (whenever possible) so that you aren’t fighting against your completely exhausted self when you are trying to break a habit.

2.Is picking at your skin triggered by particular events? Are you more likely to pick at your skin when you’ve had a bad day?

I have an anxiety disorder. Specifically, I have PTSD. Picking at my skin was a way that anxiety manifested itself in me and through me. If I had a bad day or if I was tired or if I spent too much time on social media, then I was much more likely to pick at my skin. I took stress, bad news, exhaustion, insecurity out on my own skin.

When you feel that urge to pick, really ask yourself what just happened. Be specific. Did something just happen that made you feel shame? Did something happen that made you feel insecure? These are difficult questions, but really, you are the only one who ever needs to know the answers so try to be completely honest with yourself.I know this doesn’t take the place of therapy, but simply being conscious of what triggers feelings of shame will go a long, long way in helping you to control these urges. If, after spending time on social media and seeing everyone’s carefully edited perfect posts, you feel as if you can’t measure up, then be good to yourself and step away from your phone, your tablet or your computer. You will need to learn to recognize when you’ve reached your limit on social media, etc. Try not to punish yourself when/if you feel as if you haven’t measured up.

3.What is the reward? Is it the actual act of squeezing the clogged pores? Is it a temporary feeling of control? Is it a self-destructive activity for you?

I know that squeezing bumps has a perverse and gross pleasure to it, but it really is better to leave those bumps alone. For me, I had gotten so used to seeing red marks on my face that this state was normal for me. At some point, it seemed as if that was what my face was supposed to be like: inflamed and hyperpigmented was my “normal”. I had gotten used to blemishes just being part of my face. If I didn’t see that then I’d pick until I recreated that. I have had a life-long struggle maintaining a healthy self-esteem. I readily admit to that. Picking at my skin was a self-destructive tendency of mine that I could engage in in the privacy of my own home. This just turns into a terrible cycle of insecurity, too. I longed for clear skin, but I kept doing all these things that continued to mar my face.It had to stop.

If you begin picking, really think about what the “reward” is. Is it seeing the oxidized oils or pus bursting out of the pore? If so, break that cycle by deliberately giving yourself another reward. If it’s doing a quick set of 10 jumping jacks so you get endorphins and a real sense of accomplishment, do it. Try making a list of little things around your house that you want to do but never make enough time to do (1. Wipe off that top shelf that always gets dusty, 2. Brush my dog, 3. Read a poem, 4. Send a thank you note) and do one of those things each time you feel like squeezing a zit. These shouldn’t be massive things that are difficult to complete, so go easy on yourself. The point of this is really to intervene in your own behavior and break a habit that you don’t want to have in your life.

4.Do you have unreasonable expectations for yourself? I don’t even know you and I’m going to say the answer is “yes”. Very few people always have smooth, clear skin and when we see or feel that blemish, then it can often be a stand-in for all the ways that we feel that we are failing. I know this will seem like a platitude, but if this happens to you, try to make a point of reminding yourself that you are living a full, rich life and that zit is ridiculously inconsequential in the scheme of things. Step away from the mirror for 10-15 minutes to let yourself calm down and let your mind focus on something else so that zit that seems so important now will lose its sense of urgency.

Often times, picking happens somewhat absent-mindedly at your desk or when you are watching tv. This happens because of restlessness and hands that are looking for something “to do”, so the fingers will search for imperfections in the form of bumps or bits of rough skin to pick at. If it’s an absent-mindedness that triggers the picking, then there’s a good chance that boredom is partly to blame. If that’s the case, then try to make sure that the hands have something to do, whether it’s knitting or macrame or whatever so that they don’t seek out your pretty face. If possible, just try to leave that space for a bit of fresh air. If that’s not possible, then do a thorough checking in with yourself to make sure you are engaged and not just letting your fingers wreak havoc on your skin.

5.Do you pick at your skin only when you are having your period? It’s common for hormones to cause skin to break out. It sucks, but that’s what we’re stuck with. If this is the case with you, then make a plan for yourself for exactly how you will react to this trigger so that you don’t make the break out worse by picking. Simply being aware of this habit will help, but having a specific plan will help to keep you focused on your goal. I generally feel bloated and disgusting during my period, so trying something like giving yourself a time-limit in front of the mirror (like 2-3 minutes) might be what’s needed so you don’t spend time and energy being unnecessarily self-critical and attacking yourself for not feeling your prettiest just then. Be strong: you just have to make it through a few days of sluggishness, but if you are prone to being self-critical, then limiting time in front of the mirror is probably a good suggestion generally.

This may all seem too complicated and too difficult, but please, try it. It’s really just about slowing down and examining a particular habit to sort out motivations and rewards so that you are in control and it’s not the other way around. It’s been years since my skin looked as calm as it does now and I’ve really begun to get used to my calm skin again.

Things to remember:

1. This is not an exhaustive list. If you have questions about any of it, please ask me. clara@skinnyskinny.com

2. Even with great intentions, you might still mess up once in awhile. It’s okay, really. Just promise to try again.It’s worth it.

3. The normal skin cell turnover for an adult is around 28 days. That’s also a perfect amount of time for establishing the new habit of not picking at your skin.

To healthy happy skin in 2016-


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