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How to Change a Dangerous Bad Habit

in Joan's Posts, Rants

Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

I’ve got a couple of really bad habits.

Specific to Man Vs. Debt, I have a habit of buying things – “little” things – to make myself feel better when I’m upset.

But more personally, I have an incredibly hurtful bad habit.

This is a story I’ve never shared publicly before, but as we’ve started our final You Vs. Debt session, the stories shared by my classmates in the forums make me realize how much baggage ALL of us carry into our financial lives. It’s not about money – not really. It’s about mindfulness.

It’s about the pain of changing vs. the pain of doing what you’ve always done, the decision to do one thing or another.

And this is the best example I can give of that decision as it’s played out in my life.

“I barely felt a thing…”

I first remember it happening while I was sitting in 10th-grade history class. I was bored, I think. Maybe a little down about some kind of high-school drama. As the teacher lectured, I took the second finger of my left hand and scratched absently at the back of my right. Up, down, up, down… for a 90-minute class period. At the end of class, my good friend Phil leaned over and gasped, “What did you do?” He looked down, horrified.

I’d left an inch-long gash in the back of my hand, so deep that I could see bone. I was bleeding everywhere. And I had barely felt a thing.

I pick at my skin when I’m upset. Some people bite their nails. Some pull eyelashes. Some do even more dangerous and harmful things, like cutting.

Since then, it’s gotten better, much of the time. Thanks to counseling and my own desire to be healthy, both physically and mentally, I’ve learned to be mindful of the “doing,” and mindful of the causes as well.

I can often stop before it gets “really bad.”

But even so, as an adult, I’ve still left my share of scars – you’ll never see me wear a sleeveless shirt, for instance, because my upper arms at my shoulders are a mesh of fine white circles that will never quite blend back in. And the back of my right hand still bears a scar that, if I squint, looks a little like a dragon, a reminder of that day more than 15 years ago in history class.

Sometimes, they get infected. I’ve scratched deeply enough to cause nerve damage. And yet, the stopping of it is still a work in progress, something that I have to think about, day in and day out, if I want it not to happen.

How I’m changing my dangerous habit

In the past two or three years, I’ve made HUGE improvements. Getting enough sleep and regular exercise help my mood considerably, and reduce the stress that tends to trigger the scratching.

But in the past two months, certain parts of my life have been, well, kind of a wreck. And the scratching has threatened to become a Big Deal again.

I had a terrible flashback a couple of weeks ago. I was at lunch with my best friend, and as he looked down at the table, where I was getting ready to pick up my silverware, his eyes narrowed. “What happened to your hands?” he asked.

They were sore, scabbed. Three spots – two on the left, one on the right – that had gotten worse in some interminable work meetings before the launch of a huge project. Without realizing it, I was still scratching, and… it was pretty noticeable.

After lunch, my friend stood up and said abruptly, “We need to get you something to do with your hands.” We hit the local toy store, scouting the aisles until we came upon probably the dumbest squeezy toy ever, some Marvel superhero gel ball with a scary face. Dumb, sure, but… it worked.

I squeezed the CRAP out of that thing. The rest of the day, I tossed it from hand to hand, dug my nails into it, made circles with it in my palm, rolled it around on my desk.

It went to the grocery store with me. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep still rolling it in my hand.

Anything not to be scratching.

The next day, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, some more durable and more sensorily-interesting things to fidget with arrived. Since then, I’ve had one of them in my hands almost nonstop.

You can see my favorites in the picture at the top of today’s post – the Fuzzy Tangle Jr. and its big brother, Tangle Relax Therapy.

(If you’re interested, a few others I tried and liked: the Chrome Tangle Jr., the Ultimate Fidget, the Isoflex Stress Ball, the Twiddle Fiddle Toy and my daughter’s favorite, Color-Changing Thinking Putty.)

Serious habit change: What to do, what NOT to do

I wish I had a magical set of steps to change a dangerous bad habit. Instead, I’ve got a loose collection, not even coherent enough for a numbered list, of things that have worked (and not worked) for me.

In my case, I needed to replace not the habit itself, but the need to do something with my hands when I’m tense or bored or worried.

Be careful with that. I’m no doctor, but I know that it can be awfully easy to trade one bad habit for another that’s just as bad. If you’re going the “replacement” route, please, please, make sure you’re considering the value – and the possible danger – of your replacement.

I could tell you horror stories of people I know who’ve been serious self-injurers… and replaced one sort of injury, like cutting, with another, like scratching or punching themselves. I’m not a big fan of the “snap a rubber band against your wrist” advice to stop nail-biting for exactly that reason. Let’s just try to stop hurting ourselves, yeah?

There’s one aspect of the rubber-band thing that is valuable, though. Give yourself visual reminders that you want to change. In my case, I sit the Tangles out on my desk, or wherever I happen to be. I’ve also picked a phrase – You Are Worth It – that I’m imagining temporarily tattooed on the back of my hand, where I’ve been scratching. Every time I scratch there, I imagine I’m rubbing it off, and I don’t want to.

Pick whatever visual works for you. But keep it handy. Visual goal-setting is a HUGE key to habit change.

My next advice? Don’t expect habit change to happen overnight. If you’re trying to quit smoking… or biting your nails… or buying lattes on the daily… you probably (read: almost certainly) will have days where your quitting looks a lot like relapsing.

Heaven knows my scratching is a 15-year work in progress. I’m still not as conscious as I wish I was. I still need reminders.

And that’s why my biggest tip is simply don’t go it alone.

Last week, in You Vs. Debt, we asked our class members to have a personal, nitty-gritty conversation about their finances with someone close to them.

If you’re trying to change any habit, especially a serious or dangerous one, I encourage you to do the same. Get someone on board who can help you.

One final point, to be SUPER-clear: If your dangerous habit is causing you or people around you harm, please, please, please seek out professional help. Me sharing my personal experience is no replacement for that!!

My hands are starting to heal. These latest “spots” might not even scar.

But they’re a reminder of how constant my work is to change my dangerous habit.

And whatever habits you struggle with, I hope my hands a reminder to you: You can change. You can do better. There are people who care – and understand.

I would love to hear your stories in the comments.

I know this can be an incredibly personal and private topic – but I’m not too proud to admit I could use some feedback, suggestions, and words of encouragement!

I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura October 14, 2013 at 9:21 AM

Thank you for this post. I also am a picker. :( I can relate to having to wear longer sleeves in warmer weather, etc.
I will try the Tangle product to see if I can break this horrible habit. :)

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:40 PM

Laura, they really DO help. I hate thinking of anyone else going through this too, but it does help to make me feel like we’re not alone, you know? I’ll be thinking of you. You’ll have to let me know what you think of the Tangles!

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steve October 14, 2013 at 10:06 AM

Hi Joan…..You should really look into Eckhart Tolle’s books. The power of now, and a new earth. He really teaches how to calm the mind and to be 100% in the present moment…..
Awesome stuff!

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:41 PM

Steve, I’ve read The New Earth… good stuff! Definitely a lot to think about there.

Meditation/prayer have been a big part of my journey, not one I touched on as much in today’s post, but part of the larger story that surrounds this issue in my life!

Mindfulness is REALLY the key. You are so right!

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cj October 14, 2013 at 10:17 AM

I used to bite the inside of my mouth until it was so tender and sore, sometimes making it hard to eat. I did this for years. Tests in high school, exams in college. Bills! Life issues.

I started buying gum by the case. I would give myself a new piece when every I felt the urge….The gum budget, if there would have been one at the time….would have been insane.

I’ve since gave up gum but I did this for a few years. I will purchase gum if things are stressful because i don’t want to bite the side of my mouth anymore when i’m stressed. Once in a while, I will notice myself going to nawing, but I remember how the inside of my moth would feel and I stop…and will find the nearest place to purchase some gum.

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:42 PM

CJ, I love knowing you found something that helped… and I think your story is much like mine, an “all-the-time” replacement for a while, and then a “when you need it” replacement later, when things settle down.

I’m so glad to hear you’ve made that lasting change. Thinking about the pain is definitely a big thing that deters me!

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meg October 14, 2013 at 10:20 AM

Thanks for sharing Joan. That stuff is hard and sort of embarrassing to talk about. Until just this year I was biting my nails viciously, til they bled and they were totally disgusting to look at. I managed to stop (thanks to the thought of how ashamed I’d be if I had bitten nails at my wedding) but I know how hard that one can be. I’m still finding myself picking at things and chewing on my lips… the impulse to mess with my nails is still there, even if I’m not actually biting. I love your posts. You always write about difficult stuff with humor and humility. You rock!

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:46 PM

Meg, your kind words made my day. I had a nail-biting habit from way back (and like yours – by biting I really meant almost tearing my nails off, it seemed like) and I’m proud to say that’s gone quite well (as evidenced by the fact that I HAVE some nails in that photo above!)

I’m so glad you have gotten through that too!

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Mary October 14, 2013 at 12:09 PM

Hi Joan,
Thank you for sharing, I appreciate real stories by real people. It is encouraging to me to hear it….even in your struggle. I have a similar issue I scratch my legs, to the point of bleeding, I have scars up and down, I went to a doctor and he said ” your a scratcher” really?? no help. I have done a bit of reading and found for me it is a nervous distraction.. that i do subconsciously, I only notice when it starts to bled. Now i crochet, I take it every where, if I am waiting somewhere that is when I notice I scratch. I bring it to church and OA meetings (overeaters anonymous) to doctor appointments everywhere. I have learned as I get older that I have many strategies to help me cope with life, some I have done for a long time (binge eating) and some are new (scratching). I take comfort in knowing that we are on a journey and in process. Be well my friend, you are worth it!
Mary

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:48 PM

Mary, that’s so much like my story. And I have also had doctors be EQUALLY unhelpful. That really doesn’t help at all, does it?!

I’m so glad you are building a list of HEALTHY strategies, like the crochet and the OA and stuff, to help. You’re so right… we often have a string of these habits that don’t seem related until you start thinking about them.

You are doing great. I’m so glad to hear you’re working through it. YOU are also worth it! :)

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Robyn October 14, 2013 at 12:46 PM

Thank you for sharing your story, that was brave of you. I too discovered scratching until I had obvious marks as a young girl. The summer was especially hard (I would scratch my legs). Over time with therapy and medication I was able to stop. I still have the tendency to scratch when I’m stressed, but being aware and having support are key.

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:49 PM

Robyn, you’re so right. Awareness, support, just knowing that it’s happening… it makes such a difference. I am so glad to hear you’ve stopped and I hope I’ll soon be closer to joining you :)

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Christina October 14, 2013 at 1:26 PM

Thanks so much for sharing this issue with us. I think most of us can identify with having some dysfunctional issues / behaviours that can frustrate the hell out of us.
I am not a professional, but nevertheless, I have some thoughts about this topic. What is the underlying driver of this behaviour? Instead of looking at the symptom ( scratching or picking), I would suggest changing the focus to alleviating the anxiety that is underneath? I am in the midst of helping an adult son with ADHD and a crack addiction. I am convinced that the agitation that accompanies ADHD, contributed in a big way to the drug use. We are trying neurofeedback, (Neuroptimal) as an alternative treatment, while he waits for admission to a residential drug rehab centre. Many people with a variety of disorders (PTSD, learning, behaviour, emotional, social) have been tremendously helped.
Here is an interesting resource; http://www.betterbrainbetterlife.com

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:57 PM

Christina, that’s definitely worth considering – and why I definitely recommend seeing a mental-health professional! In my case this is, as you guessed, part of a larger issue, but one that overall is well-managed, despite some “symptomatic” issues like this one!

You are so right that exploring what’s really going on is key. I wish more people were willing to do so!

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Carol October 14, 2013 at 4:18 PM

I really enjoy your candidness. I’m in the process of breaking a habit, well, maybe just doing something Better in my life so I don’t suffer such distressing consequences and give my body a rest. A friend suggested I focus on a little reward – for me it’s three good days in a row – for doing a “good” job, i.e. not a perfect job, but an honest and concerted effort toward correcting the habit so that I can feel like the change is a blessing rather than just one more thing I have to kick in my own strength. So far, after two successful 3-day stints, it’s working beautifully. I will say a little prayer for you! I have had underlying anxiety issues for several years now, but God has so generously replaced the fears with peace and a sound mind. I realize how much I’ve changed for the better even on the days when I feel like I’ve fallen backwards. Good luck and thanks for sharing!!

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:56 PM

Carol, ABSOLUTELY. I appreciate your prayers more than I can say and will certainly add you to my own. :) Isn’t it miraculous how change CAN happen?

I love your reward idea, too. That’s one I can really get behind. In fact, I think you just gave me a great idea… when these hands heal all the way, MANICURE :)

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Karen October 14, 2013 at 6:44 PM

Thanks for sharing Joan. We all have things we do to ourselves. I have my own. Not all of us have the bravery to share. I stay glued to your posts. We have a smaller debt problem than you, but we are getting there slowly. Just having the money for regular bills like electricity and car registration sitting in a savings account ready to go is a huge weight off our shoulders. Now we need to gear up how much pay off our credit cards. Thanks again Joan all the way from Australia.

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Joan Otto October 14, 2013 at 9:55 PM

Karen, thank you so much for the support and the kind words. I am so proud of you for digging in and tackling the debt – and building that cushion for the bills! That’s awesome!

Keep it up. I’m cheering for you!

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Melissa October 14, 2013 at 10:17 PM

Joan, I’ve always enjoyed your posts here at MvD! I really appreciate your honesty, your tips, your genuineness.

I’m saddened to hear that you struggle with something like this. I, too, suffer from dermatillomania. I’ve had it for years and years and years. I’ve tried so hard to stop.

It’s really inspiring to hear what you’ve been doing to deal with this and it’s also really nice to hear how much support and love you have from your readers.

Thanks for being awesome and I wish you the best!
Melissa

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Joan Otto October 15, 2013 at 5:38 PM

Melissa, thank you so much for your kind words… I am not “glad” but comforted to know I’m not alone, and please know I’ll be thinking of you… I don’t think “stopping” is ever going to be a thing for me, but I do think and believe I’m getting better and better!

Keep your head up. The best to you too!!

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Leah McClellan October 15, 2013 at 12:35 AM

Joan! Your usually stealth follower here–I hardly ever comment so you don’t know I’m reading, but I have been for awhile (a year?), and I have to take a minute to comment this time. What a story you’ve shared. Want to give you a big hug ((Joan)).

I don’t really have advice, but I agree it’s about mindfulness. Awareness. Knowing what we’re doing. Have you read The Power of Now and things like that? Do you meditate in any way? That can help, even if it’s 5-10 minutes or 20 minutes a day. Nothing fancy. You can even just sit in a chair quietly and just pay attention to your breath, feel your body, listen to yourself, watch your thoughts and what comes up and so on. It helps so much to becoming more mindful and aware. Lots of people say yoga is great for this too, though I don’t practice it.

I know injuring ourselves and not realizing/not feeling pain is pretty common. I haven’t had habits like this, but somewhat close is cracking my knuckles. I know I’m doing it, and sometimes it’s almost impossible to not do–even in a quiet room where everyone can hear. No real damage done, though (maybe cracking my neck and back isn’t such a great idea though :).

Another one–that’s worse–is cracking my jaw. I have TMJ, and one side has been “locked” for awhile, but I’ve been working on loosening it, and it’s finally moving a little, and the *crunch and crack* feels so good! But it’s a stress thing and I know it. It’s not helping matters plus it gives me a headache.

I’ve also had times when I drank way too much, not in the classic “party” style or out of control stereotype, but more like wine in the evening to fall asleep, relax, escape. 2-3 glasses, sometimes 4…not good even if I was never really drunk, technically, since it was over the course of the whole evening. But it’s not healthy, and I’d wake up feeling like crap. To stop, I had to develop healthier, more relaxing evening rituals. Shower, have nothing to do after 7pm (including making coffee for the morning, taking dogs for their walk, or taking garbage out on trash night or whatever–I needed total relax time–I don’t watch TV so that’s not a given routine), have plenty of books to read (no work! No serious writing!). Just relax.

I am/was stressed. I have had a lot of stress in my life. The main thing I am doing to help with the underlying stress that causes the stress-response habits is to make my life less stressful. Briefly, I’ve sold my house and I’m moving out in a few weeks to end the mortgage situation I can’t handle (not comfortably anyway). I’ve sold all my “stuff” (furniture, everything). Figured out what’s really important to me. I’m moving to a small apartment that’s easily affordable in a lower cost-of-living area. I can’t do everything (long story).

So I’ve realized that most of my stress since college (other than a difficult marriage/divorce and some other stuff) is because I’m always trying to do more than I’m capable of. Time to quit that and focus on only a couple of things that are important to me. I don’t need my gardens and my house and my “whatever else” to be happy and relaxed. I need less to do and more time to focus on what’s meaningful to me–and plenty of time to relax!.

I hope maybe that helps a little. Fun to share, as well. Thanks for such a thoughtful post! So beautifully written, too.

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Joan Otto October 15, 2013 at 5:40 PM

Leah, relaxation is VERY MUCH key. I practice yoga and tae kwon do, and pray/meditate, all toward that goal. It really does help!!

Super-proud of you for the changes you’re making, and while I know they’re scary, I’m happy to hear about your soon-to-be apartment!!

You rock. I hope you’ll keep us posted on how things go after the move!! (Don’t be TOOOO stealthy, in other words!)

Thank you again for all the kind words. We’re cheering for you!

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Dave C October 15, 2013 at 12:56 AM

Thank you for letting us see that we’re not alone in some of the things we do. I pick my fingers, sometimes stress, others boredom. Have been blessed in that I’ve never had an infection but it upsets my wife. Two things I used to do that I broke the habits of were peeling my nails, finally started carrying nail clippers and if they got long or had a ragged piece they got chopped immediately so no temptations there. The other was cracking my neck. I could thoroughly gross out half a room with that. Until the headaches started getting bad. And the Chiropractor warned me what I was in for after the umpteenth visit to realign things. So that’s been beaten. But the fingers have still been a problem, at times I’ve seriously considered getting thin gloves to wear just to eliminate the temptation. But thanks for your posts and best of success for the future!

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Joan Otto October 15, 2013 at 5:29 PM

Oh, the neck-cracking!! Not to throw anyone under the bus, but there might be someone on the MvD team who engages in that one… ;-)

I’m so glad you’ve been able to stop that, and the nail-peeling. The gloves idea isn’t a bad one – at least it might increase your mindfulness! Best of success to you as well!

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Money Beagle October 15, 2013 at 12:33 PM

I’m 39 years old and still bite my nails. I can stop but when they get long enough to the point where I need to start trimming them, I inevitably start biting them, even though I do start trimming them as well. It drives me nuts. What may give me renewed energy is that I have two kids, 4 and 2, and they notice and one started doing it after seeing me do it. There’s motivation for not passing that bad habit to them.

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Joan Otto October 15, 2013 at 5:40 PM

Isn’t that such a thing?? I definitely don’t want my daughter to be a “picker” like me, that’s for sure, and it really does change my behavior more than almost any other motivation!!

Keep trying. We’re cheering for you!

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Val October 15, 2013 at 6:40 PM

Hi Joan,

If you suffer from this or it limitates your social activities, what you can wear,or it embarrasses you, I would strongly recommend to get help to talk about this. Maybe therapy would help, different medication and yes, for sure, relaxation and mindfulness techniques. This is more than a bad “habbit”, in fact it is a disorder called Excoriation ((Skin-Picking) Disorder) described in the DSM manual different criterias that you meet.

I am studying in medical field and I know that (by different ways) people can completely stop this behavior and free themselves. It is possible, and no, probably not easy. Please take it seriously. And take care. Thanks for your good posts!

Val

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Jenny October 19, 2013 at 7:49 AM

It’s hard to talk about an issue that not everyone will understand, whatever it is. It took a lot of courage for you to share this. I know there is plenty that I struggle with that I would not be ready to publish on the internet. Good luck.

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Susan October 21, 2013 at 9:19 AM

Hi Joan,

I’ve followed your journey for a while now and really enjoy reading your posts. You are an inspiration!

My son has been recently diagnosed with ADHD and constantly fidgets – I just ordered him several of the toys you feature. He bites and picks his nails so I’m hopeful these fidget toys will help. Thank you so much for sharing – you clearly reach and help a lot of people!

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