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On my blog entry entitled Aftereffects of Childhood Abuse: Picking, a reader posted the following comment:

Do you think picking can be a verbal thing also? I remember being told by my parents and ex partners that I would often “pick” at them. Psychologically pick things apart that were most times relatively minor things. And “pick” is the exact word that was used too! What do you think? ~ Mia

I have been thinking about Mia’s question, and I am not sure of the answer. I tend to see this form of “picking” as different from picking at your own body. I don’t think it is about “picking” to relieve tension. Instead, I suspect that it is about testing boundaries and how solid a relationship is. I see “picking things apart” as different from “picking at” a person, so I will deal with one at a time.

Picking Things Apart

I see “picking things apart” as trying to understand how a relationship works. As abused children, we tried to figure out how to avoid being abused. We thought that if we good enough, smart enough, or [fill in the blank] enough, then we could avoid being abused. We thought that we always missed the mark, which made us responsible for the abuse.

So, we “pick things apart” to understand the dynamics of the relationship. We want to understand how X led to Y so we can either bring about the same result or avoid the result, as the case may be. It makes perfect sense for a child abuse survivor to pick apart a relationship to this level of detail, but it can be unsettling for a person who does not understand the need to do this.

Picking at a Person

Then, there is “picking at” a person, which is different. In this case, we needle another person to get a rise out of him or her. I can think of a couple of reasons why we might do this.

The tension of knowing that abuse is coming can be just as bad as the abuse itself. Abused children will sometimes “pick at” the abuser just to get the incident over with. I hear this from adoptive parents who are parenting traumatized children. The kids will go out of their way to annoy the parents. The reason is because they expect abuse to come, and they want to get it over with. It takes a long time for traumatized children to realize that their adoptive parents are different from their abusive birth parents.

We might also “pick at” a person to test the boundaries. The person says that he loves you, but you cannot trust it. So, you test the boundaries to see if he really will continue to love you, even when you do X, Y, or Z.

I do believe that psychological “picking” is a normal aftereffect of child abuse. It is just one more area of our lives that we need to heal.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I have talked about a lot of uncomfortable topics on this blog, and I will be continuing that trend today. I would like to focus upon the topic of picking. This is not a topic that I hear many adult survivors of child abuse talking about openly. However, adoptive and foster parents of abused children report that their abused children frequently “pick” at their bodies, including their noses, scalps, scabs, and pretty much anything else they can pick.

Here is an excerpt from a blog written by a woman named FosterMommy. As you can tell by her name, she is a foster parent who has fostered multiple children that have been removed from abusive homes:

Anxiety can cause picking the nose, ears, scalp, or any other orifice even to the point of bleeding and including self-mutilation. ~ FosterMommy from Attending Support Group Combined With Training

These behaviors do not just magically “go away” when the abused child becomes an adult, and these are children who have been removed from the abuse, placed into safe homes, and are receiving therapy. So, let’s face it – many adult survivors of child abuse struggle with picking as well. They are just too embarrassed to talk about it.

Why do child abuse survivors “pick”? As FosterMommy stated, picking is a way to manage anxiety. As the child abuse survivor picks at his or her body, it gives the anxiety a temporary outlet.

I have always picked at my scabs. I never realized that was abnormal until other people would comment about how long it would take for my wounds to heal. I then read in a book about self-injury that picking at scabs was a form of self-injury. That was news to me!

The thing is, when I pick at a scab, I am not consciously aware that I am doing it. I always chalked it up to being a “bad habit” like biting your nails. (Now, biting my nails is not a behavior I struggle with. I am too freaked out about my teeth to do it.) I would look down, notice that I was bleeding again, and be truly surprised by it.

Regardless of the form of picking you use (and you might pick at a variety of areas of your body), there is nothing “wrong” with you. The picking is simply another normal aftereffect of the abuse. Functionally, the picking is no different than anything else you do to manage your anxiety. You have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of.

Related Topic:

“Picking” as a Way of Managing Anxiety

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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