I can't stop picking my nose!

I've been a chronic nose-picker since eighth grade, and now I'm in graduate school.

By Cary Tennis

Published June 6, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I enjoy reading your insightful advice. Please answer my plea:

An excerpt from the first page of my eighth-grade diary:

"Goals for the year:

  • 1) Get all A's
  • 2) Be myself!
  • 3) Stop picking my nose."

    The third is actually now heavily scratched out because I was horrified someone would find the journal, and that might be the most embarrassing piece of vulnerability in there.

    I am a chronic nose-picker! It's gotten especially bad since I have started graduate school, mostly because I don't socialize a lot, and spend most of my free time alone or with my boyfriend of several years, with whom I have become so comfortable that I don't restrain myself from picking my nose around him. He abhors it and has gone through several strategies of getting me to stop. Especially when I'm stressed, I pick my nose in bed, when I'm half asleep! Disgusting, I know! (I'm really not the image that might be forming in your head -- I'm not a huge antisocial dweeb. I'm attractive, bright and interesting. This is like a hidden blemish beneath my skin.)

    I have lots of seasonal allergies, but I don't think that's the cause.

    As you can somewhat see from my other eighth-grade goals, I'm a huge perfectionist with a tendency toward depression and mild anxiety. I like to fidget with my hands -- I think the nose-picking is like a nervous twitch. Once I wore gloves to bed to keep me from picking my nose. But I've given up on tricks like gloves, spicy sauce on my fingers or sheer willpower because I've decided I must cure it by examining the underlying causes. I've been in a lot of therapy already -- I wonder if the nose-picking is the remnants of other addictions I've dealt with successfully, including eating disorders and alcoholism. I'm a strong person! I just can't kick this one! Any advice before my boyfriend dumps me because of the boogers on the sheets?

    Embarrassed Picker

    Dear Picker,

    It has been said recently that I often wax poetic where a straightforward response is called for. That is a fair observation. In fact, early in life this tendency was noted by the adult couple into whose care I had been entrusted (called, in those days, "parents") who sent me to a specialist to test my hearing. The test revealed that I could hear just fine. The truth was that I was not interested in answering questions in a straightforward manner. So I would pretend that I had not heard the question correctly. I preferred to live in a world of my own. Things have not changed much.

    What child does not want to live in a world of his own?

    But what does that have to do with nose-picking?


    Therefore, this response attempts to take on the subject of fixing bad habits in a straightforward manner. This is accomplished at some cost in grace -- look closely and you will see where the prose is stretched, bruised, a bit frayed or sprained as it has been agonizingly contorted into appearing natural -- but it is nevertheless an important step in my continued struggle to serve my many and varied readers.

    [Please note: Here a digression has been removed for brevity's sake. If you wish to obtain this digression, at a later date it will be available on a special Web site dedicated to digressions only.]

    Nose-picking has a technical name of relatively recent provenance, Rhinotillexomania, and is honored with an entry in Wikipedia. It was even the subject of an award-winning humorous song in the category of filk music.

    I have also been accused of stating the obvious. But I am comfortable knowing that no one can state the obvious with greater aplomb than professional researchers in the area of human behavior, as demonstrated by the conclusion of this survey of adolescent behavior abstracted from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: "Conclusion: Nose picking is common in adolescents."

    Having amply demonstrated my detractors' thesis, let me now offer a little bit of practical advice. I would suggest, for starters, the About.com Web site entry on breaking bad habits.

    This is good general advice. It suggests we break bad habits by becoming conscious of the choice being made, and then making different choices. So recognize what benefit you are getting from picking your nose and then consider at what cost you are achieving this benefit.

    If you can do that, you may be well on your way to a life free of nose-picking.

    However -- and this is a distinction familiar to those whose habits are more deeply entrenched -- some benefits are not available to consciousness. Some habits exist precisely to cover over or keep from consciousness their actual benefits. For instance, if a habit exists to hide pain, then it will be difficult or impossible for a person in the grip of this habit to identify the pain that the habit is masking.

    When getting falling down drunk to avoid thinking about one's mother, for instance, one does not know that one is avoiding thinking about one's mother. So it is more complicated.

    So why are you picking your nose? Are you avoiding thinking about your mother? Stop picking your nose!

    We're back at the beginning.

    There are many sensible approaches to changing bad habits.

    And then there are the rest of us.

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