One day in the car, I remember looking up from my Game Boy Advance and seeing my sister hunched over the end of a long strand of her own hair. As she studied the strand, I studied her. She was “picking” her split ends.
My mother hated when my sister did this. From the front of the car, I’d hear, “Stop it!” or “You’re ruining your hair!” While my mother didn’t usually care about typical beauty standards, this kind of extreme grooming really irked her.
Years later, I would have hair that passed my shoulders and, to my horror, I started picking my split ends as well. I have techniques that I’ve adopted on my own. While I wait at stoplights, the black interior of my car is the perfect background for spotting lighter split ends. I carefully place my nail in between a split end, big or small, and slowly work the ends away from one another. Mission accomplished, one less split end.
While I’m fully aware that I’m damaging my hair, I’ve also convinced myself I’m helping clean it up. I flinch from time to time, seeing that my efforts have pushed some splits further up the single strand than I had anticipated. But the best split ends require minimal shedding ― just a quick tug on a small piece that was ready to leave the main strand.
I know it’s a bad habit, but any good vice is strong enough to surpass reason and land on desire. I’ve been told it’s terrible for my hair. It also seems to be bad for my vision, with my picking marathons often ending in blurred eyesight and, more often than not, splitting headaches.
I realized I wasn’t alone after I asked a handful of women if they’ve ever picked at their split ends.
One woman I spoke with, Danielle,* said she started picking at her hair out of boredom. In middle school, she noticed that a friend had a small pair of scissors she used to groom her hair. Without scissors, Danielle would run her hand through her hair searching for split ends to pick off. Her splitting sprees would often end in her feeling guilty, gross and hypocritical. As she noted to HuffPost, “When I see [other] people doing it, I find it a little disgusting.” She eventually stopped due to her job. “I noticed how unprofessional it looked in meetings when people even touched their hair.”
Kelly started picking her split ends as a nervous habit that replaced biting her nails. “My mom would scold me and engrain in me that I would ruin my hair if I kept it up.” She eventually stopped, too.
The majority of women who got back to me appeared ashamed about picking their split ends. Some were embarrassed they did it in public; most were uncomfortable they even did it at all. Even the term “picking split ends” caused alarm, as if the act of picking something seemed, well, disgusting to them.
Like the others, Ashley started as a kid after seeing someone else do it. Although she’s not actively trying to stop picking, she predicts she’ll lose the habit as she gets older. “I find myself doing it less and less, the more busy I am and the older I get. I think I’ll naturally stop altogether one day, but for now I enjoy doing it when I’m feeling restless.”
To better understand why we pick our split ends, I reached out to clinical psychologist Lindsay Brauer. She’s an assistant professor in the psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience department at the University of Chicago and the director of behavioral interventions at the university’s Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders Clinic.
Picking split ends is one of a range of body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), she told HuffPost, which also include “hair-pulling, skin-picking, nail-biting or picking, and cheek or lip biting.”
“A recent study suggested that approximately 59% of people surveyed had intermittent engagement in BFRBs, while 12% of the sample met clinical criteria for BFRBs,” Brauer said. “In sum, BFRBs are more common than one might think.”
But why are these behaviors so common? People may dismiss BFRBs ”as simply a bad habit,” Brauer said, but it’s not quite that simple.
“One thing I’d like people to understand about picking at one’s split ends and other BFRBs is they’re not ‘habits’ that one can ‘just stop.’ They arise from a complex set of internal and external experiences,” Brauer said. And they serve a psychological purpose.
Part of her work, she said, is trying to figure out what the reinforcing aspect of that behavior is for her patients.
For instance, she said, some people engage in BFRBs when they’re stressed, nervous or seeking focus, and the BFRB makes them feel better. Brauer helps them develop “alternative strategies to address unwanted emotions or experiences in the moment, as well as strategies to enhance emotion regulation throughout the day.”
These behaviors may also reoccur in certain situations, she said, “such as when one is curled up on the couch while watching a movie, resting one’s head on their hand in class, or while listening in to a conference call at work.” The brain has developed an association between the particular situation and the BFRB.
In those cases, Brauer encourages her patients to do something that provides “stimulation similar to their BFRB” or to engage in alternative actions that block the behavior itself. Examples of the latter include holding a remote control, pen or computer cord to prevent your hand from picking at your hair.
With treatment, Brauer said, people can find strategies to “reduce the factors that promote the need” for the BRFB and strategies to mitigate the BRFB’s interference in their daily lives.
I don’t want to pick my split ends, but I do. I bite my nails from time to time as well, and both are practices I hope to stop. Recognizing situations that propel me to reach for a strand of hair is a great first step. And learning how to deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy and viable way is ideal.
But I’ll probably also allow myself some wiggle room for a self-soothing behavior that isn’t life-threatening. And maybe one day I’ll be the person who gets consistent haircuts.
*The last names of interview subjects have been withheld to protect their privacy.