Rub me the wrong way

I am tactile. My hands are forever moving. If I go out to eat where they provide a straw with the drink, I will save the straw paper and twirl it in between my fingers throughout the meal. I get disappointed if the waitstaff clear away the straw paper during the meal. Borderline compulsive? Maybe, but many of you can probably relate in one way or another, which leads me to believe something else is at play here.

In the age of smartphones where many of us have shorter attention spans and a compulsive twitch to have our thumbs nearly constantly swiping our devices, it is even harder for me to keep my hands still. I remember distinctly watching my mom twirl the cord on her jacket absentmindedly when I was in high school and I thought – that’s where I get it from. The sad part for me is that I’ll never know how ingrained this habit was prior to smartphones. I wonder if my phone exacerbates the problem or is creating a new problem built off of my childhood urge to have my fingers always in motion.  I’m not sure if I would have outgrown this habit or if smartphones just offered a new vehicle for an existing behavior that was going to manifest itself regardless.

It astounds me when I sit in meetings at work and observe how many people rub their fingers in some way, when they don’t have them on their keyboards. Do we live in an age where we can’t keep our fingers still due to the addictive nature of mobile technology? Or does my line of work just attract the kind of people who are always moving their hands in some way? Several people in my office purchased the latest rage of fidget toys intended for children with emotional or learning disabilities. These small hand held toys are meant to give them something tactile to fiddle with in an effort to calm them and help them to focus. Most notably, several of my colleagues independently started bringing the Thera Cube toy to meetings in the last year. Is this brought on by smartphones or has the research just advanced in a way where we can more accurately diagnose this constant need to fiddle in certain people? All this just to help adults keep their forever twitchy fingers occupied. It actually makes me think about the character “Thing” in the Addams family a bit. Forever moving.

At some point in high school (I think) I adopted the nasty habit of transferring my tactile need into rubbing my eyebrows. At this point, I don’t even remember when I started doing this. I think it was around the time I started plucking my eyebrows, so perhaps I didn’t pick up this nasty habit until college. Whenever I was reading a book, studying, or concentrating on something in front of me on my desk, I would start absentmindedly rubbing my eyebrow. Part of the reason for this was that my hands were searching for some type of tactile stimulation and my eyebrows (dedicated companions) are easily accessible and always present. Likewise with my plucking, as individual hairs grew back in, my brow line provided a stimulating landscape to sooth my forever twitchy fingers.

In the last few years, I have realized that if I am not mindful, I can actually absentmindedly rub my eyebrows so much that they start to ache. Essentially, the behavior is getting worse. Unclear if I am doing it more frequently or if the toll of years of rubbing is starting to add up and my eyebrows are making their grievances known. I now have a few individual brow hairs that are almost impossible to tame and always curl up to stand on end in what I can only assume is the result of my incessant rubbing. As I mention on other pages on the site, I was really concerned about this leading up to my surgery. I cannot stress enough how terrified I am that I will now damage my sling from surgery or hurt my eye in someway. And yet it is so hard to stop.

I am embarrassed by this behavior, which I mostly do at home, but now it is so ingrained when I look at a computer screen and concentrate, or at my phone, I also sometimes catch myself doing it at work. Having watched myself in a mirror, I can confirm it looks bizarre. In the off chance I catch myself doing it in front of a colleague, I feel extremely embarrassed, as if I were caught picking my nose. It is something intimate almost that I would not want someone else to catch me doing. This feels extremely unprofessional for me. I mostly do it at home and occasionally at my desk by myself at work. If I do catch myself doing it in meetings, I immediately stop and feel very embarrassed. It is almost like thumb sucking in a way.

When I became aware of how bad this was getting, I did try a few different interventions in the past. I used to use brow gel on my eyebrows as a tactile reminder to not rub. That was somewhat successful, but I would still touch the brow. Once I felt the crusty brows, firmly in place with gel, I would mostly put my hand down. I also tried putting olive oil on my brows, but unfortunately as the day went on and if I started to sweat, the oil would slowly seep down into my eye, which was quite uncomfortable and caused my eye to tear up and have my face to be dripping with oil. Although it made my eye water, as I write this it is kind of funny that I had olive oil seeping down my face all in the name of my inability to calm my forever racing fingers down.

In a wave of shame and curiosity, as many people now do, I took to the internet to see if I was alone. I found many resources around people with compulsive behaviors for picking out their eyebrow hairs until they are practically bald. While fascinating, I do not have that problem. I couldn’t really find any reputable source that just referenced this idea of rubbing your eyebrows. While it sort of made me feel better to see that many people struggle with something like this at some level,  it wasn’t particularly reassuring. I was hoping to understand why it was happening, so I could try to make my situation better. I also don’t feel like I do this so much that it is a mania, a compulsion, or an addiction. It really is just a bad habit that I fall into absentmindedly depending on what I am doing. I do think when I am stressed or tired I am more likely to do it. This is logical though based on how we handle habits and what our default behaviors are when self control is diminished. After spending more time on the internet on this topic than was probably needed, I concluded that therapy didn’t seem like the appropriate intervention in my case. Wary of all the sensationalized internet blog posts, I didn’t feel any better and I wasn’t any closer to finding a way to stop.

I am really hoping with meditation and being mindful, I can break this habit. It bugs me that I let it get so out of hand that it is now taking a LOT of my energy and self control to make it stop. It has become such a nasty automatic habit that I rarely catch myself starting to do it. Only after I have started rubbing my left eyebrow in a fit of concentration, do I realize what I am even doing.

With a huge move, you have an opportunity to set up new habits and leverage your new environment to shake off old habits. When my sister was here with me when I first got to Singapore in August, I made it a point of telling her that I wanted to shake this habit. I keep repeating that in Singapore, I don’t rub my eyebrows. The problem, I have quickly discovered, is that even though I am in a new environment, my trigger behaviors – being on my personal or work laptop or my phone – came right with me to Singapore. I have caught myself rubbing my eyebrow (usually my left eyebrow) in times of working on my laptop, deeply concentrating while reading emails for work, or just plunging into the wormhole that is social media on my phone. Even though I am doing it less, I have still caught myself doing it. I am still wondering how the heck I stopped doing this cold turkey back when I had my surgery.

I am determined to break this habit. One of my largest fears around this as I’ve alluded to in other blog posts is the impact on my surgery. I do not want to have surgery again and I am terrified that all my rubbing will mess up my sling in my left eye. I know that one strategy will be to find a replacement activity. How I got here in the first place was essentially by transferring this need to always be rubbing my fingers to my eyebrows. Previously, I may have picked at my cuticles, pulled at a loose thread on my clothing, rubbed my thumbs together, or ran my fingers repeatedly over my manicured nails. Regardless, I have carpal tunnel syndrome (a story for another day) so any repetitive movement I do with my fingers is not great for my wrists. Ideally the goal is to retrain my brain to keep my fingers still. The real question for me is – is this something I am just hardwired to do or did I teach myself this behavior over time? I am excited to unlearn this nasty habit and fingers crossed it has not done any damage to my eyes.

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