It was back in grade school that Jeff, now 33 and living in Chicago, discovered the true thrill of delayed gratification. Sitting in the back of class, hands hidden from the teacher, he would slowly and methodically smother his hands in layer upon layer of gooey Elmer’s Glue and wait for it to dry.
Then, he’d peel. Oh, how he’d peel. He’d peel and peel and peel and peel. “The best was when I’d get my entire hand to come off” as a mold, he says. “I’d keep a bunch of those in my desk like trophies.”
Jeff’s peeling obsession only grew as he got older. He’d argue with family members “about who got to peel the plastic off the new TV.” He’d beg friends to let him remove the screen cover from their new phones.
But a good peel is hard to find IRL, and soon enough, Jeff sought peeling pleasure online. Specifically, the subreddit r/ThatPeelingFeeling, which is flush with video clips and GIFs of people peeling like there’s no tomorrow.
Ana, a 32-year-old in Romania, is an avid member of the subreddit, and her story is much like Jeff’s. “Intentionally or not, everyone stuck some glue on their hands, and it was so fun to remove, slowly, revealing the ridges in your palms,” she tells me. “It was the best gratification, especially because it was delayed.”
Unlike Jeff, who immediately peeled whenever he got the chance, Ana could manage her urges. Today, the longer she waits, the more gratifying she finds the experience. This has led to some odd habits, like keeping the plastic cover on her new gadgets for extended periods of time. When she got a new microwave, for instance, she avoided removing the protection for two years. When she finally peeled, it looked like she had a brand-new machine.
According to psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz, it’s that feeling of “newness” after the act of peeling that makes people so intensely hooked on it. “From a scientific standpoint, anticipatory activities like peeling produce dopamine,” she explains, which is why it can be so “deeply satisfying to unwrap presents, or peel the plastic off a new toy; what you have underneath all that is newness.” Not unlike a lizard shedding a layer of skin to grow, peeling off the battered plastic screen on a phone feels like “a fresh start, or another chance.”
Rob, a 24-year-old subscriber to r/ThatPeelingFeeling, focuses on the anticipation of newness Luiz described. “The best peel is one that’s been hidden in plain sight for a long time, waiting to be discovered by a lucky person,” he tells me. “It’s a peel that transforms an object from old to new, a peel that goes ziiiiiiirp during and plop at the end.”
At the same time, the flood of feel-good chemicals associated with “anticipation of ‘newness’ is pretty short-lived,” Luiz says, “so it can become addictive.” This feeling is “why people become nail biters, for example.”
With that in mind, here’s Chris, a 24-year-old in South Carolina, describing the perfect peel: “You don’t want to do it too fast, but you also don’t want to do it too slow,” he explains. “It should be dragged out just long enough for you to get antsy for the end part, hearing that snap [when] the plastic releases from the adhesive.”
When Chris has nothing to peel, he heads to r/ThatPeelingFeeling, where he can “still get a pretty good dose of it.” The other peel-feelers agree that the subreddit — and its endless stream of peeling YouTube videos — scratch their itch as well.
Let’s just hope they have an unpeeled microwave nearby if the internet goes out.