Breaking Habit No. 2

Snip. Snip. Snip.

I am typing on my keyboard for a few hours, and can feel my nails catch on the keys in a way that distracts me. I have been a life-long nail biter. I rarely have nails long enough to get caught on anything but my teeth. I have been working at breaking the habit since I listed it as one of my New Year’s Resolutions on a purple mimeographed worksheet in fifth grade.

I pull out finger nail clippers and snip my nails. I have primarily used clippers to deal with hangnails made bloody and stinging first by my teeth. To have nails to trim is a miracle.

Breaking this habit has come in slow, painful, years-long attempts. These steps are what finally proved the most effective: First, I changed my expectations. I shifted from wanting long nails to having healthy nails. It turns out long nails kind of drive me crazy.

Next, I began paying attention to when I put my fingertips between my front teeth. I primarily reverted to this bad habit when I had trouble putting words on paper—and usually at work. I also chewed my nails when life stressors became too much. Identifying when I relied on nail biting as a coping mechanism helped me to catch myself in the moment and choose to do something different. I have found something as simple rubbing my fingertips against my thumbs can interrupt my decision to chew a nail.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, writes, “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”

Noticing the anxiety or stress as physical sensations and also linked to a pattern of behavior has been an important step in recovering from this bad habit.After that, I found a product that I brush onto my nails every day that gives my nails a strength I haven’t experienced before. Also, I tore out an advertisement featuring a beautiful set of nails displaying jewelry or some such product. The nails were short and well shaped. I admire them each time I brush my teeth. I visualize my hands looking like the model’s hands—even on days when I’ve had a weak moment. ESPECIALLY those days.

Finally, as these steps resulted in advanced nail growth, I began using nail clippers. It’s counterintuitive, but I figured out that if I trimmed my nails before they snagged, I could further interrupt the tendency to put my nails in my mouth, and I feel a sense of control about the length of my nails as well as control over how I cope with stress. I also notice that by trimming them before a snag occurs, the nails continue to grow in strength and length and are less prone to chipping. At first I feel disappointed about trimming this beautiful growth I’ve achieved, but it gets easier when I remember that my main goal is healthy—rather than long—nails.

Over time, I note a lack of interest in biting my nails because I’ve worked at breaking the patterned thinking as much as the “bad” behavior. I’m also better at managing stress. Breaking this bad habit has happened in parallel with improved overall mental and emotional health. I can see now that biting my nails was a form of self-harm. Some of the reasons individuals engage in self-harm resonate for me as a nail biter: to feel a sense of control; to express pain; and as a distraction.

During the long years when I didn’t have a grip on how to cope with writer’s block or life’s stressors and complexities, I couldn’t conquer this habit I loathed. I continue to face head on the things that make me scared, sad, and mad. Each time I iron out one of those emotional wrinkles, I can feel the compulsion to put my fingers in my mouth grow fainter.

I feel proud of the way I have applied generous doses of gentleness and kindness to myself and to the narrative about this habit. When I stopped seeing this habit as something shameful or embarrassing, I was able to try new approaches. That’s when I experience the most progress.

Trim. Growth. Trip up. Try again. Trim. Growth. This is a much healthier to approach my nails—and life in general.

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