A Habit’s Tale



Why am I showing you my nails?

Cause I’m running my own lifelong experiment with the hardest and most ingrained bad habit I have: biting my nails.

I started biting them when I was 3, right after a time period of family-related stressful shock. As a child, you don’t control your environment, you just respond to it, adapt to it. Somehow my little brain decided that chewing my nails was a way to cope with what I was experiencing during that time. And it became a habit.

I tried to stop voluntarily the first time when I was 9. I remember being amazed at what my hands looked like with nails. I knew what was possible. But it only lasted a week.

Interestingly enough, I was able to stop during that brief time because I was sick and my caretaker encouraged me to do it and said she would be there to remind me. My caretaker gave me instant feedback and support. I was under someone’s “watchful” eye, kind of like a coach. When I got better  from my fever and went back to my daily routine….my nails came off in a day. A week wasn’t long enough to break the habit, but it was long enough to show me the potential.

All my childhood I was a nail biter and many teachers tried to help. It was a source of great anxiety to me as I remember not understanding WHY I wanted to bite them and could not stop! I would sit on my hands, clasp them behind me, lecture myself…..all to no avail. I must sound like a nutty little kid, and I was probably was a bit. No amount of sitting on my hands and putting nasty stuff on them would help. I also had a high tolerance for all spicy things hahah so rubbing chilis on them didn’t discourage me either. Neither would pain deter me when my cuticles would bleed.

I resolved to stop again seriously when I was 18…..and I used my boyfriend as motivation, though he didn’t really give a shit about my nails. I basically forced him to “care” so I would care enough to try and stop. I knew I had to find a way to MAKE MYSELF do it. Sound familiar? It would work short-term, up to a year at a time, but never for GOOD. I tried a variety of strategies, including giving myself a manicure everyday for 2 weeks so there was no chance for them to look yucky so I wouldn’t be tempted. (Hey its like doing a juice fast! Or a sugar detox!)

I am 31 now and I’ve stopped and restarted several times, and about a year ago I realized I had the perfect self-experiment. I have a habit that seems insurmountable to me….yet rationally I understand that it IS possible to quit. But how? After all….I’m not an alcoholic. Or a drug addict. Yet if you asked me to describe how I FEEL about nail-biting, you would find similarities in description. Its compulsive, frustrating and occasionally extreme and harmful. But it’s just my nails.

Nevertheless, it looms large in my mind, and always has. Much like someone else might struggle with food, sleep, exercise, overeating, energy, stress etc.

Writing this all out seems rather ridiculous when you remember that we’re talking about NAILS here. But it’s the perfect stage for me to explore more about deeply ingrained conditioning and habits on a personal level. The principles are still the same. There’s a couple reasons this interests me in terms of helping me understand stress response, habit formation and habit breaking:

1.) Nail biting is a very obvious and noticeable flag for my stress levels. I also “learned” this habit unconsciously and implicitly, so “willpower” is useless here. I can’t think my way out of biting my nails. There have been times I wouldn’t have “said” I was stressed, but my hands said otherwise. And no good intention could stop me biting. What does that say about how much I know my own responses to things? Chronic stress (the bad kind we want to reduce) IS low level. Which means over time it can fall off our radar. We won’t say we’re stressed, simply because we have learned a new norm, and we can’t trace it back to “one thing.” While we could have done that when I was 3, as it was specific and immediate…..we can’t anymore. I can’t go back and unlearn what I learned at 3 emotionally, even though my rational head knows that it’s a matter of not raising my hands to my mouth.

2.) No well meaning external strategy has ever worked for me (now how does this sound familiar?) no matter how badly I WANTED to stop simply because I couldn’t understand why the compulsion was there in the first place. Why did I make this habit to start with? What situations now trigger it? I can sit there biting and wishing I could stop….and I will not.

3.) While this may be considered a small and easily dismissed “bad habit” (even though its unsanitary, it does not have large and horrible effects on my life as a whole), what plagued me was why I picked it up, what became “normal” and why it would get out of control at times. To the point that I would bite off my entire nail to the skin (this is gross, but I literally removed my entire nail, as painful as that sounds). The habit was stronger than any pain…why?

These questions are the interesting ones no? And a bit scary, and not easy to answer.

On this last round of “quitting my habit” I’ve learned more about my triggers, the ebb and flow of my stress responses and HOW to listen to my body, even with small things, not just that “I should” listen, but what does listening mean? What do you know about your own habits? Do you know why you do something?

You don’t know it, if you can’t do it. Saying “I know” is pointless. Knowing something means you can do it.

You cannot change what you are not aware of. Or to put it better, you can temporarily, or you can by setting up walls and rules by which to run your life (which can work, but eventually is shortsighted IMO), but for continued or long lasting change/growth it means reaching higher levels of understanding. Leveling up. Not just adding new things or trying new strategies.

“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Einstein

“Higher levels” is also personal to you, not just a “socially” acceptable standard per se. You are your own grading curve. If you decide you want to change something, you must start with understanding where you came from and how you got to where you are now. Then you can start the reversal and work out your own conditioning.

My nails have been untouched for months now but what’s better is that I didn’t implement any external strategy. I just paid attention to why I would do it and what it “meant” (usually that I was not sleeping, eating and relaxing properly). There WAS no willpower to draw on in times of legit temptation (like when one nail would get scraggly, and I wanted to eat them all off!) unless I understand why I am being tempted and what the urge reflects. It’s usually NOT because I am hungry for some nails! I feel like an AA survivor.

What’s very satisfying is that I grow really nice nails too haha.

For more reading on habits especially as they relate to your fitness, check out Habitry.com, blog of Steven Michael Ledbetter. Also, my pal JC Deen wrote an excellent book called Stay Leaner, Longer that explains these principles in a diet and training setting…..which is really why you’re here reading this eh?



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  1. Charity Pratt says:

    Dude. I have the same exact issue- except with toe nails. I’ll rip those fuckers right off. And it’s like an anxiety relief. Totally gross, but I can’t stop. Worst part is, I see my kid doing the same thing. This whole piece is exactly me. I will be doing much more reading on habits. This was excellent.

  2. Wow, just wow. I am so glad I read this today. I am 44 and have been a nailbiter for literally my entire life. Shred my cuticles, bite hangnails until they bleed, bite nails down into the middle of the nail. No, I don’t WANT to do this, and I know it’s horrible. I am ashamed of my nails, and I am ashamed that I can’t simply “quit it”. Tried weekly manicures, icky tasting stuff, keeping them polished….blah, blah, blah.

    Reading this made me pause. And think. Thank you for writing it!

    • LJS, glad it resonated with you. I know for me personally, I am a bit hyper/worrisome as a person, and nail-biting reflected this as well. Daily meditation, (which is basically sitting still and focusing) helped a lot, to help me have less anxiety and take time to
      do nothing and actually enjoy it.

  3. Thank you.
    Been fighting a battle with pulling, itching, rubbing my eyebrows for years now. I have good months and bad months. Several years back I basically had no eyebrows. And it was a constant source of shame and confusion for me. Seemed so stupid. Would try to sit on my hands too. Tried snapping an elastic on my wrist when I felt the compulsion. Having other people smack my hand away from my face. And on and on. Like you, really it took tracing back the habit to the forming stages and what it meant for me subconsciously. Now, I try to be more mindful of it and I generally have most my eyebrows. Still it’s scary to have such a silly habit be so hard to break.

  4. 25 year old nail biter here. Only solution that worked for me is carrying a clipper with me 24/7 so that when I bite, I clip until there’s nothing left to bite. Problem is I always forget to carry

  5. Chronic cuticle picker here… and it’s horrible. I’ve damage my thumbs so badly that the nail grows in crooked now. It’s my last real “bad habit” and I refuse to give up on it. Really liked this article Joy. 🙂