I’ve struggled with nail-biting for over 20 years. I don’t know when it began, but there’s a home video of me nibbling away at my sister’s baptism – I was five.
I could never pin down exactly why I bit my nails. My mum theorised that it might be stress. Another potential explanation was boredom. All I knew was that if there was any white at the end of the nail, any hanging bits of skin or cuticle at the side, it had to come off. A few minutes of pleasure (yes, it’s incredibly satisfying) invariably resulted in cuticles that ached so much I sometimes couldn’t sleep, but I’d still go back the next morning.
We tried a few things. We tried nail varnish. But I’d start biting off the imperfect bits stuck to my skin and then find myself just biting the nails. We tried the nail varnish that tastes gross. But I discovered you could put it in your mouth once and it would taste gross, but that would wash it off, so you could continue biting. We tried self-applied fake nails, but the glue was never strong enough and they came off in a flash. My mum tried to scare me with threats of appendicitis. It concerned me a little (the film Madeline was fresh in my mind), but obviously not enough. I tried sheer willpower: giving it up for Lent gave me an incentive. And I tried rewarding myself for every day I spent not biting, setting aside £1 a day for 100 days, which allowed me to get some nice boots from Russell & Bromley at the end of it. But nothing stuck for more than a couple of months, if that.
Then when I moved to London I discovered nail salons. I discovered that you could get real fake nails that didn’t just snap off like the cheapo Boots ones do. Plus, they look pretty nice:
It took a few tries over the years. One time, I thought it had worked. The lady took the fake nails off and manicured the short growth underneath. But I went home, and bit the manicure and the short growth off about 10 minutes later.
This January, enough was enough. I got three sets of fake nails in succession. For 6 weeks I was unable to bite (like, unless I wanted to lose a tooth). When they came off, I painted the growth underneath and they looked nicer than they have ever looked:
I did not bite them that day, or the one after, or any of the other days for the following 7 months.
I feel a little like a recovering alcoholic confessing to my binges right now. I struggled, but then I got clean!!
What am I going on about? Who cares about nails?! Why don’t I take my confessions elsewhere?!
Nail-biting is a bad habit. Habits are repeated actions that we feel compulsion to complete. Repeated actions, even bad ones, become a part of the normal routine ingrained in your psyche. This makes it hard to stop doing them. If you are in the middle of a bad habit, and you contemplate your actions for a minute, you might think you couldn’t possibly not do it: it’s too hard. And you contemplate a life spent fighting that struggle every minute, and it’s too hard. So you continue, and you never break the habit.
But here is something I learned from trying to quit, successfully quitting, and sometimes relapsing into nail-biting over 20 years.
It’s hard to break a habit, that’s true. But once you’ve broken it, it’s gone! It stops becoming difficult! This is something people in the middle of a bad habit don’t realise. They don’t realise that the struggle lessens over time. It’s hard the first time. The next time, it’s a little easier. Before you know it, you’ve broken the habit and it’s no effort at all, and now you’re in a good habit you don’t feel the need or desire to go back.
Once you realise this, you can apply it to so many other areas of life.
During my 7-month clean period, I decided that if I could stop biting my nails, then I had a good chance of breaking other bad habits that were not particularly great for me either. Takeaway coffee was making me jittery, increasing my sugar intake (too bitter to drink without!) and stopping me sleeping at night. So I quit coffee. Did that, saved money, stopped having caffeine lows, felt better. Stopped wanting coffee. And if I could do that, then I could probably stop taking sugar in my tea. Did that, stopped bombarding my teeth and system with like 5 tsp a day of the bad stuff, felt better. Stopped wanting sugar. If I could do that, then I could just quit tea, right? Did that, felt better, stopped wanting tea. And if I could do that, then I could definitely stop buying a chocolate bar a day from the corner shop (I tend to get hooked over Easter and Christmas – very bad). Did that, felt better, no longer lured by the shiny wrappers sitting by the till just within arm’s reach. Stopped wanting sweet stuff all the time.
Being a good person is also about habit imo. (Virtue = habit of good behaviour.) You think you can’t stop with your habitual vices, whatever they are, because they just happen and come naturally and feel good? If you realise that it’s more like climbing a small peak and then cruising, than climbing a mountain that gets steeper with every step, then you’re all set.
The moral of the story is that it doesn’t take a lifelong struggle to get the payoff you want (nice nails, a good night’s sleep, less crap going through your body, a better character). It takes one tough step now, another slightly less tough step tomorrow and the day after, and then you’re winning. 💅🏻