My whole life, for as long as I can remember, I've been a nail-biter.
It's been the thing I've been most ashamed of and the habit I've tried to break the longest. I picked it up somewhere along the way (possibly from my grandmother who still bites her nails today) and for over 20 years it's been part of who I am. But not any more.
I haven't bitten my nails in two months and I don't intend to start ever again.
Here I'd like to explain how I failed for so many years and finally succeeded in changing this difficult habit.
Years of Failed Attempts
I tried to stop many times over the years and even succeeded for a few weeks at a time. But I always went back to biting my nails. I couldn't stop. I tried everything you could think of to stop and joined thousands of people in trying to concoct ways to put an end to my unconscious habit:
- Nail polish that made my nails taste terrible
- A rubberband on my wrist that I would pull back and snap hard every time I did it
- Having my friends and family tell me when I was doing it
- Using major life events like wearing a ring to inspire the change
- Keeping my hands in my pockets
- Taking out a notepad every time I bit my nails so I would write instead
These and other creative solutions failed.
They work for some people, but they didn't work for me.
A New Perspective
Two months ago my wife inspired me to look at the situation a little differently.
Instead of pointing at me and telling me to stop, or hitting my wrists, or anything like that, she just observed it quietly for years. She never told me it was okay, or that I should change, that she liked it or hated it. She was just present with me about it.
When I told her I couldn't stop, she listened. When I told her I wanted to, she listened. And when there were days that my nails hurt (which is almost all the time for people who bite their nails), she was sympathetic. She was compassionate without being judgmental. That was the first step and the thing I had failed to ever do for myself.
When I started being compassionate with myself, understanding and trying to be objective, I stopped judging myself and thinking I was a bad person. I know that might sound crazy, but I hated that I bit my nails and in some small way because of that I hated myself. Being compassionate led to several very interesting insights:
- There wasn't just one cause - For the longest time I thought my nail-biting was the result of nervousness, anxiety and/or some weird kind of self-punishment. The truth is, in my case, nail-biting was more of a cleanliness issue.
- I wanted to keep my nails clean - I know it sounds odd, but I really liked my nails to be clean and biting them was one way to guarantee they would stay that way. It is rational in a weird way, like cutting your grass down to the dirt could keep the weeds away I suppose, but once I realized this I had a chance to readdress the issue.
- If I wanted them to be clean, there was a better way - I had briefly considered other options in the past, but always didn't know enough or was embarrassed to seek out help. I didn't want to go to a nail salon and I didn't know a lot about cleaning, cutting or tending to nails. Luckily my wife did.
- Getting help can be as easy as asking for it - I told my wife that I really wanted to take care of my nails but didn't know how and asked if she could help. She was happy to.
- Having a partner is very important - Once Tunga agreed to take care of my nails for me (which took about 5 minutes a day) I was able to stop worrying about them and focus on other things. She was wonderful about it, happy to help, and did a much better job than I could do.
- Rewards are very important - I made a deal with myself (and my wife) that if I didn't bite my nails for two weeks I could get a small computer gadget that I was really excited about. It was expensive enough ($40) that I had been avoiding getting it for a while, but reasonable enough that I was really excited to use it as a reward. This worked out perfectly.
- Focus on the positive habit and reward - As soon as I had the positive habit (having someone clip my nails in a healthy way) and a reward in place, they were the only things I focused on. Every time I thought of biting my nails, I would wait until my wife clipped them instead or if it was more urgent I would ask her if she wouldn't mind clipping them now. This happened once or twice the first few days, but didn't happen much after that.
- Reward yourself - Once I reached the two week mark I was very excited to pick up my gadget and then I set up a new reward for two weeks later. Once I reached that, it had been a month and my desire to bite my nails was completely gone. My new habit was in place and I started thinking about how to write this article.
I realize writing this article that I have read this almost exact advice before. Leo at ZenHabits is really great about creating new habits and I've always loved his articles, but I think I got caught on the first step. Being compassionate with yourself can take years, maybe even a whole lifetime. Like I said, it was my wife's understanding that inspired me to look at the situation differently. It's a very hard thing to do alone.
Changing a habit is very easy, but I hope looking at these steps is helpful for you.
It's an incredible feeling to change a lifelong habit and I wish you the very best in changing a habit in your life, whatever that may be.