In some non-food news of the biting-but-not-chewing variety, I stopped biting my fingernails! I realize that to most people this isn’t exactly Christmas card-worthy, but as a person who has tried many times over the years to stop, it’s no small feat. I have now gone 6 weeks without biting them. Since they say it takes 30 days to make a habit, I’m counting this as a very positive sign.
When I look down at my hands, I kind of can’t believe they are mine. The tips are long and white. They are strong and sturdy. I’m able to do things I’ve never done before – like start peeling an orange without the help of an orange peeler, easily find and pull up the edge of tape, remove a sticker from fruit, retrieve an ice cube out of the tray instead of jostling them loose by kind of throwing the tray into the air… There are some things that I didn’t even realize I was doing differently than others because, unlike them, I had no nails to help me. Even just scratching an itch feels a little more satisfying, and my cats have never been happier with their cuddle time.
See, I had been biting my nails for a very, very long time. I started when I was in kindergarten. I’d seen other kids biting their nails, and I remember thinking it was odd. I didn’t really get the compulsion. But then it was time to get my nails trimmed once again, and I didn’t like the sensation or the feeling that I had no choice in the matter. It was then that I remembered those nail biting classmates and decided to go that route instead. After all, I wouldn’t have to get my nails clipped anymore if there was nothing there to trim.
And in that way it worked. No clipping was necessary. Then over the years, nail biting became a kind of release. It was somehow relaxing. If I was stressed, bored, lost in writing, caught up in a book, or even mindlessly watching a TV show on the couch, I’d bite my nails and it would take the edge off of any tension.
I think that’s part of why it was such a hard habit to break. It isn’t truly problematic like smoking. As habits go, it’s a fairly innocuous (although unattractive) one. So that makes it tough to stop doing something that provides stress relief and isn’t causing any long-term damage. (There are sites that point to tooth damage because of biting, but I didn’t experience it.)
Many times over the years I tried to stop biting my nails. Whether it was because of wanting my nails to look nice for a school dance or thinking it would be fun to join friends for a trip to get a manicure, I couldn’t seem to make it happen. Sometime around age ten I bought some of that nail bitter solution that is supposed to make you stop, because the terrible flavor is a deterrent. Instead, I just pushed through until the horrible flavor was a memory. In college I got fake nails, thinking that after I had them removed I’d be over it. Instead, it made my nails weak, wavy, and impossible to grow. Over time I had an allergic reaction to the chemicals in the fake nails and gave up on them.
New Year after New Year I resolved and then devolved. When I read that most people quit by age 30 and I still hadn’t, I thought it might just be something I did forever. On my wedding day, I simply let my photographer know not to bother with the typical ring/hand shots. I knew I’d never be framing pictures of my bitten up nails.
Then six weeks ago I was at a gathering with a woman who had a lovely French manicure. I complimented her on her nails, and she asked why I didn’t get one too. Kind of embarrassed I said, “Oh, I can’t.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I’m a nail biter.”
I offered up my hands, showing that there were no white tips to paint.
On the drive home that night, it occurred to me what a silly reason that was to not have something I wanted. There are lots of things we deny ourselves because we can’t afford them or don’t have the time or resources, but there couldn’t be anything I am more in control of than whether or not I have long, pretty nails.
Like so many changes that we set out to make, until we believe it, it can’t happen. It made me wonder where else I’m not giving myself things that I could, assuming it’s impossible when really I’m the one setting myself up to not experience the changes I desire. In this case, it’s about nail biting, but the same could be said for any number of changes we seek in our lives. How many ways do we define ourselves that are limiting?
If you want to quit nail biting too, here are 4 things that worked for me:
1. When you feel the urge to bite your nails, refocus your attention. Instead of biting, slather on moisturizer, clean your nails, or paint them a bright color. Even though I’d shied away from nail polish in the past, a bright color reminded me to stop. Plus, I didn’t want to inadvertently swallow nail polish while nibbling on a nail.
2. If you get a snagged or split nail, don’t risk using your teeth to fix it. Instead get a nice nail file. Smooth the nail with the file, going in one direction.
3. Don’t let a broken nail get you down. Life happens. There are going to be breaks along the way. Don’t let that be an excuse to level the playing field on the other nails. Just smooth it out and let it go.
4. At the end of each week that you make it through without biting, treat yourself. I’ve been building up a little collection of cruelty-free, non-toxic polishes and rich hand moisturizers. After all of these years of not playing this particular variety of “dress up,” it’s fun to indulge.
Have you ever quit a bad habit or created a new healthy habit that before you’d thought impossible? How did you do it?