When you’re determined to do something not much will stand in your way.
I had a sister who sucked her thumb when she was young until she was almost not a child anymore. Mom and Dad tried everything, rewards, punishments, a mouthpiece, and yucky tasting stuff painted on her thumb. Nothing seemed to work. Whatever she got from sucking on that thumb outweighed any threat or reward anyone could put before her.
What finally worked? Peer pressure!
In other words: You can’t be cool and suck your thumb at a slumber party.
Instant cure for her.
My bad habit cure wasn’t so instantaneous. What other people thought about my fingernail biting didn’t matter much to me at all.
I tried that yucky paint on stuff because I wanted to stop biting my fingernails. Mom and Dad wanted me to stop biting my nails, too. But the stuff didn’t taste bad enough. I would still keep biting and chewing and gnawing away at my nails and my cuticles. I would chew past the quick until my poor fingers bled and throbbed. Sometimes I had four or five bandages on my fingers to keep them from hurting too much. Once they healed enough I would be back at chewing my nails again.
Not only did I want to stop biting my nails, I wanted to have long beautiful manicured nails. But nothing I tried did any good.
I might add that this was long before the common occurrence of nail salons that populate every strip mall across the country. I couldn’t simply go get acrylic nails glued on.
At the back of most teen magazines there were adds for fake nail kits like the ones “used in Hollywood.” I succumbed in my desperation and paid out hard-earned babysitting money for one of these “easy to use” kits. What a disaster! Lumpy foul-smelling glops of gunk on the ends of my fingers. Bah!
At this point you might be asking a few questions. What was I so stressed about? Why did I chew my nails? Was I an anxious child?
Did I worry?
Oh yes, I did worry.
I worried about everything from the end of the world to what to do during a nuclear explosion. I worried about who I would play with at recess and whether I’d see the cute boy at lunch. I worried about the bullies and the popular girls and I worried about getting left behind. Then as I got older I worried about playing the clarinet decently and fitting in with some group, having cute enough clothes, homework assignments, AP tests, a part-time job. You name it, I probably worried about it.
But was all this worry the reason I bit my fingernails? I have no idea.
I think it was just a strange habit I fell into. Something to do. A nervous tic. Boredom.
Saved by Good Intentions
As a freshman in college, a slightly older freshman took me under her wing. I suppose I came across as out of date, or frumpy, or plain. I don’t know. I was more interested in learning something in my classes and doing well writing essays and taking tests. I also held down a part-time job and didn’t have much time for a social life. Whatever the reason, she had a few suggestions for updating my look, inspiring more self-confidence, and for improving my grooming.
Looking back I might have taken offense at her chutzpah, but I think I simply welcomed her attention and concern. Mostly, I was glad for the “older sister” treatment, since I didn’t have an older sister.
Among tons of advice, which I quickly forgot, she gave me some surprisingly simple advice that solved a lifelong problem. She told me that if I took care of my fingernails every single day, pushing back my cuticles, smoothing and filing any rough edges, and repainting them every single day they would grow in.
It worked! My nails grew. Instead of chewing at the gnarly looking stubs, I looked longingly at the barely growing but meticulously cared for tips of my nails. I saw potential. I saw hope.
Did my dorm mate’s ministrations suddenly and miraculously cause me to start dating a lot? No! And I didn’t care that much about dating then. But my fingernails grew longer than they had ever been! I finally liked how my hands looked.
Strange that all it took to cure my nail-biting was to pay attention to them in a different way. Instead of mindlessly gnawing away, I was mindfully caring for my nails.
Makes me wonder.
I wonder if that works for other things in life? Replace automatic behavior with thoughtful and focused behavior and voilà! Hmmm. Curious.
*Note to self: research this phenomenon in depth.
Once in a while, usually when I’m reading a suspenseful or intense book, I’ll start fiddling about at a rough edge of a nail or a cuticle and before I know it (after fifty pages or so) I have a short nail. And if the book keeps my attention tied up too much, I’ll find almost all my nails short again. But, then I grow them back really quickly.
I suppose that’s why I try to chew gum, or eat chocolate, or nuts, or popcorn when I’m reading. I should keep a nail file nearby, or use an emery board as a bookmark.
For the most part, now that I’m technically a mature adult, I keep my nails looking long and neat. Occasionally I’ll splurge for a manicure, but that’s rare.
I still worry. I haven’t found a magic cure for that. Which is too bad.
But at least my fingernails don’t pay that price anymore.
I did a quick search and found a few articles about changing bad habits if you’re interested in learning more.
- This one from Psychology Today. Three basic steps to changing habits.
- Twenty Tricks to Nuke a Bad Habit. I like the title.
- National Institute of Health talks about why it’s hard to change.
- Readers’ Digest condenses change into Twelve Steps.
- Another WordPress blogger has this to say about habits.