Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a compulsive nail-biter. In fact, I’m nipping at my cuticles as I write this.
People always ask me: “What are you so nervous about?” But I know it’s not just about nerves; I bite my nails even when I’m lounging on the beach.
Well, apparently, I do it because I’m a perfectionist.
Scientists at the University of Montreal published a study in this month’s issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry that suggests that perfectionism might be at the root of body-focused compulsive habits like nail-biting and hair-twisting.
For the study, researchers worked with 48 participants, half of whom regularly engaged in these types of behaviors. The other participants, who didn’t have these habits, acted as a control group. The participants were asked questions about the extent to which they experienced emotions like boredom, anger, guilt, irritability and anxiety. Then, each participant was exposed to situations designed to provoke particular feelings, like relaxation, stress, frustration, and boredom.
Those with the compulsive habits said they had a stronger urge to chew their nails, for example, when they were prohibited from completing work in a timely manner and when they felt bored after being left in a room alone for six minutes.
“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviors may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform task at a ‘normal’ pace,” said lead author Dr. Kieron O’Connor, in a press release. “They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom.”
So we set new goals for ourselves, like making sure all of our nails are exactly the same length, or eliminating any jagged cuticles.
But when the habits start to interfere with daily life, they can become habit disorders — for which, fortunately, there are treatments. According to O’Connor, there are two paths to choose from: a behavioral treatment that involves replacing the habit with a competing action, and a separate approach that focuses on the underlying factors that create tension.
Maybe with all this information in mind, all of us pickers, twisters, and biters can remind ourselves that we don’t need to mangle our new ‘dos or manicures just because we crave a task to complete.