Warning: This post might gross you out a little bit. (It certainly did me.) I’m sorry if it does, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
So I have a problem. And it’s a little uncomfortable to share, but I’m going to do it anyway. Because this is the internet, and that’s what we do here, right? We overshare. Here’s my issue: Every once in a while, as I’m going about just living my life, I look down at my hands and come to a sudden realization that completely derails my day and sends me into a self-conscious tailspin. It’s embarrassing. It’s obvious to everyone around me. And it’s a source of endless insecurity.
Sometimes, I forget to trim my fingernails.
Gross. Blech. Hurl. I know. I told you it was embarrassing. But I want to be clear: This problem is not due to a lack of personal hygiene. I take care of myself. But keeping my fingernails at bay has never been a concern for me because I’ve always done it subconsciously through what I call the “natural method.” That is, I used to chew them.
I did it all the time. Everywhere. In public, in private, in the car, in bed, at work, at church. It didn’t matter. I was constantly sticking my fingers in my mouth and biting off pieces of my fingernails. Now that is disgusting. And I hated it. I knew how socially unacceptable it was. I knew how gross it was. I knew how strange it made me look to other people. But I just couldn’t stop. For as long as I can remember, I’ve chewed my nails. It’s just always been a thing that I do.
But one day last year, as I was sitting in class and chewing my nails in front of God and everyone, I stopped and said to myself, “I will never do this again.” And that was it. I quit cold turkey, and I haven’t looked back. I can honestly say that since that day, I’ve never chewed my nails again.
Which leads back to my long nail issue. I literally had to go out and buy fingernail clippers because I’ve never owned a pair before. And I’ve had to learn to get into the habit of taking care of my nails, something I’m still working on to this day. But recently, after a long-overdue round of nail-clipping, I started to reflect on how I got to this place.
How is that I changed my lifelong nail-biting habit so suddenly and seemingly so permanently? What was it about that decision and the circumstances surrounding it that made it such a success? I can’t say that I have it completely worked out, but I have come to a few conclusions that I‘d like to share.
For me, breaking this habit wasn’t a struggle. I didn’t waver on it. I didn’t feel an overwhelming compulsion to go back to my old ways. I didn’t have to wean myself off of it slowly until I finally broke free from it forever. It wasn’t an uphill climb, but more like a light switch. Suddenly, the switch was turned off for good.
But on the flip side, it was a long time coming. Though I had never tried to quit before, I had often berated myself for the habit. I knew how bad it was, and I knew that I should quit. I had just never taken that step of turning it into a reality. Mentally, I was aware of the need for a change, and before I even realized it, the right time had come. I don’t think I would have been successful had I tried any time before.
One of the biggest factors for my success was the feeling of general security that I had at the time. I was in a place where I was comfortable and happy. I had a regular schedule, healthy habits, and a great social life. It turns out that having your life in order actually creates space for self-improvement rather than inspiring complacency. Had I been in a less secure and healthy place, I probably would have slipped back into the habit the second the opportunity arose.
Sure, I’m still tempted sometimes. I’m not sure that it’ll ever go away completely. Especially in times of stress, I feel my fingers inching towards my mouth, almost like muscle memory. And I’ve come pretty close to relapsing once or twice. But I don’t live in a constant state of withdrawal symptoms because I’ve successfully broken the habit in the right way, and I know that it’s broken for good.
And on top of breaking my bad habit, I’m learning new habits. Like clipping my fingernails. And taking care of myself in more substantial ways. That may be the most beautiful thing about breaking bad habits: It leaves you free to create new, positive habits that give you life. And isn’t that the point of it all, anyway?
I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back or to say that my way of breaking a bad habit is the only way. Certainly, there are circumstances where a habit can’t be broken cold turkey, and not everyone is fortunate enough to attain the kind of security that I had when I made that change. But I hope that my reflections on this experience are helpful and maybe even inspiring to those who find themselves trying to improve through breaking bad habits and forming good ones. The truth is that no matter how hard it may seem, it’s possible, and it’s more than worth it in the end.
So take a chance. Break the habit. Form a better one. Maybe, like me, you’ll find success and make your life a little bit better through it.