Nail biting perfection

We all have little habits that, if we are honest, can border on the pathologically insane. Yes, that tendency you have to make paper napkins at restaurants into small origami hedgehogs is not, technically, “normal”. Not that “normal” should be an aspirational goal mind you, but there are certainly some behaviours that speak to a lack of balance. In fact nail biting has, in a new study, been shown to be part of a group of behaviours that can indicate some significant underlying issues.

Nail-biting, along with hair-pulling and skin-picking, comes under the psychological category of “body-focused repetitive behaviours”. To assess what sort of traits might go along with chronic nail-biting these researchers compared a group of individuals who were established as having these repetitive behaviours to a group without the behaviours.

First the two groups were exposed to situations designed to induce stress, relaxation, frustration, and boredom. Viewing a video of a plane crash was designed to induce stress, while watching waves on a beach was aimed at inducing relaxation. To create frustration the subjects were given a task that they were told would be “quick and easy” but which was in fact difficult and time consuming. Boredom was elicited by leaving the subject alone in a room for six minutes.

It emerged that people with repetitive behaviours such as nail biting were more likely to want to engage in the behaviour when they were bored or frustrated. Relaxation, by contrast, did not elicit these behaviours.

Based on this the researchers believe that people with these repetitive behaviours may be “perfectionist” in the sense that they are unable to relax and perform tasks at a “normal” pace. They are therefore disposed to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals and they are easily bored.

So that nail-biting is not just a nervous habit, it is an indication of underlying perfectionism. Bizarrely then, people who do nail-bite or hair-pull pathologically may be able to treat the condition by addressing their underlying tendency to feel frustration and boredom. It’s worth trying, and certainly more holistic than painting foul-tasting stuff on your fingernails.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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