If you’re biting your nails as you read this, stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Research suggests that people who engage in mindless behaviors like hair twisting or nail biting might be more likely to have certain personality traits.
Research from the University of Montreal that was published in 2015 suggests that compulsively pulling on hair, biting nails or similar habits can be illuminating to an individual’s personality. Researchers found that impatient people, or people who get bored or frustrated easily, are more likely to be nail biters (or eyelash pullers or hair twisters…).
The Link To Perfectionism
These traits point to perfectionism, the study suggests.
Published in the March 2015 issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, researchers say that the perfectionist trait can be an underlying cause of these behaviors—and that perfectionism is more serious than many people realize.
“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,” Dr. Kieron O’Connor, professor of psychiatry at the university and the study’s lead author, said 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.”
Don’t We Bite Our Nails When We’re Nervous?
What’s interesting about this study is that most people associate nail biting with nervousness. But the research suggests that generally, the underlying force for these repetitive body behaviors is not always anxiety.
In fact, researchers found that boredom and frustration (two traits that come to the surface quickly with a perfectionist personality) could be more important triggers. Previous research has suggested that biting your nails or scratching your head can make you feel better temporarily, as it helps quell the perfectionist urge to be “doing something” rather than doing nothing.
How To Stop Biting Your Nails
So if you’re a chronic nail biter, is there hope for you?
There are two possible options for treatment currently. One is a behavioral method that replaces the habit with a competing action; another approach focuses on the underlying factors that create the urge to bite or itch—whether it be perfectionism, anxiety or otherwise.
As for O’Connor, he signs on more so to the latter approach.
“We look at all the thoughts and behaviors present in situations at high risk for the habit and change them through cognitive therapy to more resemble the thoughts and behaviors in low risk situations,” O’Connor told HuffPost. “We do not address the habit directly so the person does not need to learn a competing response to replace the habit.”
Learn more about O’Connor’s work and approach to treatment in the video below.
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And here’s a TED talk that tackles the simple way to break a bad habit by bringing mindful awareness to it. Sound like too much of a stretch for you? He explains why it works and how to apply it in your own life.
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