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Nail Biting May Arise from Perfectionism

Far more than a nervous habit, body-focused repetitive behaviours may be a response to boredom and frustration

It is generally believed that the nail-biting habit has its origins in trauma of some kind typically suffered in early life but obviously not everyone who suffers trauma will go on to  develop it. So there has to be other factors at work deep in our subconscious. What is going on there?

Many people think of nail biting as a nervous habit, but the driving force may not be anxiety. Mounting evidence shows that people who compulsively bite their nails, pick their skin or pull their hair are often perfectionists, and their actions may help soothe boredom, irritation and dissatisfaction.

How many people suffer from this

As many as one in 20 people suffer from body-focused repetitive disorders, engaging in behaviours such as biting their nails or plucking out hair until they damage their appearance or cause themselves pain. These disorders are related to tic disorders and, more distantly, obsessive-compulsive disorder. As such, the repetitive behaviour is extremely difficult to quit—yet many people continue to think they simply have a nervous habit and are too weak-willed to overcome it.

A new study adds evidence to a theory that perfectionism rather than anxiety is at the root of these behaviours. The researchers first surveyed 48 participants, half of whom had these disorders and half of whom did not, on their organizational behaviour and ability to regulate their emotions. Those with the disorders scored as organizational perfectionists, indicating a tendency to overplan, overwork themselves and get frustrated quickly without high levels of activity.

Regarding the former the problem is seen in the following way by one nail-biter.

“It’s as if my deluded subconscious mind finds a bit of a nail, already well bitten, sticking out a bit or uneven and thinks ‘ if I bite that bit off it will even it up in line with the rest of the nail and look better"

Such delusions allow the habit to be never ending.

Produced by WDI