Have you ever had a bad habit that you never broke until you mysteriously stopped wanting to do it, and then you just stopped? Maybe instead, you’re like me and you wish it was that simple.
Or maybe, you want to work something good into your routine, like exercise or prayer or some sort of quiet relaxation time, but found yourself very unmotivated to do so. If you’re trying to start a new habit instead of break one, I suggest you skip down to the solution below.
I’ve been biting my fingernails and cuticles ever since I can remember. I’ve gotten pretty good at not doing it when I’m around people, even if I’m nervous, because when I see people biting their nails in public it makes them look very uncomfortable and nervous and unsure of themselves, an image I go to great length to avoid getting across.
Someone in my church made an observation that many of our volunteers and staff (especially in our youth program) have some noticeable nervous habit. The other day I looked around and maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of volunteer/staff present at our youth event (myself included) were chronic nail-biters.
This just became more than just nail biting. I know leaders can never really be perfect people, but I don’t want my youth to be following after someone with undealt-with basal levels of anxiety. While I don’t think that anxiety disqualifies a person for leadership, I personally want to be consistent as a teacher: if I’m teaching students not to worry (Matthew 6, Philippians 4) then I should be modeling this.
In the isolating environment of my work, I’ve found myself increasingly in my own head, and acutely aware of the anxiety and uncertainty that makes my nervous habit difficult for me to control. And while I know some people who stopped biting their nails simply because they didn’t feel like it anymore, which has never been my case, and I would like to get out of this habit like, now. But it is also apparent to me that if I’m going to break this habit, I need to address the underlying anxiety. So I’m going to break the rest of this post into 1) the cause, 2) the brain function, and 3) potential solutions.
The cause: I was listening to an episode on habits from Andy Stanley’s Leadership Podcast, which offered a suggestion for identifying the cause if you don’t already know what it is: every time you bite your nails (or even feel the urge to do so), take a piece of paper and make a tick mark.
This was a humbling exercise for me. My tally was 32 on day 1. 30 of them were during the time I was at work, which is nearly 4 times per hour.
So then I started to become aware of what was going through my mind during these times: from worrying about what I would need to change if my next experiment didn’t work, playing scenarios in my head of how my lab members would react to my lab presentation, trying to talk to organize things with different people about living situations next year, worrying about how to effectively communicate my next Sunday School lesson, trying to plan the next youth worship team set, wondering when I’d have time to get groceries and cook something, brainstorming my boyfriend and I’s next date or thinking about something we want to work on together. Worry had seeped into every area of my life, so anything that caused any sort of uncertainty made me react in engaging in my habit.
In all of these situations, somehow I sensed a danger or a tension: tension in knowing that I am enough and lovable (Psalm 137:14, Romans 5:8) but wondering if there’s more or something different I should be doing (James 2), danger in feeling inadequate at my work and feeling the need to prove myself, danger in worrying about what would happen if I didn’t do a good job communicating my next Sunday School lesson.
So now I want to know what’s going on in my brain.
The brain: Turns out our brain prefers physical pain to anxiety. If the brain senses danger or anxiety, the slight physical pain caused by a nail or cuticle “injury” is actually one way to distract the brain from the anxiety. In extreme cases, this leads to other physical behaviors (you know what they are) that often the person engaging in them knows that it’s hurtful and potentially life-threatening but does it anyway. Physical pain then becomes an escape from the anxiety, allowing us to “run away” instead of fully engaging with what is making us anxious, to test to determine if it’s really all that dangerous, and make a logical and sound decision of our course of action.
Basically, if I want to learn to manage anxiety, I have to allow myself to fully feel it, bring it out and think about it. Recognize the cause, remind myself of truth, talk to someone else and allow them to remind me of truth if this is hard for me to do by myself, and then determine the best course of action (or inaction, as is best sometimes). Learning to stop by bad habit comes along with learning to manage the anxiety. And with that…
The solution: To making or breaking a habit, that is. Managing anxiety through doing the things in the previous paragraph and, ultimately, learning to give God control over things is something I’ve gotten better at over time, but my focus now is on the habit itself.
I’ve still tried a lot of things to break my habit, short of adding hot sauce to my fingernails: I’ve asked people to poke me when they see me doing it (which, as I mentioned, doesn’t work because I really only do it when I’m alone), I’ve painted my nails (which worked unless the paint was at all imperfect, then the habit got worse because I was picking off the paint too), I put on band-aids until I ran out.
The suggestion my podcast gave was to give your brain a “reward”: something that it looks forward to for doing or not doing something. The key is an immediate reward: If you want to start exercising, allow yourself to eat some chocolate (only) after you exercise. It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you’re looking forward to a reward, it makes the difficulty easier to endure (huh, Hebrews 12:1-2). I’ve heard the suggestion of hanging up in view a pair of jeans of the size you want to be, but I personally don’t think this reward is immediate enough. Or, treat yourself to a nice coffee drink during or after your relaxation or quiet time. Something like that.
This might be a bit more complicated for people trying to break a habit instead of make one. For me, I’ve gotten my boyfriend involved in this, who’ll take me on a day-trip or some sort of day-long date when I can get my tally to 0. That’s a pretty good reward for me 🙂 So we’ll see how long this takes.
Find a reward. Get other people involved. If you’re serious about breaking a bad habit or forming a good one, it takes a lot of effort. But I am convinced and hopeful that it can be done and it can work, because science.