While most people assume nail biting has to do with nerves or anxiety, one study is linking this bad habit to a surprising personality trait. According to a study published in the March 2015 issue of Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, nail biters are more likely to be perfectionists.
Biting nails, pulling out hairs, picking at skin—scientists and medical professionals have lumped these activities into a single category called body-focused repetitive behaviors.
Body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) are repetitive, injurious, and non-functional habits that cause significant distress or impairment, write scientists from the University of Montreal who studied individuals afflicted by such behaviors.
Now, you may expect someone who aims for perfection to have immaculately polished nails, but that’s not the case, says Dr. Kieron O’Conner, the study’s author. Perfectionists are often so focused on results, that they aren’t able to relax, and they overwork themselves. “They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals,” she explained. And that can lead to nail biting, apparently.
The researchers had a group of 48 people, half of them chronic nail biters, fill out surveys that evaluated their “experienced emotions.” They were then exposed to situations designed to provoke specific feelings, such as stress and boredom. In the end, they concluded that perfectionists are more likely to feel restless when there’s nothing to do, and biting their nails is an outlet for this impatience.
The bottom line? The results suggest that if you want to stop biting your nails, you should work on being less of a perfectionist, and reducing feeling of boredom and frustration. “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 explained.