I will be the first to admit that nail biting is not a particularly attractive habit. I will also be the first to admit that I bite my nails. I have tried giving up this terrible habit so many times, and I have successfully gone many months without doing it. However, no matter how long I hold out, I always wind up giving in, but I know I’m not the only one. Actually, “about half of all children between the ages of 10 and 18 bite their nails at one time or another” (source). Is there a real reason behind why we do it though or is it just some kind of innate tic?
Actually, nail biting, also referred to as a onychophagia is a body-focused repetitive behavior that “is a common, but unresolved problem in psychiatry, psychology, medicine, and dentistry” as stated in a study by Ahmad Ghanizadeh. However, despite this one point of view, there are still many theories as to what the root of nail biting could be. According to this article, nail biting is believed to be a “stress-relieving habit” which is something most people would agree with. Some people know they bite their nails (often without even realizing it) when they’re bored, excited, nervous, afraid, anxious, stressed, and about every other emotion in between, I am living proof that this is true. Sometimes I bite my nails to preoccupy my mind when emotions are high. Fred Penzel, PhD actually backs this up in his article. He states that nail biting “satisfie[s] an urge” because it gives people a “pleasurable or relaxed sensation” which produces an “uncontrollable feeling of needing to do [it].” This isn’t the only cause for nail biting though. In fact, other explanations include learned: behavior, perfectionism, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Learned Behavior and OCD are pretty self-explanatory reasons for nail biting. In learned behavior, a person sees someone of authority or whom they may idolize biting their nails, and then they learn to bite their nails too, or they do it once, like the results, and develop a habit out of it. A person with OCD bites their nails because they feel it is necessary in order for them to function. Those who bite their nails obsessive-compulsively do so without restraint and because of a mental illness. The last one, perfectionism, is the newest solution and also the most interesting. In a study highlighted by this article, perfectionism seemed to be a likely explanation as to why nail biters, well, bite their nails. Kieron O’Connor, who led the study, summed up the results by stating that “individuals with these repetitive behaviors [nail biting] may be perfectionistic, meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform tasks at a ‘normal’ pace [making them more] prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom.”
So, in the end, all of these reasons seem a likely cause. Although I never truly arrived at an answer to why people bite their nails, that’s okay. Whether, it’s relaxing, learned, obsessive-compulsive, or perfectionistic, the habit can be broken. If it doesn’t eventually go away on it’s own, a person can use a variety of different techniques–from bitter-tasting nail polish to psychological help–in order to get rid of it. Either way, nail biters don’t have to be nail biters forever.