Do You Bite Your Nails? It Might Mean You're A Perfectionist

The Psychology Of Nail-Biting, Skin-Picking And Other Compulsive Behaviors
Head shot of worried woman
Head shot of worried woman

Are you mindlessly twisting your hair or biting your nails as you read this article? New research from the University of Montreal suggests that compulsive behaviors like these might say more about your personality than you think.

People who are generally impatient, or who get bored or frustrated easily, are more likely to engage in repetitive body-focused behaviors such as skin-picking, nail-biting or eyelash-pulling, the researchers found.

The study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, points to perfectionism -- a trait that can be more damaging than many people realize -- as an underlying cause.

“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 Tuesday. "They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom.”

In the study, the researchers worked with 48 participants, half of whom regularly engaged in these types of behaviors. The other participants, who didn't engage in these behaviors, acted as a control group. The participants were asked questions about the extent to which they experienced emotions like boredom, anger, guilt, irritability and anxiety. Then, each participant was exposed to situations designed to provoke particular feelings (including relaxation, stress, frustration and boredom). In the boredom scenario, for instance, the subject was simply left alone in a room for six minutes.

Participants with a history of fidgety, body-focused behaviors reported greater urges to engage in those behaviors when they were feeling stressed and frustrated. But they didn't report feeling those urges while they were relaxing.

If you do bite your nails from time to time, there's no need to worry -- you're probably not doing much harm. In fact, the researchers say that such behaviors serve a temporary purpose when we're not able to channel our energy more productively.

"The positive effects of the habits are stimulation and a (maladaptive) way of regulating emotion," O'Connor said in an email to The Huffington Post. "What triggers the habit is largely frustration and impatience so the action substitutes for more constructive action."

But when the habits are difficult to stop and they interfere with daily life, they can become habit disorders. Actress Olivia Munn, for instance, has spoken about her struggle with trichotillomania, an anxiety disorder characterized by compulsive hair-pulling (in Munn's case, her eyelashes).

"I don't bite my nails, but I rip my eyelashes," Munn told the New York Daily News in 2012. "It doesn't hurt, but it's really annoying."

So how could these behaviors be treated? Currently, there are two possible avenues -- a behavioral treatment that involves replacing the habit with a competing action, and a separate approach that focuses on the underlying factors that create tension, such as perfectionism and other negative beliefs, according to O'Connor.

"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."

Clarification: Language has been amended to reflect that trichotillomania is not defined exclusively by pulling eyelashes, but can involve any type of hair.

Before You Go

Trichotillomania and Dermatillomania

Body-Focused Anxiety Disorders

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