Shame didn’t help. Pain didn’t either. Love, prayer, and good resolves were not enough to keep my nails. But I write to encourage you. Bad habits are breakable and good habits are make-able.
But not how I thought.
I’ll explain how I kicked my habit in a minute. But first a little background.
You can listen to this post at the Keep On podcast.
A Real Nail Biter
I’m 37 days into breaking a 40-year-long bad habit.
I cannot remember a time when I did not bite my nails. In grade school, I hid my hands because it embarrassed me when curious classmates would gasp, “You bite your nails?”
In high school, I dismissed my stubs as a function of being a farmer’s daughter—I milked goats after all—and an active athlete.
When friends got gorgeous manicures, I assured myself I was saving much-needed college funds by “keeping” my nails short.
I put my habit on hold the last month of college. Because the last month of college was the month before my wedding and I wanted that hand-over-hand photo with brand new wedding bands. So I mastered myself long enough to avoid wedding-photo disgrace. Just long enough to avoid nubs.
But it was only just a question of when. Three weeks after the wedding, I had whittled them down again.
A Matter of Love
How I tried to break the habit. I tried and tried and tried. I tried all “5 Hacks to Stop Biting” but none worked for me. Neither the chemical-tasting polish, nor the more natural jalapeño, were bitter enough to break me. Carrying a nail clipper wherever I went also didn’t work. The book by Stubbs Nomore taught me a thing or two about my bad habit, but it did not rid me of it.
Another book called Stop Your Nailbiting hailed the power of pairing an aversive stimulus with a problem behavior, say a thin rubber band snapped on a tender inner wrist at the first sign of nail biting.
My wrist grew red and raw. But I did not cure myself—not “easily, quickly or permanently.” Not at all.
Not even the pain wasn’t enough.
Grace for the Fails
But I found good in the humbling. In fact, the humbling is a good, because God gives grace to the humble. In my failure, I grew in mercy for those who could not break their own self-destructive habits. I felt comradery with alcoholics and smokers who go back. I know how it feels to do what I do not want to do.
So I prayed and resolved and looked for new power to overcome.
What about love? Was the power of love strong enough to break bad habits?
Bad Habits Block Love
How, you ask, would breaking my nail biting habit be an act of love?
For starters, one can’t give a good back rub with nubs. Not even to the husband one loves. One can’t scratch a son’s shoulder or open an aunt’s soda.
Stubs block love.
By that description, nail-biting is also an addiction. For addictions are habits that keep us from showing love. Nail biting impaired my ability to love. And the greatest of these is love.
But no resolve stuck—not even the good, prayer-bathed, present-your-request-to-God-with-thanksgiving ones. Nor did a let-go-and-let-God approach. Not a single one of the “6 Tips to Stop Biting” worked.
Yes, I know: Nothing will work if you don’t.
But even when I did work, when I bought the aversive polish and plucked the rubber band, even when I humbled myself and asked friends to check on me, even then I couldn’t break the habit.
Even when I meticulously filed and trimmed each night with the “Ultra cuticle trimmer” my hopeful friend Lisa bought me, I failed, I lapsed, I bit.
That’s what didn’t work.
But what did?
Bad Habits, Good God
God gave me an unexpected gift. Every good gift is from our good God. The God who breaks the pow’r of canceled sin and sets the pris’ner free. The God who raises the dead, who is at work in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.
That God. Our God.
Thirty-seven days ago, as our family went west for a week, my nails were not in my thoughts. But on the way home, I scratched an itch. I mean scratched with a sharp fingernail not rubbed with a fleshy nub. My fingers didn’t look so raw, and a crescent of white crowned each tip.
And I liked what I saw.
The desire to bite is (mostly) gone. But this freedom did not come with my plan or a new hack. There was no accountability partner or fresh resolve. God simply broke in and interrupted my lifelong bad habit. God gave me that gift.
He has done it. I have received it—his love, his gift. For what do we have that we did not receive?
A (Recovering) Nail Biters Habit-Breaking Takeaways
- Negative consequences aren’t adequate to break all bad habits. The fear of disappointing my husband again, the embarrassment of showing my stubby, bandaged fingers at work, and the shame of failing was not enough.
- But positive reinforcement isn’t always sufficient either. My husband’s delight at seeing my pretty hands, the reward of a manicure, and my pleasure at seeing the whites were not enough.
- Nor, as I’ve explained earlier, is committing one’s cause to God a guarantee that he will extinguish the habit.—at least this side is heaven. Even with prayer and caring Christian sisters to hold me accountable, I kept right on biting.
Please note, I am not prescribing. There is no fool-proof, habit-breaking formula.
While new environments can help break us bad habits, and distraction can shake off what binds us, they don’t always. My nails today are a gift from God. Period.
4. That is my fourth takeaway. God may choose to break a bad habit without our help. Sometimes there is spontaneous recovery.
But he may have made mountains and canyon hikes means of grace. He may have used a week in Grand Teton and Montana to break my bad habit. He may have shown me more of His glory there to set me free.
I absolutely think he did.
But it wasn’t in the least because of me.
I am torn. I almost didn’t share this story because a big “what if” is niggling at me.
What if I lapse and bite? What if you see me next week and my fingers are not crowned in white?
If that happens, I want you to know that the lapse was in me, not in God. My job now is to take heed.
“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, NASB).
From Morn to Night, My Friend
In the end, this is not a list of hacks or a how-to guide. Rather, it is my testimony to the goodness of God.
It’s a call to you who are burdened by bad habits that, as yet, you have been unable to break. It is my call, after a blip of 37 days following 40 years of failure, to keep hoping in the Lord who does all things well, and at his time and in his way.
I commend to you the first stanza of Up-Hill, a poem by Christina Rosetti.
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be “over it.” I may be a “recovering nail biter” to the end. Breaking bad habits may take us the whole long day.
And that’s all right.
Because our God is with us, to will and to act, and sometimes he acts when we least expect it and in the most surprising ways.
As long as we are young we set so much importance on our own efforts, whereas often, if we will just do nothing but listen quietly to what God has to say to us, we shall find that He sets us thinking and mending our faults by a quiet way which looks as though it had nothing to do with it; and then, when we come to about where our fault used to be, we find it gone, imperceptibly as it were, by our having been strengthened in another direction which lay, though we did not know it, at the real root of the matter.
— Henrietta Kerr,
Joy & Strength, 8/2023
How did you break a bad, unhelpful habit? I’d love to hear.