Tools & Tricks to Help a Long Time Compulsive Nail Biter Stop

Dear BR,

I am middle-aged and still unable to quit biting my fingernails. I have tried all sorts of things: gloves, bandaids, bitter flavored topicals, crocheting. I wonder if this is a form of self-injury or maybe pica. Only time I definitely don't bite my nails is if my hands are dirty, and, yes, I've been known to get up and go wash my hands so I can bite the nails.

I often "decide" not to do this anymore, but when the urge hits, usually while watching TV or reading, it's as if my priorities shift and I feel some kind of distracted anxiety if I don't bite them. I was eight yrs old when this started. I hated the sensation of having my nails trimmed and my sister taught me how to "trim" them myself.

At that time, the main reason Mother trimmed our nails was because we siblings scratched each other (for me it was always accidental) during arguments that became physical. I also remember associating fingernails with being pinched, especially by my sisters. Now if my nails grow out even a little bit they remind me of talons. And they feel too sharp and I'm astounded at what nasty stuff collects under them. I don't have any pleasant associations with having long nails, but I would like to break this habit to preserve what's left of the nail bed, to cease damaging my teeth and jaws and to make it easier to pick up items such as coins.

I am aware of many complex psychological connections within myself which seem to be in the way of improvement. I think this is part of a self-imposed strategy for keeping me "in my place". I must say, it would probably feel great to experience life without feeling self-concious and embarrassed about my hands with their bitten nails.

Can you help me?


Dear Sarah,

4215bI'm going to offer the same suggestion that I made to someone recently (he had a phobia about vomiting and terrors of other forms of gastric distress). I understand what you're saying and the connection you're making with your discomfort with long nails and fear of your own aggression, given what nails represented in your growing up years.

However, as I said this fellow, with an obsessive fear like his or a compulsive behavior like yours, insight is great for understanding it, but highly overrated for getting rid of it – even if the interpretation is spot on.

So, again, I recommend Mary Sise's DVD, Thought Field Therapy for Stress Management as the best possibility for a quick, effective intervention.

Her technique – a method that combines acupoint tapping with affirmations and bilateral eye movements and a bunch of other odd-looking stuff (a combination of Thought Field Therapy or TFT and Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT) – may make no sense to you, but who cares if it helps, right?

In my book on trauma and imagery, Invisible Heroes, I discuss how these "Alphabet Therapies" are astonishingly effective at helping people get rid of obsessive and compulsive behaviors, phobias, and other pesky, persistent challenges, which can take so darned long to improve with traditional, insight-oriented psychotherapy.

There are plenty of interesting and well formulated theories about how or why these protocols work, but the truth is nobody can say definitively how or why they produce the results they do. But Mary makes hers very accessible to the average viewer. And it's a good shot for you at an effective shortcut.

After watching her demonstrate the technique with several volunteers from her audience (some with some wicked phobias and behavior issues) you get to work with Mary yourself with a 'fill in the blanks' session.

She's very good and she knows what she's doing. She's also funny, smart and compassionate. It may take a few sessions before you see some change, but it's worth the brief time and trouble.

I'm very happy we carry this terrific DVD in our catalog. Good luck with this, and let me know how it goes.

All best, Belleruth