She Said, She Said: Advice About Nails and Aisle-Walking -The Toast

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Previous installments of The Toast’s newly-renamed (thanks, Adrienne!) advice column from two disparate and imperfect persons can be found here. Last time: Job Dilemmas.

Okay, so I know we’re all disgusting meat bags, and that’s cool, but I am hoping for some advice on being slightly less disgusting. In the past few years, since I graduated college, I’ve developed the gross habit of basically gnawing on my cuticles/the whole area around my nails. I’ve never been a nail biter, but I guess this is similar. Even if there isn’t anything loose to bite, I pick at it til there is. At this point I barely even realize I’m doing it. My fingers look awful, it can’t possibly be sanitary, everything is unpleasant about it. How do I stop??? Painting my nails doesn’t work; they’re usually painted anyway and it doesn’t deter me. Help!

Nicole: I do this too. I cannot help you. (strokes your face with ragged cuticles)

Mallory: Oh! This is actually something I can be vaguely helpful with. My dad (hi, dad!) used to do the exact same thing for years, and he’s not a disgusting meatbag at all. It’s definitely not good for you (have you ever had an infected cuticle? It’s pretty rough, my friend), but the good news is that the answer to your problem is not just “buy that stuff that makes your nails taste bad” or “I don’t know, try harder.” There’s a whole field of psychological study around how to effectively and permanently change unconscious habits (habit reversal training), and there are some nifty tricks you can learn to break the unconscious cue-and-response system.

Basically the idea is that every habit starts off with a sometimes-unconscious cue (emotional, external, whatever), followed by whatever behavior you’re looking to break, then the emotional or physical reward (Goddd, yesss, I ripped off that long strip of skin by my thumb, it feels so good, let’s do it again forever). You’re not gross, you just have an effectively trained brain. You don’t have to try to change or get rid of the cue or the reward; you just have to become consciously aware of them and then find ways to change the routine.

Here’s an example:

The psychologist knew that changing Mandy’s nail biting habit required inserting a new routine into her life. “What do you feel right before you bring your hand up to your mouth to bite your nails?” he asked her.

“There’s a little bit of tension in my fingers,” Mandy said. “It hurts a little bit here, at the edge of the nail. Sometimes I’ll run my thumb along, looking for hangnails, and when I feel something catch, I’ll bring it up to my mouth then. I’ll go finger by finger, biting all the rough edges. Once I start, it feels like I have to do all of them.”

Asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behavior is called awareness training, and it’s the first step in habit reversal training. The tension that Mandy felt in her nails cued her nail biting habit.

“Most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes it anymore,” said Brad Dufrene, who treated Mandy. “I’ve had stutterers come in, and I’ll ask them which words or situations trigger their stuttering, and they won’t know because they stopped noticing so long ago.”

Next, the therapist asked Mandy to describe why she bit her nails. At first, she had trouble coming up with reasons. As they talked, though, it became clearer that she bit when she was bored. The therapist put her in some typical situations, such as watching television and doing homework, and she started nibbling. When she had worked through all of the nails, she felt a brief sense of completeness, she said. That was the habit’s reward: a physical stimulation she had come to crave.

At the end of their first session, the therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: Carry around an index card, and each time you feel the cue — a tension in your fingertips — make a checkmark on the card.

She came back a week later with 28 checks. She was, by that point, acutely aware of the sensations that preceded her habit. She knew how many times it occurred during class or while watching television.

This might not be the exact case for you, obviously. You might bite your nails when you feel nervous or scared or upset or ____. The key is to start paying close attention to what feels like an automatic, knee-jerk response, until you can start figuring out whatever circumstance or feeling sets the need to chew off in your brain. Then comes the next step:

Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a “competing response.” Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation — such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk — anything that would produce a physical response. It was the Golden Rule: The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.

They practiced in the therapist’s office for about half and hour and Mandy was sent home with a new assignment: Continue with the index card, but make a check when you feel the tension in your fingertips and a hash mark when you successfully override the habit.

A week later, Mandy had bitten her nails only three times and had used the competing response seven times. She rewarded herself with a manicure, but kept using the note cards.

After a month, the nail biting habit was gone. The competing routines had become automatic. One habit had replaced another.

For what it’s worth, this is exactly the technique that my dad used and it’s worked for the last year. As long as I can remember, my dad has always had chewed-up nails and fraying cuticles, and now they look like anybody else’s. Normal hands! I have no idea how long it took him or how much time he spends thinking about it now, but I do know that it’s been a long-term and effective change for him, so take heart. Keep us posted if this is something you decide to do, by the way! I want to hear if it works out.

If my adored grandad is still alive, I kinda want him to walk me down the aisle. But I love my dad and also he might get pissed at being passed over? And my mom will get pissed if I don’t include my stepdad, whom I love too (though I don’t imagine he personally would care either way.) So, what to do? Have three men walk me down the aisle, relay-race style? Or walk my own damn self down the aisle, because Patriarchy and I don’t need to be passed like a hot potato from the control of one man to another? ADVISE PLEASE.

Mallory: What I really want is for the three of them to crowd-surf you down the aisle until your husband can reach out for you and hoist you above his head for the duration of the vows, but I realize that might be difficult to choreograph this late in the wedding-planning game, particularly if your grandfather is elderly.

It sounds to me like the “walk my own damn self down the aisle” isn’t really an option you want to take, just a criticism you know could hypothetically be lobbed at you and that you’d prefer to anticipate. But if you would prefer to walk down the aisle alone, and you’re only worrying about which man to choose to walk with you because you feel like you have to, just saunter down by your lonesome. It’s, what, a twenty-second walk? You’ll be swell; you’ll be great.

That said, if you would find it meaningful to have a member of your immediate family join you for the toddle to the altar, invite as many gentlemen you like. If all three of them linked arms and walked with you, it would be like the Wizard of Oz, which is a gay classic, and that’s sort of like subverting the patriarchy if you close your eyes almost all the way and tilt your head a little.

Nicole: OH, I’ve got this one! I have this bizarre, bizarre aversion to any kind of ritualistic daddy-daughter stuff, which, happily, my dad shares, so we have always eaten burgers and talked about books and life and stuff and enjoyed each other’s company in perfect contentment without paranoia that aisle-walking or first-dancing would ever come to pass. But this is a real issue* for wedding-havers that is only more of an issue every year, and my personal suggestion would be to just embrace the zoo. Let the whole horde walk down the aisle/beach/botanical garden path with you together, if they aren’t in the habit of getting into fights. Or have your future spouse walk with you. I’ve always liked the Jewish tradition of both the bride and the other bride walking in with each of their parents, which might distract from THIS LADY HAS SO MANY PARENTAL FIGURES. And, obviously, just do exactly what you want to do, because “your wedding is really about your family” is a crock of shit, they had their fucking chance. Your dad is not giving out favours to Luca Brasi. Not making waves may be the thing that will ultimately make you happiest, but that’s for you to figure out. I bless your union.

*Obviously there are realer issues, like overthrowing the patriarchy, but you might as well do something that works and is satisfying and meaningful to you.

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