Biting nails, pulling out hairs, picking at skin—scientists and medical professionals have lumped these activities into a single category called body-focused repetitive behaviors.
Body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) are repetitive, injurious, and non-functional habits that cause significant distress or impairment, write scientists from the University of Montreal who studied individuals afflicted by such behaviors.
Essentially, these researchers wanted to see what caused people to bite their nails. Is this behavior an emotional coping mechanism or is it something that they do in response to their environment?
Scientists studied a group of individuals who engage in these behaviors as well as a control group, putting individuals in situations where they were made to feel stress, relaxation, frustration, and boredom. “The first two involved the screening of videos (a plane crash and the waves on a beach),” writes Science Daily.
“Frustration was elicited by asking the participants to complete a task that was supposedly easy and quick (it wasn’t) and boredom was caused by…leaving the participant alone in a room for six minutes!”
The study concluded “that participants were more likely to engage in body-focussed repetitive behaviours when they felt bored, frustrated, and dissatisfied than when they felt relaxed. Moreover, they do engage in these behaviours when they are under stress. This means that condition is not simply due to ‘nervous” habits,'” study author Sarah Roberts relayed to the science research website.
“The findings suggest that individuals suffering from body-focussed repetitive behaviours could benefit from treatments designed to reduce frustration and boredom and to modify perfectionist beliefs.”
There it is: Nail biting is a sign of perfectionism.
“We believe that individuals with these repetitive behaviours maybe perfectionistic,” concluded principal investigator Kieron O’Connor, “meaning that they are unable to relax and to perform task at a ‘normal’ pace. They are therefore prone to frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction when they do not reach their goals. They also experience greater levels of boredom.”
“Perfectionism is a phobia of making mistakes,” Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Jeff Szymanski told the Harvard Health Blog. “Perfectionists are hard on themselves, very self-critical. But in beating themselves up, they end up demoralizing themselves.”
This condition doesn’t have to be a negative thing, though, according to Dr. Szymanski. “The core of all perfectionism is the intention to do something well… The challenge is to think about doing it differently.”
This is not to say that perfectionists should settle for less or hold themselves to lower standards. People with perfectionist tendencies should focus their attention on solutions instead of on problems. Sometimes this can mean trying a variety of techniques to get to their desired result. It may also mean stepping away from a problem for a minute and moving on to another task instead of allowing one problem to derail the pursuit of a broader goal.
“Healthy perfectionists are problem solvers,” Dr. Szymanski says. “They make the most of their mistakes.”
If you find yourself nibbling on your nails, pulling on your hair, or picking at your skin, this can be a sign that you’re stressed, bored, or frustrated—and you may be a perfectionist. Don’t let this get you down, though. There are ways to use this condition to your advantage. You may just need to work on your problem-solving techniques.
Consulting a medical professional or counselor would be a great place to start improving your problem solving-skills.