When I was little, my mom used to cut my nails for me. She couldn’t be bothered to do it too often, so she’d cut them painfully short; right to the quick. My nails would take weeks to grow back and they would throb for days. By the time I was in grade school, I had found a solution: nail-biting. I’d do it constantly so that my nails would always stay too short (and jagged and peeled) to be cut. My mom gave up cutting my nails for me and took up complaining about my nail biting instead. I think we were both satisfied by that solution.
Fast-forward to adulthood, and I’m still a nail-biter. Recently, I’ve been trying to break the habit, but it’s hard. I bite my nails when they get too long, so I’ve been filing them short instead. In trying to quit, I’ve noticed that I also bite my nails when I’m nervous. And when I’m bored, or my hands are otherwise unoccupied. I bite them without thinking, trying to solve a problem that no longer exists. As if I’m still trying to keep my mom from coming at me with the nail clippers, 20 years after the fact.
Meditation on this bad habit of mine prompted me to think about all the ways I’ve created habits and behaviours over the years, to fit myself into or to survive situations. Often, the behaviours last longer than the situations that created them, but I keep going back to them - like nail-biting, or an ex I know better than to call. (Can you tell I love metaphors?!) Maybe they don’t work, but they’re familiar - you always know the outcome, even if it’s a bad one (see: pervasive hang nails, see pervasive, hanging-on exes).
My therapist calls this “putting a coat on a hook." You’re in a situation that maybe feels kind of like something familiar in your past, and so you approach it in the exact same way you first learned to cope with it. In other words, you have a coat, and you see a hook, so you just put the coat on that hook. The situation is likely a lot different than the original experience. Maybe you’re older. Maybe you’re stronger, more stable or independent. Maybe the coat isn’t even yours. Maybe it’s not the right hook. Maybe it’s not your situation to deal with. Maybe you have the choice not to. Maybe there’s a whole other way of dealing with the situation than the maladaptive thought and behaviour patterns you learned the first time you were faced with something like this.
Point is, if you’re faced with a situation that makes you feel like, “this is exactly like that thing that happened before,” or, “this makes me feel like how I did when I was younger, or smaller or weaker” - try to stop for a minute. You’re not the person you were 20 years, 6 months or 12 minutes ago. You’re who you are now. And you right now, in the present moment, probably has a better, more intuitive solution, than the you from a completely different time and place.
Anyways, that’s all the unsolictited advice I’m prepared to give for now. For the record, I haven’t fully conquered the nail-biting. But hopefully, by the time you’re reading this, I’ve gotten a little bit closer to fully giving up my bad habit(s).