Several months ago, some of my friends pointed out a subconscious habit of mine. I was teaching Sunday School one morning and afterward, two friends of mine started making fun of my hands.
I had known for years that I have a problem with biting my nails, and have halfheartedly been trying to quit. So that Sunday morning, my friends brought something to my attention that I had been doing during the entire lesson. It seemed insignificant at the time, but as time went on I realized that it was key to breaking the habit.
They pointed out that I was feeling my fingernails with my other fingers. I vehemently denied it as they began doing the “live long and prosper” hand sign from Star Trek with each pair of fingers rubbing against its neighbor, exaggerating my habitual finger-feeling.
Over the ensuing weeks, they repeatedly pointed out how often I felt my fingernails without realizing it. I continually denied it until I made a harrowing discovery from last summer. I happened to glance at a triptych from a workout photoshoot last summer and made a fatal discovery.
Do you see it?
I sent that to my friends and they laughed. It was harrowing to suddenly be made aware of something I have unwittingly been doing which has contributed to my nailbiting. It works like this: I unconsciously made a habit of feeling my nails with their adjacent finger, and when the edge was too rough or sharp, I’d end up bringing it to my mouth for a nibble.
Gross, I know.
(Did you know that biting your nails is technically considered a form of auto-cannibalism? Eating yourself??)
My friend recommended that I buy a nail file rather than clippers, as it would help create smooth edges all around, thus when I felt them, there would be no sharp edges and therefore no need to bite them.
In order to quit my habit, I had to look way before the action itself in order to see where the root stemmed from. Addressing that root made it much easier to quit biting my nails.
Now, you probably know where I’m going with this, as nailbiting is a relatively inconsequential bad habit, but the solution I discovered can inform how we address more insidious habits and addictions. Look at a pornography and masturbation problem: By the time you’ve reached the point where you’re acting out, it’s typically too late to stop. You need to observe what was happening the previous hours and maybe even days leading up to that point in order to identify patterns of addiction.
With porn specifically, the roots are manifold and diverse. It could be any number of factors, including shame, inadequacy, stress, loneliness, wounds, and so on. It has become evident to me that when I’m in public, what I do with my eyes heavily affects the behavior which follows when I get home later. If I allow my eyes to linger on a beautiful woman, that has direct consequences later in the lonely hours. If I neglect to fill my mind with Scripture and choose to surf Facebook instead, this directly affects what is in my thoughts throughout the day.
Often these early stages can go undetected and we unconsciously fall back into the same patterns and wonder why we can’t just quit the action. It can help to make a mental (or written) inventory of everything that happened that day. Doing this consistently can help uncover hidden patterns and things which act as triggers for us to get drunk, high, and the like. An addiction doesn’t start the second you bring the bottle to your lips, or open up your laptop; it started hours or days before that moment.
Solomon addressed this method of prevention, rather than reaction, in the Proverbs. In Chapter 5, he commands his listener to not even go down the street where the adulteress lives. He doesn’t just say don’t go by her house, he says to not even go down the street where her house is. He wrote that, knowing the closer we allow ourselves to get to temptation, the harder it is to deny it. But if you can prevent this earlier than later, it’s easier to navigate the mores of desire and addiction.
As I recently wrote, plan ahead. Don’t wait until you are in the midst of your addiction to look for a way out. Return to the root of your habit or addiction and dig it out. Just as I had to do with my nailbiting dilemma, figure out what really causes the action and start there. Figure out how you can ‘smooth out the edges,’ so to speak. Eliminate the earlier patterns and habits which lead to acting out later on.
Most often, breaking a bad habit requires instituting new habits to replace them. For instance, I need to file my nails at least twice a week (new habit) to keep them smooth enough for me not to feel them and then bite them (old habit).
For sinful habits, it means creating patterns of worship and thought-formation to replace former thought patterns. This is the idea behind one of my favorite words, Liturgy. Liturgy basically refers to a formative pattern which shapes our habits and thoughts toward God, transforming our minds which, by nature, are oriented away from Him. For example, making a habit of filling our minds with scripture every morning will slowly replace lustful thoughts of body parts with goodness and truth. It will daily remind you how much you are loved and forgiven, replacing feelings of shame and insecurity, which often lead to acting out sexually or with substances.
Transforming your mind, as Paul puts it in Romans 12, requires consistent patterns and habits, not a one-time event. There is so much to be said about habits, liturgy, and thought formation which I’ll have to save for another time!
Fighting any kind of addiction is difficult. It requires persistence and most of the time, feeling like you’re being defeated. But that doesn’t mean it should continue to thrive in your life and run rampant like a western wildfire. Fortunately as Christians, we believe there is grace when we return to our habits and forgiveness when we screw up. Just as I still catch myself bringing my fingers to my teeth, recovery is a journey, not a light switch.
May we be people who work to identify the roots of our addictions and cut them off at the source. May we strive to live in freedom, accepting grace when we fail. And may we institute new habits in order to do away with the old, for the new has come and the old is gone!