How to Break a Bad Habit You Learned as a Child

You aren’t quite sure how or when it started, but you know that at some point when you were little, you started biting your nails. You know it’s a gross habit to keep and that it’s bad for your teeth. You don’t find the idea of exposing yourself to an excess amount of germs very appealing. Yet no matter how hard you have tried, you just can’t stop.

Habits form for many reasons, but it’s a trait we all share. Once something becomes part of our routine or we associate a certain location or feeling with a specific response, continuing just becomes natural. This phenomenon has a lot to do with our environment, emotional and physical triggers, which is why it can sometimes be so difficult to break a habit we have had for what feels like forever.

Breaking a habit may be tricky, but it is completely possible. It’s going to take some work and patience and dedication, but whatever your habit is, you can break it, even after all these years. Here’s how to break a bad habit you learned as a child, and keep it out of your routine for good.

Identify your triggers

Woman Holding Glass of Orange Juice

Every habit has a trigger. That trigger is what tempts us to seek out the reward—pleasure—from engaging in the habit, whether it be a good habit or a bad habit. When you’ve had a bad habit for a long time, it can be difficult to figure out what sets off that sense of urgency and continues the cycle.

Figure out what triggers your bad habit as a first step to figuring out how to break it. It could be a certain time of day, a certain person or an emotional state. Maybe you have a friend from your childhood who unknowingly triggers your nail-biting habit whenever the two of you still get together. You don’t have to completely eliminate that friend from your life. Just be a little more self-aware when he or she is around.

Stress, or rather the negative physical and emotional effects of stress, can also trigger your bad habit. Practice stress management techniques, like counting to 10 with your eyes closed, and see if that helps you avoid giving in.

Understand what temptation is and is not

Hand Holding Daisy

When we are faced with a trigger, we feel the immediate effects of temptation. Long-lasting habits are hard to break because our brains associate the habit with satisfying a need. We learn to recognize that a certain trigger must mean it’s time to engage in a certain—often negative—activity.

Temptation does not creep up in response to an urgent matter. Your sudden desire to bite your nails is not an emergency. Temptation only tries to trick you into thinking there is a need that needs immediate attention, when in reality, if you waited it out long enough, the urge would go away completely on its own.

Learning how to resist temptation can be as easy as choosing your words more carefully. In a health-related study, those who said “I don’t eat ice cream” instead of “I can’t eat ice cream” were much more likely to say no to future temptations. Don’t tell yourself you can’t. Just convince yourself you don’t … anymore.

Replace your bad habit with a good one

Tumbler of Ice Water

Sometimes we continue engaging in a bad habit, year after year, because we don’t have anything to stand in place of that bad habit. You might bite your nails because you are nervous, but it doesn’t help that you don’t know what else to do with your hands when put in a situation that results in nervousness.

Therefore, you might benefit from replacing this habit with a better one, or at least substituting it with something that won’t cause you potential harm. This is a much easier step to take once you have identified your triggers and have a better understanding of how temptation factors negatively into the equation.

If you are out, order a glass of water and hold it in one hand so you are less tempted to bring that hand to your mouth. Hold your napkin between your hands underneath the table. Depending on where you are, you could also try sitting on your hands or, better yet, taking notes if someone is speaking.

Promote the better habit and plan for setbacks

Binoculars and Mountains

Make it easier for yourself to either avoid a bad habit or embrace the one you are going to replace the bad habit with. By promoting the better habit, you are much less likely to say yes to temptation day in and day out. Breaking a habit takes some work: putting in some effort is necessary, but completely worth it.

Plan ahead. If your bad habit is eating too much junk food, stock your fridge and pantry with healthier snacks. If you know you’re going to be in a situation that makes you nervous, take preventative measures such as wearing gloves so you don’t subconsciously bite your nails while there.

If you did happen to accidentally bite your nails and return to your habit, though, it wouldn’t actually be the end of the world. It is also important to plan for setbacks when trying to break a habit. No one is perfect, and habit breaking is more of a journey than a linear set of forward-moving steps. Know that if you go backwards one day, that does not mean you can’t make a comeback the next.

Forming habits is just part of being human. Having to deal with the consequences of keeping up a bad habit from childhood well into adulthood is not easy, and makes the journey to breaking that habit much more difficult to complete.

It can be completed successfully, though. Take some time to recognize your triggers and understand how temptation affects you. Train yourself to replace your bad habit with a good one, and promote that better habit without worrying too much about setbacks. In the end, you will be able to look back and be proud of how you successfully kicked your habit, regardless of how long it took you to get there.