A few months back, I made the mistake of playing three hours of basketball in a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small for me.

I had put a hole in the sole of my regular pair. Not wanting to miss out on a good session of three-on-three, I dug through an old bag in my garage until I found a pair of something that looked at least halfway suitable for athletic activities.

facing a failure to actOnce I got back home at the end of the multi-hour session, I removed my shoes and found that something was very wrong with the big toe of my right foot. I’ll spare you the details, but essentially, it resulted in the absolute worst hangnail of my life. I’m not even sure “hangnail” is the proper term — literally my entire toenail had come loose — but that’s what I’m going to call it for the remainder of this article.

It was ugly, and though it wasn’t necessarily painful at this point, I could tell that it definitely would be in the future. And despite my foresight, I did absolutely nothing about it … for nearly five months. I was scared to do anything. The only way to fix an issue like this was to tear off the nail altogether, and I knew that would be awful (and awfully painful).

So I let the hangnail — a clear and present example of “not good” — linger, and I tried to forget about it. And in letting it linger for so long, I began to see the hangnail as a sort of symbol.

Confronting a Failure to Act

What does a lingering hangnail represent?

It represents something that nags at us, an issue in our lives which we know we must confront and solve at some point. In particular, a hangnail is an issue whose resolution requires us to do something painful, uncomfortable, or humiliating. Common examples include breaking up with a significant other, owning up to a big mistake, or seeking help for a difficult physical/mental issue, among many others.

The prospect of confronting these types of issues fills us with dread, so we put them off for a while, often indefinitely. We delay their resolutions because we’re too afraid to meet the trials that lead to them.

As I looked at my disfigured toenail, I realized that this wasn’t the first major “hangnail” I’ve had in my life.

I’ve made a habit of ignoring tough decisions. I’ve avoided potentially awkward conversations which could have salvaged eroding relationships. Many times, my failure to act due to fear has stripped me of agency. This new hangnail — a literal one, no less — had some valuable lessons to teach me.

Here are a few reasons you should be proactive about eliminating all the hangnails in your life.

Hangnails Keep You from Living Optimally

Every sort of activity that involved my feet posed a threat of pain because of my hangnail.

Running? One off-kilter step and I’d experience the worst stubbed toe of my life. Using stairs? Same issue — if I miscalculated a step and stubbed my toe …. horrendous. Sleeping? Not without a tight sock on my right foot. I kick around in my sleep, and many times my hangnail snagged on my sheet and caused blinding pain.

My hangnail had become a nuisance in my life. It wasn’t crippling per se, but it was extremely annoying. I was no longer doing anything the way I normally would. Many of my activities now had to cater to my hangnail, accommodate it lest I do something to aggravate it. Ever so slightly, my ability to control certain aspects of my life was slipping away — all due to my neglect to address the root of the problem.

And that’s what hangnails of all types do: they dominate your life. If left unattended to, lingering issues slowly begin to seep into your day-to-day and change what you know as “normal.” If your fear of that final confrontation is great enough, you’ll deal with minor daily discomfort. You’ll learn to live with a slowly growing sense of anxiety. Both are small prices to pay to avoid the greater consequence, right?

Perhaps so, but ask yourself this: are you willing to live in a new state of “normal,” one that may change constantly, one which is not decided by your terms?

When Left Untreated, Hangnails May Get Much Worse

For months, I was afraid that my rather severe hangnail would turn into something much worse — a terrible infection, maybe, some disgusting stump that would ultimately have to be amputated. I was afraid that it would become a source of even more significant pain and inconvenience, yet I still let it linger.

However, looking back now, I see that the hangnail was never really as big a health danger as I thought it at the time. Rather, the truly debilitating thing was the anxiety it filled me with, the worry that it did indeed have the potential to become something much, much worse.

That’s true for all other hangnails in our lives, too. They may become something serious; they may not. But when we let these hangnails linger, when we leave their resolution in limbo, all we can do is focus on what they might turn into.

There are usually a few possible outcomes.

  1. We manage to put the issue out of our mind long enough that we forget about it; the issue itself never becomes any more serious.
  2. We leave the issue alone, and as time passes it becomes more serious, difficult, painful, and expensive to deal with; we come to regret our inaction.
  3. We leave the issue alone, and it doesn’t get any worse, but there’s always the possibility that it does; there’s no closure, and there’s no certainty — the perfect environment for debilitating anxiety to develop.

The first option is rather rare. The other two are much more common and much more troubling than just remedying the issue when we have the chance.

Removing Hangnails May Not Be So Painful After All

Following a particularly annoying day (a couple of toe stubs, plus a painful incident when putting on a shoe), I decided once and for all that the hangnail had to go. Before my evening shower, I looked down at the menacing nail, and I knew what I had to do. I had to peel it off. I knew it would hurt. I knew there might be tears, a few curses, but I couldn’t take it anymore.

Sometimes all that pain you imagine is just that — imaginary.

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Through gritted teeth, I began to pull the nail back. I felt a pinch. I could feel the tension as the hangnail reached the precipice of its breaking point; a light sweat had begun to form on my brow.

I felt a stronger pinch, the tearing of what was left of my cuticle, and then… it was over.

The nail came off in my hand, and the whole ordeal was over. No pain, no tears, no blood.

Beneath the now removed nail, I could see that a new nail had grown in. It already had a couple of months of growth. It had pushed the hangnail out of the way until it was quite literally hanging on by a minuscule thread of dead skin. I had lived through months of great discomfort and anxiety for pretty much no reason.

That brings me to my final point: sometimes, all that pain you imagine will result from your confrontation with your respective hangnail is just that — imaginary. The mind can cook up some very unpleasant expectations, but you never know for sure how something will turn out until you experience it first hand.

Hangnails of all kinds are perfectly normal in life. Our fear of them is normal as well. Sometimes, it’s okay to take a little time to determine the best course of action for confronting them. The important thing, though, is that we take action. Don’t let a little hangnail plot the course of your life. Getting rid of it may not be as bad as you think.

Featured Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash
Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash

 

Zach Morgan learned a valuable life lesson from a hangnail. The painful situation gave him an opportunity to face his fear confront his failure to act.

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