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Isaacs, S. (1935). 'Bad Habits'. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 16:446-454.

(1935). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 16:446-454

'Bad Habits'

Susan Isaacs

The following notes refer only to 'bad habits' in the narrowest sense in which the term is used, namely persistent actions which do not yield to external pressure and are concerned either with the subject's own body, as in thumb-sucking, masturbation, head knocking, body jigging, grimacing, nose rubbing, grinding teeth, nail biting, etc.; or with the use of certain physical objects, as for example, in sucking the sheet or blanket, eating hair or paper, pushing beads up the nose or drinking in a queer way. As we know, most of these physical objects are substitutes for persons or for parts or products of persons. The function of the habit seems to be to assist internal psychic equilibrium by the mastering of anxiety.

Of all the wide variety of such persistent actions brought to my own notice, thumb- or finger-sucking and some types of genital masturbation are by far the most frequent. In a hurried and not too accurate counting of cases that have come my way within the last four years, the proportions run roughly: genital habits, 70; thumb- and finger-sucking, 50; sucking of other objects, 15; head knocking 10; nail biting, 20; with a varying number from one to six of the following types of habit: eating fæces, eating paper, rocking and jigging of the whole body, nose rubbing, queer drinking, eating hair, grinding teeth, pulling the hair, pushing things up the nose, and undefined 'nervous tricks.' It is interesting to note that bed-wetting and persistent dirtying are not usually included under the term 'bad habits', in the narrow sense I am discussing, although when people talk about the necessity for encouraging 'good' habits in early childhood they usually refer quite specifically to regular defæcation and urination. If, as we obviously should, we include obstinate constipation, dirtying and wetting, then it is clear that anal and urethral 'bad' habits would rival in frequency the oral and genital ones, as they certainly do in less direct forms, such as hoarding rubbish, smearing walls, and 'dirty' talk.

I do not believe, however, that this much greater frequency of undisguised oral, anal and genital 'bad' habits over the more indirect and symbolic types, such as eating hair, nose rubbing, etc., would necessarily hold good if observation were more accurate and dispassionate.

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