‘Revenge Bedtime Procrastination’ Is the Chinese Term To Describe So Many of Our Nighttime Behaviors

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Twitter often makes me feel seen, but almost never more so than when a tweet surfaced recently identifying a phenomenon I'd long experienced but never named: "revenge bedtime procrastination." The phrase refers to the experience of putting off going to bed in order to squeeze some life out of your day after having spent the bulk of it doing something mandatory, e.g. work or child-rearing.

Though I've been known to stay up too late myself in retaliation for a day monopolized by work, the last time I visited my sister-in-law, I was baffled by her desire to stay up until 1 a.m. watching TV when her toddlers woke her up pre-dawn. Even I have never been that committed to the cause. But framed as "revenge procrastination,"  this behavior makes so much more sense. From sunrise to sunset (and beyond), her entire life is dictated by her kids. Nighttime is her only time for herself, and she refuses to squander it sleeping.

According to psychotherapist Daryl Appleton, C.A.G.S, LMHC, while there isn't a proper psychological term for this behavior, the motivation behind it is simple: control. When we don't feel like we can control our days, we compensate by exercising control over our nights in order to feel less disempowered. Clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, agrees, noting that it's difficult to feel as though your life is not your own. "When everything you do is about someone else’s needs, it might sometimes feel worth it to sacrifice some sleep," she says. "The sound of silence is a beautiful thing. No boss, no kids, no interruptions."

Those most as risk for this behavior, says Appleton, are as follows: "The parent or caretaker who hasn’t had a moment to them self trying to jam in 'me time' into the day; the overworked employee that is on-call, can’t seem to stop checking their email or 'turn off'; the stressed out student who has had more 'to dos' than wind down or social activities; the couple that work different shifts or long hours trying to fill the empty space; those with anxiety having their brain keep them up with 'what if’s'; and people looking to escape."

I use the term "at risk" because both pros agree that this is not healthy behavior, simply because adequate sleep is of the utmost importance for your mental health and overall ability to function. (Sleep deprivation can affect your physical health long-term, too.)

If you find yourself revenge bedtime procrastinating, Daramus recommends setting some boundaries during the day. Wanting control, freedom, and the ability to do whatever you want in your life is legit, and you need to find ways to address those needs before sundown. "Read a novel on your lunch break at work. Pick up prepared food more often. Maybe set one night a week to stay up by yourself when you can sleep in a little later and try to take more time for your own needs on the other days," she recommends. 

Appleton, meanwhile, would take this advice a step further. "I always tell my clients wellness is wanting to build a life you don’t want to escape from," she says. There are no simple tips for making this happen, but if you're feeling like you're only living between, say, 8 p.m. and midnight, you probably need to make some minor-to-major changes in your life. Switching careers (although, easier said than done in a pandemic), adopting fulfilling hobbies, setting better boundaries with work, and engaging childcare (again, easier said than done in a pandemic) are all examples of moves you might want to make to regain a sense of control in your daily life. After all, staying up until 2 a.m. watching Forensic Files isn't necessarily living either, is it?

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