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How It Feels When Your Habits Begin “Tightening”

Last Friday night, around 8:00 PM, I was tired. It had been a full day for me and a stressful one for the world. I was ready to get into my pajamas and snuggle with my baby girl on the couch with a mug of tea and some mindless television.

Instead, I cleaned the bathroom.

Let that sink in. I was tired and stressed. I needed comfort. And instead of allowing myself that comfort, I cleaned the bathroom. 

Why did I do this? Well, here’s how the conversation went in my head:

A photo by Crew. unsplash.com/photos/rCOWMC8qf8ALeanne, side 1: “The day-planner says that we’re supposed to clean the house on Friday. It’s almost the end of Friday and the vacuuming was done, but not the bathroom.”

Leanne, side 2: “You’re the one who wrote that in the planner. It can just as easily be done another day.”

L1 (feeling panic): “But it has to get done.”

L2: “It looks fine. It could even wait until next Friday.”

L1: “But… I have to check it off for today.”

L2: “No, you don’t! Just erase it! Or ignore it!”

L1: “I’ll feel better if I just get it done. I’ll go to sleep happy that the house is clean.”

L2: (Rolls eyes, caves)

Leanne 1 seems a little insane, right? And yet I let her win. This has been happening to me over the last few weeks, just as it happens every January. I set big goals, and want to make big strides to accomplish them at the start of the year. So I go crazy with my day planner and over-schedule myself, then can’t let myself not do the things I’d planned. I start to become obsessed with the number of boxes I have yet to check, and the amount of time it will take to do them. I keep making my life harder and harder, until at some point, (usually in mid-February) I start to rebel. I am forever grateful to Gretchen Rubin for providing a name for this phenomenon, which is unique to habit “Upholders” like me (a small part of the population; you can find out your habit tendency here). It’s called Tightening, and it refers to when a person allows her habits to strengthen, rather than weaken, over time. Some people might call this Perfectionism, and I certainly am a recovering Perfectionist, but I feel it most in terms of habits (even good ones) which is why I think Tightening explains it better.

It took me many years to understand Tightening, and I’m still struggling with it. For example, I’ve tried Weight Watchers a few times, and I’m always a champion for the first 4-5 weeks. I calculate my Points perfectly, input every recipe into the system, and avoid things with a nebulous Point value like the plague. But as I start getting good results, I begin to cut even more corners and try for lower Point values, and that’s just not sustainable. So eventually, I rebel against it, and end up erasing a lot of my progress when I give it all up.

I’ve found that I have to be very, very careful about making something a habit, or I’ll end up with situations like I had on Friday night, where I couldn’t just let myself relax. January is the worst month for Tightening, because I’m always pushing myself.

I’m trying to think of a solution to this problem- one that doesn’t involve setting a goal or a habit! I need to “loosen” myself. There’s a circular argument going on in my head, where I think I should just stop making so many plans and trust myself to get the essential things done (which I probably would), but then I worry that I’ll forget to do something important (which will probably happen occasionally), and also miss that little thrill that comes when I check off a completed task.

Does anyone else experience habits strengthening over time? How did you release yourself from the habit? 

One Response to “How It Feels When Your Habits Begin “Tightening””

  1. Barbara Tychinski says:

    Have experience with this but I’m a good resistor! Retirement and age has help me let go of some of my habits that were stress producing.
    Look at your children and husband and let their love loosen you. 😘

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