It’s 2 a.m. on a weekday and I’m either doomscrolling on Twitter or watching Netflix. My eyes can barely stay open, but they will soldier on. When it’s finally bedtime, I put on a podcast episode to inhale 5 more minutes of information before drifting off.
The next day’s morning alarm often triggers a fleeting existential crisis before I begrudgingly roll out of bed: Should I call off work today or should l just quit my job? Why do I keep doing this to myself? This routine goes on repeat for the rest of the week.
Then I stumbled upon a name for my nonsensical rejection of a healthy sleeping schedule. It’s a term widely circulated on the Chinese internet: revenge bedtime procrastination (報復性熬夜). It’s not just bedtime procrastination or delayed sleep phase syndrome. It’s about taking revenge, or more accurately, regaining control of our life.
Researchers in the Netherlands in 2014 first defined “bedtime procrastination” as “failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.” Since then, scientists have mostly contributed this phenomenon to a lower level of self-discipline.
Two years later, this phenomenon surfaced on China’s social media platforms with the addition of “revenge.” This was crucial to its life as an internet slang term, as the literal translation for revenge bedtime procrastination means “suffering through the night vengefully.” It describes a trend in which modern-day workers resist sleeping early to seize the freedom of the night hours — even if it brings no obvious benefits.
For most working adults, including myself, we don’t have the luxury to plan our workday. After sacrificing at least 8 hours of each day to “earn a living,” going to sleep early just feels even more wasteful of our time.
Yet there’s not exactly anything to avenge besides our disappointment in life itself and the feeling of powerlessness.
As COVID-19 consumes the global community, we’re slowly migrating from panic to a new culture of self-revenge. We’ve passed the runway of panic buying. Consumers in China are “revenge spending” or “revenge traveling” after the lockdowns have been lifted.
In the United States, where recovery seems like a long shot, people are tempted to ditch restrictive measures like face mask use and physical distancing. Any risk-taking behavior is likely a form of retaliation against the pent up frustration from months of lockdown.
I’m lucky enough to live and work in Taiwan, where confirmed cases have remained below 500 while schools, restaurants, and offices have stayed open. Thanks to the government’s effective response, the coronavirus barely made a dent in Taiwan and I was insulated from most of the chaos.
Yet the international border closures mean families in separation and many life decisions on hold. My editorial job at a news media outlet in Taiwan is increasingly unfulfilling while I’m also oceans away from my family in New York. My new year’s plan to move home was disrupted by the massive layoffs, civil unrest, and a lack of government leadership in the U.S., which seemed all the more frightening than my day job.
This sense of dread and uncertainty worsened my already poor sleeping habit. Every day, by the time I get to relax at home after dinner and chores, it’s almost 10 p.m. and the late-night hours seem to be the only time slot when I can satisfy my personal needs. Whether to catch up on reading or to play Animal Crossing until my wrists hurt.
“Revenge bedtime procrastination” is a type of compensation, a psychological strategy that allows people to redirect their frustrations and insecurities, according to according to local psychologists in China.
Sigmund Freud described compensation as a defense mechanism in which people conceal their feelings of inadequacy or weakness by indulging in another area.
Maximizing “me time” by staying up late, I suppose, is an act of resistance. Against my better instincts, I’m stealing time from my sleep to escape the robotic daytime routine.
But there’s also a high risk of overcompensation and in the case of revenge bedtime procrastination, this means sleep deprivation and health issues like a weakened immune system, fatigue, and mood swings. The wild, reckless late-night indulgences may at best contribute to a vicious cycle of self-loathing.
Some of us may not even be consciously aware of the reason behind our sleep pattern. Staying up late feels like a normal behavior when so many people share the same habit.
My recent tweet on revenge bedtime procrastination, which has received over 250,000 likes, resonated with night owls around the world. Thousands of people said they were guilty of the phenomenon and they were excited to finally have a name for it.
If we’re vengefully, or voluntarily, delaying our bedtime despite knowing the consequences, the conventional advice to sleep early is perhaps unhelpful. Instead, the answer might be to first examine our life and routine to deduce where our frustrations lie, and figure out how to seize — not just the late night — but also the day.
Suffering through the night with a vengeance against the burden of life is often a lonely act. Knowing we’re not alone, especially during this pandemic, brings comfort to our individual pains that are often shared by others. It’s this emotional connection, outside of our echo chamber, that helps us maneuver in a world so seemingly divisive and chaotic.
Daphne K. Lee is a journalist based in Taipei and New York City. She mainly covers human rights and culture in East Asia. Find her on Twitter.