for those who count

My little townhouse is two storeys tall. It has a little staircase that spirals up on one side, and I go up and down these stairs many times a day.

When I catch the train to work, I have to go up a flight of stairs to reach the platform. And when I enter the building, I go up three flights of stairs to get to the floor my workplace is on.

If I drive to work, I try to park in one of the lower levels in the carpark so that I can go up more stairs to get to the walkway leading into the building (but also so that I drive less, as the carpark starts on ground level and goes upwards). 

And when I go up all these stairs, I’ve long noticed that I have an inexplicable compulsion to count steps. I compulsively count other things too, but I suppose I’ve noticed it more with stairs. I never really thought much of it, and I’ve questioned it before and shrugged it off, but I’ve recently discovered that other people do this too.

Well, two other people I know count steps when they walk up stairs. Everyone else I asked kind of just looked at me weirdly…

But we only do this when we go up stairs, and not down stairs. I think it’s because going down a flight of stairs is a lot quicker, and there’s less time to count (?)

One friend thought it was something to do with control, or a need to know things. I would agree with her, but I frequently lose count, and sometimes I just count by twos or threes or whatever (kind of like keeping time in a waltz). If you’d asked me a few weeks ago how many steps there are in my house, I would not have been able to tell you. (But now that I’ve focused on it, I know there are 16.)

The other friend who also counts steps on stairs reckons it’s more of an OCD thing, and is something to do with wanting to take an equal number of steps with the left foot and the right foot. This, I think, is actually closer to the reason why I count steps. It doesn’t really bother me that much, but I do like to finish on an even number.

I’m kind of at a loss for other theories. Maybe watching Sesame Street and other shows as a kid instilled in me this compulsion to count everything (thanks Count Dracula).

I count other things too, and I think it’s usually insignificant, momentary things – something that happens and then stops, usually relating to movement or sound. For example, I always count the number of times my car beeps at me between when I start it and when I put my seatbelt on (usually three or less). At work I also usually count the number of times I spray a disinfectant onto a wipe (this number varies depending on the type of disinfectant and what I’m decontaminating).

But usually it’s not of any practical use to count whatever I counted; I never do anything with the number once I’ve obtained it. And I’m sure there will always be the same number of stairs in my house and at the train station and in the buildings at work (for the foreseeable future, anyway).

In writing this, I’ve just realised that I don’t really feel a need to count stationary and/or inanimate objects. I’ve never felt compelled to count the number of plants in each pot on my windowsill, and I certainly could not tell you how many books I have on my new bookshelves. (And the only reason I can tell you how many shelves each bookcase has is because I just counted them now.)

I wonder if the first friend, in saying that this counting habit is something to do with control, actually meant to posit that it’s a kind of self-soothing strategy. It’s like trying to make one’s brain sit still by focusing on these trivial numbers (like counting sheep to fall asleep).

Actually, a third friend did say she counts steps too, but only if there are a lot of stairs because she just wants to know how many steps there are. She does not count them routinely like me and my two numerically-inclined friends.

Interestingly, though, in becoming more conscious of my propensity to count things, over the last couple of weeks or so, I think I’ve actually been counting less. I also don’t know what to attribute this to because I’m not one to be self-conscious about this sort of thing (otherwise I probably wouldn’t be publishing a blog post about it…)

7 thoughts on “for those who count

  1. Guilty.

    I’m a counter too – all kinds of mindless things, particularly when I’m doing something repetitive like climbing stairs … and I rarely remember what the number is afterwards. Although I’ve counted the stairs a zillion times in my home, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you how many there are.

    Why? Who knows?

    • It makes delights me greatly to find people who can relate! As bizarre as it might be, maybe there’s no need to question it, just accept and embrace it 😀

  2. Interesting topic here.

    I count stairs for the reason you mentioned: the Count on Sesame Street got me started doing that. I count objects that are used in decorative displays like on the fireplace mantel or a dining room table. I do that because I enjoy design and want to see if I could use the idea in my own home. I count cars in front of me when I’m trying to make a turn at a traffic signal, often times knowing how long the light is, thus determining if I’ll make it through the light.

    I don’t consider myself OCD or controlling, so I think I do these things more for entertainment– or maybe as a kind of self-soothing strategy as I go through life? I dunno.

    • Haha the creators of Sesame Street probably didn’t realise the potential long term impact of this character they made! (or maybe they did 🤔)
      At least some of your counting is of a practical nature, like counting cars in front of you. I actually never thought to do that, preferring to just estimate the distance and then speculate how good everyone’s reaction times might be…

  3. My house is a dedalus of stairs, inside and out – I count them as I go down, in the dark, to get my bearing and not trip. I have never counted steps but I frequently find myself counting tiles or squares in the pavement I am walking on…..

    • That’s interesting because I often go up and down my stairs in the dark, despite having a perfectly good & accessible light, but I never thought to keep count of the steps for this purpose…!

  4. Pingback: right is right (most of the time) | pistachio conspiracy #63

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