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On Tenter Hooks

… and somewhat stressed over it

Have you heard that turn of phrase before? It turns out that the original reference is to the stretching of woolen fabric after it has been cleaned and washed to remove dirt and oils from the original farm production of wool.

It seems that the fabric was stretched, wet, over a frame called a tenter, and held in place by … you guessed it, tenter hooks.

And there was tension. The fabric was stretched tight. And as it dried, it tried to shrink. More tension.

So that’s where it came from

Here’s a little quote for you:

“By the mid-18th century, the phrase “on tenterhooks” came to mean being in a state of tension, uneasiness, anxiety, or suspense, i.e. figuratively stretched like the cloth on the tenter.” ~ from the Wikipedia

And it applies to us how?

Have you ever noticed that you, the person with ADHD, is always kind of wound up tight? I have. I’m swear I’m tuned to a high E. (sorry, blatant guitar reference)

And I get the impression that others unwind easily, and I don’t.

Broken string

And when I don’t get a chance to unwind (because I’m not sure how to do that), “SPROING!” I snap.

And that’s really not fair to others. So I try not to let it happen. And yet, when I end up on tenterhooks, that is to say when I become aware of the tension, it’s usually too late to do anything but snap.

What to do? What to do?

It seems to me that maybe I need to unwind regularly whether I think I need to or not. And yet I’m still unsure as to how.

When I was a youth I have distinct memories of being sat down and kept quiet with conversation and admonitions delivered in the nicest ways advising me to slow down and take a break.

Kind of reminds me of drinking

I seem to have no control over a lot of things. If a little is good than a lot must be great, right?

And as we all learned in health class, life without stress is unlivable. We need challenge in our lives, we need to overcome things. So we need stress. We need tension.

Why do I let it build up?

Yeah, I still don’t know. And I still don’t know how much or how little tension I need. And I swear I can be thinking “This is great!” right up to the point where it isn’t.

Maybe ADHD is the disorder of not being able to tell how much tension you need, or are under … what do you think of that idea?

And maybe, like tuning a guitar (I knew that analogy would come in handy), what we really need in our lives is a tuner, a device that tells us just how much tension we’re under. That way we’d know whether we need more tension at the moment, or less. And then we could tune ourselves regularly.

Hey, a guy can dream, right?

On Tenter Hooks

Kelly Babcock

I was born in the city of Toronto in 1959, but moved when I was in my fourth year of life. I was raised and educated in a rural setting, growing up in a manner I like to refer to as free range. I live on the traditional lands of the Chippewas of Nawash in an area where my family history stretches back 6 or 7 generations and my First Nations friend's families go back hundreds of generations. I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 50 and have been both struggling with the new reality and using my discoveries to make my life better. I am a freelance writer and I write two blogs here at Psych Central, one about living with ADHD and one that is a daily positive affirmation that acts as an example of finding the good in as much of my life as I possibly can.

Find out more about me on my website: writeofway.

email me at ADHD Man

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APA Reference
Babcock, K. (2017). On Tenter Hooks. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Jul 2017
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