When I think about being a little kid, my childhood memories are mostly filtered through a haze of stomachaches. I was an anxious kid who mostly channeled her anxiety into stomachaches rather than, oh, I don’t know, crying? Talking about it to a trusted adult? Acknowledging my feelings in general? I had a lot of very good, and very unbloggable, reasons to be anxious as a kid, but I think I have—and still have—an innate tendency toward worry. It seems to be central part of my mental landscape. Much of the work of my adult life has involved trying to deal with this anxiety, which seems to be more prevalent at some times rather than others.
Right now there’s this whole cluster of work-related worries that are occupying my energy. Much of these worries are also unbloggable. A cryptic and general way of describing these concerns would be that I’ve been worrying a lot about making do with scarce resources. I was going on and on about the latest permutation of my concerns while making dinner with my wife the other night, and she said something along the lines of, “They don’t pay you enough to worry about work in your free time.”
This assertion shifted something inside of me. I’ve always been a person who, in the words of Mem Fox, aches with caring about things that matter to me. I can probably attribute much of my academic and professional successes to this tendency. I care a whole fucking lot about things, and it pretty much consumes me. Or, I should say, I allow it to consume me. It also helps, or should I say “helps,” that I work in higher education, which fosters a toxic culture that urges people to give and give and give and give while eliminating more and more resources and support.
I’m going to start saying no to things. This means saying no to professional requests that make me feel stretched and for which there is inadequate support. But it also means saying no to myself, telling my mind to STFU (but perhaps more gently) when I’m ruminating (yet again) about some stupid work thing that I can’t do anything about. I’M NOT GETTING PAID FOR THIS. I’m not getting paid money, and I’m not getting paid in time or any kind of practical support and resources, and I’m certainly not getting paid in fulfillment and satisfaction to spend so much of my time and energy worrying all the time. I told my boss the other day that a current particular matter is literally keeping me awake at night. He told me, not unkindly, that this was pretty dumb. I know it is.
It’s become very clear to me that professional boundaries mean not just protecting your time from the forces that are only too happy to encroach upon it rent-free, but also protecting your mind. Basically, I need occlumency lessons from Professor Snape. Right now, what’s working for me is visualizing my hand turning off light switches whenever I start to ruminate about something. It sounds weird, but it kind of works. Sometimes, if the ruminations are particularly persistent, I line up an infinite row of light switches in my head and I mentally turn each off, one by one, until the thoughts stop, or at least quiet down considerably.
Is it really any wonder that burnout—the experience of it, and the idea of it—weighs on me so heavily? I mean, yes, the culture of library instruction is weird, and higher education is kind of jacked up, and there are all sorts of mitigating factors that make burnout particularly insidious and pervasive among my peers. But it certainly doesn’t help that I could beat a cow in the unlikely event that there were ever to be a rumination competition.
I am flipping the switch now in my head, and also by writing this, too. Maybe if I do it enough I won’t feel so terrible. Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone else want to flip switches with me? It would help to feel not so lonely as I make my way down this endless hallway fill of worryswitches. Come flip some switches with me.