Making choices to keep burnout at bay

The spring semester is usually not as hectic for me, and this spring has seemed even calmer than usual. My mood is better; I feel consistently happier. This morning I was trying to figure out why this semester feels better than previous springs, and I realized: BECAUSE I AM DELIBERATELY MAKING CHOICES TO KEEP IT THAT WAY. I’m sorry/not sorry for the all caps, but it is important for me to realize, and to document, the ongoing impact of deliberate self-care: my life feels better. This isn’t an accident of fate or circumstance. It is, for the most part, ME.

Here are some things that I’ve been doing to care for myself and keep burnout at bay.

  1. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Originally designed for people with borderline personality disorder, which I do not have, this is an approach to therapy that involves learning and applying various skills, and the mindfulness skills have been especially invaluable to me. The realization that I don’t have to judge my feelings, or judge any kind of event, was liberating. You mean I don’t actually have to freak out and panic when something goes wrong, or when a stressor is getting me down, or when I can’t find a parking spot in front of my house, or when my wife emails me a grocery list to shop for on my way home and it has 79 items on it? I actually don’t! It’s amazing! These things that cause stress or worsen my mood are just things. I try to observe and describe them as though I were a scientist conducting a study instead of attaching myself to them and getting all worked up.
  2. Saying no to things. This something I’ve been working on continually, and I’m seeing the results. For example: for the past few years, I’ve taught as an adjunct in various departments on campus, in addition to my actual full-time job. This counts as overload pay, which is certainly very helpful, but it is very, very tiring and taxing on multiple levels. Last fall, I taught 200-level research writing, and the stress of this, on top of everything else, made me realize that the extra money was not worth the heartache and despair. I was fortunate that my domestic life was in a place where I could say no to extra teaching, and the extra income, in the future, and so that’s what I decided. The relief is amazing. I have more room in my life and in my head for other things, things that feed me more.
  3. Praying the Daily Office. I started doing this on Dec. 31 of last year, because you don’t actually have to wait until Jan. 1 to start a new habit, as it turns out. I use this little book, excerpted from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I do morning prayer and compline (bedtime) without fail daily. I do noonday prayer 95 percent of the time. Evening prayer is hit or miss, because it’s at a challenging time of day for me. Sometimes for noonday prayer I use the New Zealand version, because their Anglican prayer book is gorgeous. The Daily Office feels like this little nimbus of protection that follows me around and holds my day together.
  4. 30 minute daily walks, five days a week, weather permitting. The liberating stress-relief of walking cannot be understated. I do a lot of my walking during the day as a part of my lunch break. (Oh, yes, actually taking lunch breaks, prioritizing that time and protecting it, and not just scarfing down my lunch at my desk–this matters, too.). I listen to podcasts, and I know I’m probably the last person to realize this, but y’all, podcasts are SO COOL. I’m obsessed with Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast as of late. I’m also a big fan of The History Chicks. I feel purposeful and alive when I walk. I find myself unconsciously improving my posture when I walk, holding myself straighter, head held higher. I feel like I am a real person in the world and it is a fantastic feeling.
  5. Quiet time. In the morning, after waking up and saying morning prayer with my wife, I spend about 30 minutes writing in my journal, reading, or listening to music. To me, this is a self-care variation of the idea of paying yourself first; not only do I contribute to my retirement account, but I also contribute to my ME account. (Million dollar idea: put this on a bumper sticker and sell it.) Instead of jumping out of bed and rushing to begin my day and get to work, I move more slowly, deliberately. My time is mine, and I am going to feed myself before giving my time to work. I try to do quiet time in the evening, too, with dim lighting and soothing music and more journal writing (which includes gratitude journaling), to help me wind down and mentally prepare to end the day and sleep, although sometimes evening TV watching gets in the way of evening quiet time. Working on it!

These have been regular practices and habits since the beginning of the new year, and they are working. And I know that my life privileged enough so that I can do a lot of these things. I don’t have to figure out child care; my work-life is very flexible and I have a lot of freedom. I recognize the privilege I have that allows me to structure my life in this way. And I should note that my life isn’t perfect; I’m not super happy 100 percent of the time. I still have stress and worry and anxiety. But the difference is that these things don’t rule me as much as they used to. I feel more in charge of my life; I feel more steady and even. I find myself singing to myself one of my favorite lines from Hamilton, in “The Schuyler Sisters.” “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I feel less dread; I feel more distant from burnout. I feel powerful, and this is a very, very good feeling indeed.

For the lucky librarian about to go on sabbatical, especially @donnarosemary

If you are a librarian about to go on sabbatical, I probably don’t need to tell you how lucky you are. I’m pretty sure you already know how luxurious it is to have extended paid time off to think and write and read as much as you want. But even if you are fully aware of how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and are eagerly awaiting the day your leave begins, you still might have some anxiety about what’s to come. Having experienced, enjoyed, and returned from a semester sabbatical leave, I have some words to share that may be wisdom or may be useless. Do with this what you will, keeping in mind that your mileage may vary, etc.

  1. Do what you need to do to tie up loose ends before you leave, but try not to stress too much about it. Do the minimum required to be a good and respectful departmental citizen and move on. Don’t kill yourself over it. You don’t have to leave your office, your desk, your inbox, or your anything in a perfect, pristine state. The library and the university will go on without you.

This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: "You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up" followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: “You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up” followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
2. Do not listen to the grumblings of resentful colleagues who want you to know how inconvenienced they are going to be by your absence. If your institution is anything like mine, your sabbatical would not have been approved if there wasn’t a way to do without you for awhile. The solution may not perfect, and yes, people will be inconvenienced, but that is for your boss/dean/director/etc. to figure out, not you. Your job is to take the leave and do the work you proposed to do to the best of your ability, so do not feel guilty.

3. When you start your leave, you may feel unmoored by the sudden lack of structure in your day. You will likely need a routine of some kind to help you make the most of your time and not feel like you’re just frittering the time away. I urge you to experiment with developing a structure and schedule that works for you so you don’t feel completely untethered. However, make your schedule flexible, because life happens, and and there’s no point in beating yourself up if you don’t read X number of pages or write X words per day. For example, I abandoned my schedule and read all 800-plus pages of Anna Karenina in great big gulps over three days, because I could, and because I wanted to, and it was awesome. Sure, I didn’t get anything else done, but I got back to work when I was done, and it was fine.

4. Read and write stuff unrelated to your project. You’ll need breaks from the intellectual labor of your sabbatical project, so try doing some exercises with a creative writing workbook. It may help stir things up and ideas will click into place when you’re concentrating on other matters. Also, read for pleasure, if you can. See Anna Karenina above.

5. You do have an obligation to do or begin to do whatever you proposed in your sabbatical application, but you also have an obligation to tend to more than just your mind. Your physical/emotional/mental/spiritual health need attention as well. You have probably applied for sabbatical after the long, arduous, emotionally-fraught tenure process. You need a rest, so take one. Sleep in for as long as you need to when you start your leave and get it out of your system, because let’s be real: you can’t sleep your sabbatical away. Go to a daytime movie on a Tuesday. Explore the wonders of daytime television. (I recommend General Hospital. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t watch it growing up like I did. You’ll catch up.) Take naps. Start meditating. Learn how to bake bread. If you are able and interested, incorporate physical activity into your routine. Go for regular walks, or get a yoga CD or DVD. Just whatever you enjoy and brings you energy and pleasure and satisfaction.

6. Don’t feel like you need a special, dedicated space to do your work. When I was on my sabbatical, I did not have a study or an office or private space. I mostly read and wrote at my kitchen table while listening to the local classical music station. It worked just fine. (Also, because apparently no one else listens to my local classical music station during the day, I kept being the lucky caller who won tickets to things. I went to the opera and the ballet!)

7. After you’ve had some quiet time to yourself and the chatter in your mind has quieted down, you might find yourself feeling lonely. This is normal. I was surprised by how isolated and lonely I felt. Reach out to people and connect with your friends. If you know other people who are available during the day, have weekday lunch dates with them. This will refresh you and help you get focused back on your work.

8. Avoid going to your campus if you can help it. Check out all of the books you think you’ll need ahead of time. (I brought home two suitcases full.) Set up an out-of-office message for your voicemail and email directing people elsewhere if they need something, and try not to check your voice or email if at all possible. I personally checked my email maybe every other week, mostly to delete stuff, just to keep things from getting out of control.

9. And since you’re avoiding campus, this is a good time to become an avid user of your local public library, if you aren’t already, and if your local public library is a good one.

I come from immigrant people. My great-grandfather was a carusu and had a second grade education. So believe me, I understand my good fortune to have had a sabbatical, and I’m sure you do as well. Your sabbatical will end before you know it, and then you have to figure out how to reintegrate yourself into your workplace and worklife. But that’s to worry about later. For now, just enjoy your time, and your space, and the quiet, and your books, and revel in the luxury of being paid to not go to work. :hearteyes:

 

Coming out of the spiritual closet

This is a dark time of year, a time when I think a lot (or more than usual) about meaning-making in a world that feels so broken, about shining light on what is real and true and good, about what my values are and who I am and why am I here. You know, just the normal stuff.

So it’s in this mindset that I was recently reflecting on a #critlib chat moment. I do not participate in the #critlib chats because I find them hard to follow and process and keep up with. My thoughts aren’t always easily digestible into 140 characters, and by the time I have figured out a way to express my thought concisely, the conversation has usually already moved on. Also, there are so many people all tweeting at once, and I have difficulty understanding who is saying what and to whom.  So while I will occasionally watch part of the chat, I don’t contribute.

Sometime earlier this year, maybe over the summer, when I was lurking on a #critlib Twitter chat, a participant made a snarky comment about people who go to church. I don’t remember the exact context or wording, but it came across to me as sarcastic and mocking. I felt stung and offended and hurt by this comment, but I didn’t respond.

Part of the reason why I didn’t respond was because I never participate to begin with, and I felt like jumping into the conversation to challenge this comment wasn’t really the best way to begin my participation. I also know that because of the reasons I describe above, it’s really easy to lose nuance and context in a Twitter conversation, so for all I knew, there was some legitimate context for the assertion about people who go to church that I didn’t know about. I also felt worried that chiming in to say, “hey, what do you mean by that?” might sound a bit too much like the people who protest #NotAllMen (i.e., pointing out that some people who claim to be representing Jesus do terrible, terrible things and I’m Not Like That) and that would derail the larger conversation.

So I did nothing except stew over it all night. And maybe I’m still stewing over it now. It’s on my mind because I was corresponding with someone recently about feeling like you have a minority viewpoint within a dominant culture. And maybe it’s also on my mind because yesterday was the first Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent, which might be my favorite season of the church year. Advent is all about expectant waiting, about lighting candles in a dark season and anticipating the promise of light at the end. To me, there is so much magic about Advent that has nothing to do with presents and Santa Claus and everything to do with my belief that the God of my understanding came to earth as a helpless baby in the unlikeliest of places. (Don’t get me wrong, though–I’m still super into Santa and presents under the tree.)

I was born and raised Roman Catholic and educated at Catholic schools for K-12, and I also spent two years at a Jesuit university before transferring to a state school, where I graduated. Today I identify as Episcopalian, but mostly I am just me, and I am someone who finds thin spaces in quiet contemplation, in the familiar symbolism of rich and ancient rituals, and in the life-affirming inclusive language of the liturgy. Sometimes, though, it’s not the Book of Common Prayer but a teaching and learning moment that will leave me breathless and disoriented. Sometimes, during a reference encounter or in the classroom, I will truly see a student, really see the student as a person, a human, a unique and beautiful child of the universe whose inherent dignity and worth are so precious. I’ve written here before how the spiritual dimensions of teaching have been immensely healing to me and the burnout I struggle with. The funny thing is that while my spiritual practices and beliefs are of some comfort to me, I also feel lonely in my beliefs. It’s not something I really talk about, for fear of being mocked in a manner not unlike that #critlib comment I observed over the summer.

I’m writing this in the hopes there are other people like me, spiritually-closeted or otherwise, who see spirituality as an essential component of their identities as teachers. Are you out there? Maybe we could talk.

Hearing, processing, and mindfulness

anatomy of the human ear
A diagram of the anatomy of the human ear. “Tidens naturlære fig40” by Morten Bisgaard – From the book “Tidens naturlære” 1903 by Poul la Cour. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tidens_naturl%C3%A6re_fig40.png#/media/File:Tidens_naturl%C3%A6re_fig40.png

This is a story about hearing and understanding, and it will eventually connect to burnout.

I have been dealing with what I believed to be progressively worsening hearing loss for quite awhile now, over a year, at least. I hear things, but I don’t understand. Everything sounds garbled, or I’ll miss the beginning of a sentence and spend the rest of the sentence trying and failing to catch up. Talking in a place with lots of background noise is the worst. I am constantly asking my wife to repeat herself, which is annoying and tiresome to both of us.

I finally mentioned it to my primary care doctor this summer while consulting him about other matters. He told me he could refer me to get my hearing tested, but unless I was willing to pursue getting hearing aids if indicated, there probably wasn’t much point in getting tested. At that point, I was quite resistant to hearing aids, so I did not ask for that referral. But over this past month, I found myself mentally ready to get hearing aids if it turned out that’s what I needed. My inability to understand people was not just impairing my domestic life, but it was adversely affecting my encounters at the reference desk and in the classroom. I was tired of asking people to repeat themselves, and I was also tired of feeling ashamed that I needed people to repeat themselves, because apparently it’s terrible to need accommodations. Yes, I know how dumb that sounds.

Last week, I returned to my primary care doctor, who referred me to an ENT practice. Today I had my appointment, which consisted of a hearing test with an audiologist and then a consultation with an otolaryngologist. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that I have normal hearing. In fact, the doctor and audiologist both said I had excellent hearing. The achievement addict in me preened a bit at this, of course, and then I was like, wait a minute, what’s going on then? Why am I having such a hard time hearing and understanding things?

It turns out that I have a processing problem, not a hearing problem. I am hearing people just fine when they speak, but my brain is taking longer to process the information, so that’s why it sounds garbled to me, and why I need people to repeat themselves, so I have more time to process and translate the information. My doctor said that the neurons that affect the processing of auditory input can decline over time due to the normal aging process–or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but that was the basic idea.

It was at this point that about eighty million revelatory lights came on in my head. I have always had immense difficulty understanding things like verbal instructions or verbal driving directions. When I’m making group study room reservations over the phone at the reference desk, I die a little on the inside when someone has to spell their name for me, because hearing a word spelled aloud sounds like gobbledygook to me and I usually have to have them repeat it more than once. In fact, despite my excellent vocabulary and spelling skills, I stopped participating in school spelling bees at an early age because I have great difficulty understanding a word when it’s spelled aloud, even if I’m the one doing the spelling. Hearing a word spelled out sounds like hearing a foreign language, or a grownup in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Since nothing is real or true until I can research it, I started googling almost the minute I left the doctor’s office. It turns out that there is a thing called auditory processing disorder, which my doctor did not mention, and I don’t believe I have, because I’ve never had a speech problem, and I definitely have not had any academic problems. However, some of the characteristics strongly resonated with me.

A processing problem like mine is not fixable. This is not something that can be addressed with hearing aids. You just have to adapt. My wife almost seemed kind of excited at the prospect of helping me to develop adaptations to this challenge, which seemed weird at first, but then made sense, since she was born with a visual impairment and was educated at a school for the blind, where one of the main things they teach you is how to cope with a world that was not designed for you. My wife is the Queen of Adaptation ruling over the Kingdom of Making It Work. And looking back, I can see how I’ve developed adaptations to my difficulties over the years. For whatever reason, translating a spelled-aloud word into a typed word is about 10 times harder to me than it is to hand write it. So when I’m talking on the phone to people and they need to spell their name, or an author’s name, I take my hands off the keyboard and try to hand write it.

Another thing the doctor said was that when I miss the beginning of the sentence, I shouldn’t panic and try to figure what I missed, but instead I should pay attention to the rest of the sentence that I’m hearing just fine. If I do the latter, I probably can figure out the part I missed by context. There are some customer service encounters I have where this always happens–why is always so loud in Chipotle?–but if I pay attention and hear BLAH BLAH YOU? I can pretty safely assume that the words I missed were probably “May I,” so I need to not internally freak out so much and just do the best I can with what I do understand.

And isn’t this just like life in general anyway? It is for me. I struggle so hard to just fucking pay attention and sit with the feelings and that I end up not experiencing the actual moment I am in. I have learned and read a lot about mindfulness over the past several years, and it is something I am trying to cultivate, but it is hard. A few weeks ago, I had an especially restful and blissful and pleasant weekend, and I turned to my wife and said aloud, “I am experiencing happiness!” Everything just felt so amazing and perfect that I had to mark it in some way and bask in the loveliness of a fall day, a clear blue sky, a leisurely walk around my neighborhood.

And here’s how I’m connecting this to burnout: for me, responding to and resisting burnout involves mindfulness. It requires intentional, deliberate attention to what brings me pleasure and joy and what makes me feel alive. It was indeed revelatory to learn that I do not have hearing loss, but it was also meaningful to have my problem reframed in a way that made a thousand different kinds of sense. It was helpful to get yet another reminder that the only way I’m going to be able to continue shuffling through this weird life and feel moderately okay doing it is to just pay attention–to listen, to do the best with what I have, to adapt, to be here.

On the liberatory power of doing just enough

I didn’t mean to disappear from this blog for a month, but somehow I did. The primary reason was that my work life became mind-bendingly busy and complicated and stressful and kind of awful, but making time for writing was not the only problem. I was so drained by the demands of my professional life that I felt like I had nothing left to give anyone anywhere else. Writing? Who could write!? All I wanted was to snuggle on the couch with my beloved watching MasterChef or reading a romance novel about lesbian astronauts going to Mars. I felt not unlike Blanche Devereaux in that one episode of The Golden Girls where she’s been up all night trying to write a novel.

This gif depicts Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls tiredly declaring, "My brain's gone!"
This gif depicts Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls tiredly declaring, “My brain’s gone!”
But as it became apparent that the blog was moving to the backburner, it made sense to lay low for a while. I am going to be a keynote speaker (!!!) for the College and Research Division at the Pennsylvania Library Association conference in October (program PDF available here). I’ve been asked to speak about—guess what?—burnout. I’d like for the bulk of my material to be new and fresh and not just rehashing of the blog. This means that I’ve been keeping lots of my burnout thoughts to myself as of late.

I still want this blog to be a safe place to talk about these things, so I continue to welcome ideas and submissions for guest posts. Please get in touch if you want to talk.

And in closing, I’d like to offer this bit of wisdom that is maybe not worth embroidering on a pillow, but has been pretty surprising and innovative for this achievement addict: sometimes doing the bare minimum is fine, and the world will not end, and you are not a bad person for doing just enough to get the job done, and this is in fact a valid form of self-care. So take that, all of you overachievers out there!

This gif depicts Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls opening the front door of her house, seeing her hated ex-husband Stan, and then slamming the door in his face.
This gif depicts Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls opening the front door of her house, seeing her hated ex-husband Stan, and then slamming the door in his face.

The consequences of public ideas and sitting with the feelings

While on sabbatical last year, I read all kinds of stuff, and two works that made a big impression on me were Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. Both books convinced me of the necessity of sharing my ideas instead of my usual practice, which is to jealously hoard my ideas, or share them only with a select few trusted people. It’s not that I think that my ideas are OMG SO GREAT that people are going to steal them and pass them off as their own, although this has happened. I also know that I don’t necessarily own ideas, that my ideas have an ancestry and lineage and genealogy and emerge from specific contexts, contexts that I of course cite, because citation matters.

So it was with that perspective in mind that I decided to make this burnout project a blog instead of a lengthy IRB-approved qualitative study of some kind. It’s not that studies aren’t valid and useful ways of sharing ideas; it just takes a whole lot longer, and this project had a sense of urgency to me that I could not ignore.

My vision for the blog is that all kinds of voices will be represented in the discussion of library instruction burnout, and that it would be a safe space for talking openly about the subject. (So far, my two guest posts have been really excellent contributions to the conversation, and I’m always interested in hosting more, so please get in touch if this is of interest to you.) And I knew that by making this a public blog, it would be freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the know-how to track it down. Still, though, it was hard to imagine that anyone other than librarians would really care about my writing, so that’s always the audience I’ve imagined and have written with that audience in mind.

So it was very surprising and not a little worrisome to me when I was recently notified by WordPress that my last post had been Freshly Pressed. Honestly, my first instinct was to take the post down, or to make it private, and I still kind of wish I did, because over the last 48 hours, hundreds of random internet strangers have liked the post, commented on the post, or become a follower of my blog. The comments have not always been insightful or useful and many times completely miss my point and are kind of annoying. I have not approved any new comments, actually, because it made me so uncomfortable to even countenance interacting with random internet strangers, and then this morning I disabled commenting altogether.

My discomfort as a result of being Freshly Pressed made me seriously confront my previous revelations about sharing ideas. Isn’t this how innovation happens? Isn’t this how hunches grow and develop and progress? Ideas cannot flourish in isolation, right? They need other ideas to connect to and bounce off of. That was the whole point of making this blog a publicly accessible project.

The difference for me, though, is that in order to connect and be productive and fruitful, the networks that connect the ideas need to be cultivated in a safe place. Suddenly having my ideas on full blast, and having people who were not my intended audience reading my stuff, felt unsafe to me.

It occurs to me now that publishing a blog post that is widely read is not necessarily very different from publishing a book. I’ve done that, too, and that too feels a little weird and terrifying to have all manner of unknown strangers reading your stuff, especially when it turns out that a lot of people read it and like it. My book came out two years ago, and I’m still getting emails from strangers who want to tell me that they like my book. It is a singularly bizarre feeling. It’s very nice and not unwelcome, don’t get me wrong! But it’s just so strange to me that the book I spent two years writing mostly in isolation has a life outside of me now.

I don’t know how to reconcile the tension and discomfort of wanting to have a public platform and then the actual consequences of having that public platform. Austin Kleon and Steven Johnson and all of the Share Your Ideas people don’t really talk about what it feels like to share those ideas. So here’s how it feels: NOT GOOD. NOT SAFE. It feels FEELINGY. One of the lessons of my adult life that I have to keep learning and relearning is to Sit With The Feelings. Even if it feels terrible, I just have to let the feelings happen, and then eventually they pass, for the most part. So I think that this is the answer here, for now, for this present discomfort. I did a thing, and now things are happening, and I’m just going to sit with it.