Happy LIS Mental Health Week friends! I want to start this post by recognizing someone who has done a great deal to support library workers’ mental health in the face of toxic workplaces, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick. Kaetrena has done some incredibly valuable research on low morale and toxic workplaces in librarianship and has created an awesome supportive community on Facebook (awesome praxis, Kaetrena!). I love the generosity she exhibits in sharing her insights and observations on Twitter as she is conducting research. This particular observation, however, stopped me in my tracks —
1/ LISTEN: I just talked someone who works in libraries and has been moved to attempt suicide due to workplace abuse/neglect. I cannot emphasize this enough: COLLEAGUES: YOU ARE MOST IMPORTANT!!! YOU! BELIEVE IT! I’d rather you walk away from LIS than consider such a decision. pic.twitter.com/E6FUHz3jnL
— KDDK (@Kaetrena) February 14, 2020
I wasn’t the person she met with, but it hit me hard because I came very close to the same thing when I worked in a toxic environment. Even though writing this is bringing up a lot of trauma, I want to share this experience because I’m sure there are people experiencing similar things in libraries right now who might be blaming themselves for systemic issues that would be toxic and problematic whether they were there or not. I want you to know that it’s not your fault. And that there is hope, even when it doesn’t feel that way.
I had worked as a social worker (psychotherapist) with children and teens in extremely stressful (sometimes life-and-death) situations and I’d worked in a small, cash-strapped library that required constant ingenuity, so I felt like I had a pretty good handle on work stress. But I’d never previously worked with people who actively disliked me. In fact, I’ve always been one of those people who works really hard to get along with everyone (thanks anxiety brain). I remember living in a house in my Sophomore year of college that basically was broken up into two factions who couldn’t stand each other. I was the person who was friends with people on both sides and somehow managed to skirt all the conflicts. But in this previous job, I was placed in a pretty impossible situation; one I know many other “coordinators” can understand.
My position was created because library administration wanted to build a culture of instructional assessment and they weren’t making any headway because there was significant distrust of administration. The idea that sending someone in to achieve this who not only did not have any authority over the liaisons (I had four library faculty reporting to me, but they were not the majority of liaisons) but also was on the tenure track and at the mercy of these same colleagues was laughable. It’s no surprise that my colleagues largely saw me as the enemy since I was trying to achieve the things administration wanted. And when I came back to administration, they balked at the idea that they should need to provide any support to build a culture of assessment. It felt like it was all on me. Everything, from developing learning outcomes for our program to getting people to document doing any assessment work at all was a battle. I spent so much time lobbying colleagues one-on-one to allay concerns about things only to find them resisting the very things we’d discussed in group meetings. My supervisor (the AUL) and I would come up with a game plan in a meeting together and then when I presented it, he’d sit there with his mouth shut while I got pummeled for it. I will fully admit that I wasn’t perfect, I reacted badly to things sometimes, and I would have approached this work differently knowing what I do now, but the resistance was extreme.
And it was more than just the resistance. There was also the backstabbing, which was like something from a TV show — not something I’d ever seen in real life. This was something I was totally unprepared for. I’m not particularly politic. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m incapable of manipulating or sucking up to people. Artifice is not my jam. But I had a colleague who was expert at making friends with administrators and then using those relationships to bad-mouth people and try to harm those they didn’t like. They had a habit of writing what a few of us called “gotcha emails,” where they’d write the email in a way designed to make us look bad and would cc: our common supervisor even though there was no reason to do so. Even though they were not on the committee, one of their complaints about me (which was demonstrably false) ended up in my third year review letter for tenure and I had to spend tons of time (with deep anxiety) gathering evidence and asking colleagues to write letters on my behalf to rebut it. Trying to call the person on the things they did pretty much blew up in my face. By the time I left the job, that person had pretty much been ostracized by most of the liaison librarians for their bad behavior, but administration somehow managed to see them as the victim.
I think the worst part was how people would support me in private, and then throw me under a bus in public. They’d come to me before meetings and tell me they supported my ideas and then sit silently while I was pummeled in public or even side with others. Or they’d come to me after a meeting and tell me how awful it was and how badly they felt for me. But NEVER, NOT ONCE, did anyone have my back in those meetings. No one stood up for me. The message I got was that I wasn’t worth standing up for. It made me feel so small. Last summer, I ran into a colleague I’d worked with there who told me that they’d felt really badly for how I was treated and hoped I would consider coming back to work there in the future as the culture had changed. At the time, I’d had literally no idea they were sympathetic. This person had tenure and little to lose in defending me, but they didn’t.
In spite of it all, I didn’t give up. After two years of this, I felt like I’d finally gotten to an okay place. Instead of trying to get people to do things, I’d repositioned myself as a resource to the liaison librarians; here to help them with teaching or assessment. I created meetings where we could workshop instructional issues. I’d developed a guide full of different classroom assessment techniques they could try. I’d also developed or got involved in large-scale assessment projects and invited colleagues to join in scoring so that they could get their feet wet with assessment without having to do a lot. I rebranded my team as the Instructional Design Team, supporting the creation of tutorials and other learning objects for our colleagues. That same team had just started work on my baby, Library DIY. We’d just hired a new AUL for Public Services (my boss) who was really into instruction and it felt like we might finally be ready to make headway on things.
Less than one month after my new boss started her job, I was summoned to a meeting with her and our AUL who handled library HR. The meeting seemed ominous, but I was told by my boss “don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.” So imagine my surprise when I arrived and was handed a brand-new job description: General Education Instruction Coordinator and Social Sciences Librarian. My new AUL said she felt that it made more sense for her to be in charge of the overall instruction program and for all of the public services librarians to report directly to her. But I knew how things worked at this place. If you didn’t meet expectations, no one worked with you. No one coached you. You were shunted off to something less important in the hopes that you’d take the hint and leave. (A year later, ironically, the same thing would happen to the boss who did this to me.) But I’d uprooted my family and made them move across the country to a much more expensive city (and one in which finding another library job was next-to impossible). I had a young child who I wanted to grow up rooted in a community. We’d just bought a house! I felt trapped. I felt like I’d let my family down. I felt like a failure. I felt like I’d destroyed my entire career; that it was over. All I could feel was intense shame and I couldn’t stop perseverating over what happened and blaming myself for all of it. In spite of the fact that I could clearly see that I was working in a toxic situation, I blamed myself 100% for all of it. I internalized everything.
I spent the next year in a deep and relentless depression. It was, without question, the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. I felt worthless. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be happy; like I didn’t deserve to exist. I couldn’t sleep. I obsessed about dying. I felt like I was already dead. I went to work like a robot and did my job and felt like I was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic because the world had already ended and why couldn’t everyone else see that? I spent my weekends lying in bed staring at the ceiling or crying hysterically or yelling at my poor husband. I talked to my husband about quitting, trying to do consulting, teaching more online, ANYTHING, but it wasn’t really economically feasible. I wanted out of the pain and out of that job and I couldn’t see any way forward. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had my husband and son to anchor me, but I still felt like I had let them down utterly and ruined all their lives by coming here and failing so spectacularly. My husband was the only one who really knew what I was going through. I didn’t even tell my work colleagues who I was friends with, because I was afraid that if I told them and they didn’t care or didn’t try to help me, I’d feel even more lost. I just went through the motions.
I don’t know what I would have done had I not gotten my current job. I couldn’t have survived another year there. Even six years later, I feel tremendously lucky to be here, not only because I’m not there anymore, but because I get to work with amazing and dedicated colleagues and the great students we have here. Looking back now, I can see how impossible the situation was and it’s telling that I was the first and last head of instruction that library had. But at the time, I was absolutely demoralized and I took everything as a referendum on my worthlessness. As someone who experienced trauma growing up, my brain has been primed to see failures as being all my fault (and successes as being caused by external factors beyond my control). Self-blame comes very naturally to me.
While I was grateful to get out of that work environment, I recognized that there were a lot of things about how I positioned work in my life that weren’t healthy and needed to change. I’m sharing some of the work I’ve been doing on myself here in case others could benefit:
I recognize that most issues in libraries are systemic in nature, NOT individual – instead of blaming myself for everything, I try to see the big picture; how the problems I’m facing might be related to forces bigger than me. While I love my current job, every library has baggage and I am better now at seeing now how resistance I sometimes face is related to that baggage more than it is to me personally. I think library workers who get burned out feel even worse because they blame themselves for feeling that way. It’s like the Buddhist concept of the second arrow — we’re already in pain and we increase our pain by blaming ourselves for it. Things like burnout are very much a systemic failure, not a personal one, and seeing that, instead of blaming yourself, is one of the keys to emerging from burnout.
I don’t let achievement culture tell me what I’m worth – I’ve written about not chasing success anymore before, but I promise you, letting go of achievement culture is one of the most freeing things you can do. So much of what I do now is really valuable, but deeply unflashy. A lot of it is that maintenance work that makes a library run — like instruction scheduling or running our learning assessment project. I’m not going to win awards for anything I’m doing now, but I also don’t really care. If I’m happy with what I’m doing and I feel like I’m doing good, that’s enough.
I try to step back and look mindfully at situations – people who have survived trauma tend to get stuck in a lot of knee-jerk cycles of self-blame and self-harm. Mindfulness can help us look beneath anger, hurt, fear, and self-blame at the assumptions about others and ourselves that underlie those feelings. Meditation and tools like RAIN have really helped me to slow down and stop beating myself up all the time. It’s helped me deepen my compassion towards myself and others. I try to avoid the fight-or-flight thinking that makes me feel like I have to react, respond to that email, do, do, do right away.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of talking to my (imagined) future self. Looking back, I have so much compassion for me in my previous job and hindsight helps me to see the big picture and what really matters. I’ve started trying to conjure my future self when I’m struggling with something, both for compassion and to ask “is this something that is going to matter a year from now? Is this worth getting worked up over?” More often that not, it isn’t. If you’re uncomfortable imagining a conversation with your future self, you could imagine talking to a person who you feel loves you unconditionally. In my case, it’s my Abuela, who passed away several years ago. Seeing myself the way she saw me always helps to increase my compassion for myself.
I try to be less attached to outcomes — the negative part of being really dedicated to and passionate about work is that you also get attached to the projects you’re working on, especially things you believe will really be important for patrons. And it can viscerally hurt when people stomp all over the things you’ve built. Over the past few years, I have learned how to let go, which has definitely changed my work style, but it’s decreased my anxiety enormously. It’s made accepting no’s and negative changes that I have absolutely no control over much easier. I still care deeply about our students and I still advocate for things, but I see my place in a much larger system and recognize that there is only so much I can control.
I try to see people as whole people with their own insecurities and fears — When we are caught in anger, hurt, or insecurity, it becomes much more difficult to see people we perceive as harming us as whole people. A brilliant book I read recently, Radical Compassion by the incredible psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, called this phenomenon “unreal others:”
When we’re caught in the trance of anger and blame, our survival brain shapes every dimension of our experience. Our bodies are tense, our hearts numb or constricted; our thinking is agitated and rigid… This cutoff from our whole brain dramatically impacts how we perceive others. Rather than real beings with subjective feelings like ourselves, they become what I call Unreal Others. Our attention focuses on their faults, their differences from us, on how they are threatening or impeding us.
By stepping back from survival brain mode, I’m now better able to let go of hurt and anger. When I’ve felt harmed by someone at work, I’ve made an effort to try and understand why they did or said what they did. More often than not, it has little to do with me or my worth and a lot more to do with them and their own insecurities. I used to really hold onto my hurts because it felt like people should be held accountable for the harmful things they did, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t serve me. Being angry and hurt just makes me feel like crap. Feeling compassion, forgiving, and letting go feels freeing, even if sometimes it means not holding people accountable.
I try to cultivate gratitude and appreciation – this summer, I listened to an episode of my favorite podcast, Hurry Slowly that featured the organizational psychologist Adam Grant. In it, he talked about the benefits of explicitly expressing gratitude towards people and how it not only makes the recipient (who likely didn’t know how you felt about them) feel great, but it also has positive impacts for the sender. And he’s right; it feels great! I’ve been making this a part of my practice bit-by-bit and it has led to some really special moments and heart-to-hearts with my colleagues. I don’t know what it is about our profession that there isn’t a lot of formal or informal recognition provided (as if it’s not an infinitely renewable resource, come on!), but I’m not going to wait for a culture change to start behaving the way I know we should.
I’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to improve your relationships with work and with yourself. I won’t be able to make the #LISMentalHealth chat tonight because I’m going to be at the Buddhist meditation class my husband and I started attending last Spring; one of my self-care and community-care strategies. Whoever you are, I wish you peace and greater compassion for yourself and others.
Image credit: The awesome #LISMentalHealth Zine. Order your copy today!
Meredith, I relate to so much of your post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. One thing that’s helped me heal from a toxic work environment (although I’m still working on it!) is EMDR therapy.
Very impressive–both your insight and your willingness to share. I have great sympathy for those unable to leave a toxic work environment. And great sadness that they exist in what can be a wonderful profession.
Thank you for sharing. That fact that even a librarian like you has struggled in seemingly unwinnable situations, makes the rest of us feel a little less alone.
Thank you for having the courage to share what sounds to be a difficult ordeal that many of us can identify with. I am glad you have found another position in your location that is positive for you.
I just want to thank you for this. I am currently in an exceptionally toxic work environment and am trying to get out. In the meantime, I am reading Radical Compassion and it has been a great help.
Thanks. This resonated: “As someone who experienced trauma growing up, my brain has been primed to see failures as being all my fault (and successes as being caused by external factors beyond my control).” I’ve also found Tara Brach’s RAIN tremendously helpful. Thankfully, my workplace is not toxic… but it kinda highlights how much of the beating myself up is… me. Getting there.