In defence of talking to yourself (yes, including in public!)

In these heady days of wireless headsets and Bluetooth devices, you would think people would be getting a bit less judgemental about those people who casually walk around muttering to themselves.

But as a person who owns neither of those pieces of tech, yet can frequently be found walking around grumbling to myself, I can tell you that this is not the case.

Also, as a library worker who works with students with various disabilities, and watches the reactions of neuro-typical students when they pass someone happily chatting away to themselves, I can tell you that this is not the case.

At least when people give me odd looks for it they are usually simply looks of surprise, perhaps some confusion, even vague amusement (but their smiles never seem vindictive).

If I was wearing a big coat, or a floppy hat, or was older, or larger, or anything which somehow marked me out as ‘out of the ordinary’ by our narrow, rubbish conceptions of ‘normality’*, I would be on the receiving end of the same level of social displeasure I see aimed at, for example, the loud woman on the bus, or the muttering, shuffling man in town, or the disabled boy in the library.

I’m not talking about a glance. I’m not talking about a smothered frown, or smile, or other briefly visible facial reaction. I’m not even talking about crossing the road, or detouring slightly out of avoidance, although that too can be a micro-aggression.

I’m talking about the look, then the double take. The nudging of the companion, and then the pointing. The laughter, with cruelty etched in around the eyes. The falling in step behind the person, in case the opportunity for further mockery should arise.

I hope I don’t have to explain why this is wrong. I’m sure most people who happen upon this blog and think it worthy of their time don’t behave in this way. But there’s a good chance that there are people who may read this who don’t understand this behaviour, who find it confusing, or strange, or difficult, or even threatening. It is understandable. If our society didn’t segregate children with disabilities into ‘special’ schools, and develop infrastructures which consciously and unconsciously exclude people with disabilities, maybe these misunderstandings wouldn’t exist. We would live in the same world then, and differences would be seen as what they are; completely natural.

When I am out and about, I often mutter to myself about my shopping list, or the order of places I’m going to go. It helps me stay focused, and productive, and relatively calm. I can also get a bit panicky in crowds, and so I mutter to myself about how scary people are, how much I want to get out of the crush, how it’s going to be okay once I get home. Getting stuck in a bottleneck alley is a personal nightmare of mine, and one which happens frequently in this town. But it’s okay, because I have myself, and myself can mutter soothing words to myself, so all the anxiety and fear and stress doesn’t stay bottled up in my brain and lead to a panic attack. A wall of school children coming towards me with no visible human size gaps within it can lead to me saying things out loud, such as ‘oh my God there’s so many of them, anyone gonna move? No? Just gonna keep walking at me aren’t you? That’s fine that’s fine I’ll just..’ and then I stand perfectly still and let them wash around me like an incoming tide. These kids barely even see me, and I’m sure many people in a similar situation would be able to take it in their stride and not be perturbed in the slightest. It certainly wouldn’t send such people into a relatively audible soliloquy.

And then this monologue which comes, unbidden, out of my mouth, may be overheard by a passer by, who responds by looking at me, a little concerned, frowning perhaps, before carrying on about their day. Which leads me to say things like ‘Yes?’ and ‘What.’ at their receding back. I’ve spoken out loud as a self-soothing device, or as a defence mechanism, or to keep my mind focused, and this is already enough to deal with without receiving further judgement from my surroundings.

So that’s me. Just imagine the infinite possible reasons someone might have for chatting to themselves. They might be terrified. They might be having the time of their goddamn lives.

So, in summation, if people talking to themselves freaks you out, because you’ve been told it means that that person is ‘crazy’, or ‘unstable’, or whatever, just cool your beans and hold your horses. It ain’t your problem. It ain’t an issue. It is simply a difference, and difference is what? *Say it with me!* Completely natural.

 

*Isn’t it interesting how many of these ‘markers’ come down to ‘taking up more space’. People are apparently very worried about your exact dimensions and whether or not you deserve to have them. Which isn’t very nice, to say the least. I imagine I’ll come back to this at some point in the future. This aside was originally in brackets, can you imagine reading all this and then coming out and finding yourself still within another sentence? Not good. So now we’re down here. Did you check the asterisk immediately or wait till the end? So many questions. Do let me know. It’s for science. Bye then.

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Library anxiety (not mine, yours)

I have an annotated bibliography and reflective report due in essentially 18 hours so this is the last thing I should be doing right now, but there’s a concept I’ve come across in my research for said bibliography that I want to explore a little. Partly because it is almost the inverse of this blog’s title, partly because I want to make people feel at ease in libraries so that they can use them in the best possible way.

I don’t think I realised it before, but libraries are intimidating. For so long, I found the rest of the world so intimidating, that libraries were my comfort. Then when I began reading about ways to make libraries more welcoming for as many people as possible, I’ll admit I was resistant. The little girl in me was frightened of all the extroverts coming in and invading her quiet, secluded patch.

But I’m learning, and part of what I’m learning is that everyone has different needs, everyone has information needs, and maybe if some of these needs can be met, everyone will feel a little happier, and breathe a little easier. And then the little girl inside me will feel a little less frightened, because the people around her will be projecting less anger for her to soak up into her little sponge brain.

Carol Kuhlthau’s uncertainty principle (look at me, name dropping researchers all casual like) began this change for me. I recognised in the language used by her to describe these uncertain library users that paralysing feeling, being unsure of what to do, being afraid of failure, and how demoralising and terrifying it can be. I could see it in action in the library around me, people floundering in the one atmosphere I had happened to flourish in, and which I still wanted to protect. But that is not my role.

The library has always made sense to me, when little else has. But that doesn’t mean it is mine. It simply means that I am in a position to translate this confusing, though meticulously catalogued, pile of books and e-pile of e-books for the people who need the endless supply of knowledge contained in them.

I am an anxious librarian, and I will use this perspective to ease the library anxiety of library users and information seekers, and perhaps then we’ll all feel a little better.

Filler post

  • To-do lists
  • Disordered eating
  • Mental health medication and work
  • Information Overload
  • MA LISM

These are the topics of the five drafts I have had lined up for the last.. 6 weeks? Funnily enough, that coincides with the start of my Library MA. Coincidence? DEFINITELY NOT.

I am just about keeping up with the course but I have not yet quite managed to do so in a way which doesn’t leave me feeling tired and drained, with no time for socialising or doing other things I want to do – like this! I’m so critical of anything which I might publish online that I can’t even face trying to write most of the time. But at the same time I am learning so much at the moment, challenging many of my pre-existing assumptions and building on what I already knew, even in terms of the personal morality I didn’t realise I’d built, which fortunately coincides with the ethics behind the entire library profession.

If any of the topics listed above sound particularly interesting, or personally important to you, please let me know, it may light a fire under me. But in the meantime, stay warm, treat yourself, and remember it’s the start of hibernation season, so it’s perfectly reasonable to start needing a regular 12 hours shut-eye.

Impostor Syndrome

I’ve been going on about this post for ages so it’d better be good. If it isn’t then you’ll find out what a terrible fraudulent human I am and how I shouldn’t be allowed to post my ramblings on the internet. Enjoy.

So, what is impostor syndrome? Well, I’m glad you asked. Coined in 1978 by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes (thank you, Wikipedia), impostor syndrome is essentially that semi-constant worry that you have faked or lucked your way through life so far, co-occurring with the fear that actually you know absolutely nothing, and topped off with a feeling of dread that discovery is imminent, and that your friends, family, co-workers and/or work superiors are mere moments from catching you out and discovering the truth.

Of course, this ‘truth’ is entirely untrue. This ‘syndrome’ is based on self-doubt, on external and internal pressures, on stress, on competitiveness, and in my opinion it is made much worse by the work and productivity obsessed neoliberal culture we find ourselves surrounded by and subject to on a daily basis. But I digress.

I will be referring to impostor syndrome as impostor experience from here on out, as it has been suggested by Clance to be a more apt term considering that this experience is not in any way a mental disorder or syndrome, although it may be exacerbated by pre-existing mental health conditions. It’s also important to note that while originally coined to explain a phenomenon among high-achieving (and probably white) women, it is actually a misconception that this demographic is more predisposed towards the experience. While people socialised female may have a greater tendency towards self-doubt and self-deprecation, those socialised male may be less likely to have been taught how to express their more vulnerable feelings. Therefore, it is experienced in roughly equal numbers across all genders.

However, it has been suggested that for people of colour there may be a higher likelihood of the experience manifesting. This is due to a worry that they were only hired due to affirmative action policies (this theory comes from a study by Queena Hoang, 2013), and relates to how these groups are ‘excelling in areas that were not always readily accessible to them’ (Clance, Imes, 1978), areas which includes all levels of education, particularly higher education, as well as many avenues of work. A University of Texas study in 2013 found that Asian-American students were more likely than African-American or Latino students to feel like an impostor. The real danger, as explained by Wikipedia (quiet, this isn’t an essay, Wikipedia is accessible and handy and increasingly well referenced), is that by not addressing these impostor-y feelings, mental health issues can then develop, and the impostor experience becomes anxiety, stress, and/or depression. Apparently, some people have said that impostor experience can be a good thing, as ‘personal/professional growth’ happens outside of people’s comfort zones. I disagree with this theory wholeheartedly, as in my opinion the last thing people experiencing these levels of doubt and fear and dread need to hear is that it is ‘character building’. It feeds right back into the neoliberal ideals but again, I’m not opening that can of worms right now. I’ll still reference that article at the bottom though, if you’re interested.

So, we know that this experience can have serious consequences for the individual, and may particularly effect previously and currently disenfranchised demographics, which would therefore also include those with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people.

I didn’t find out about impostor experience until towards the end of my MA, in 2014. At the time, it felt like a ground-breaking, eye-opening moment, a discovery which would surely allow me to cut myself some slack, and ease the undue pressure I had been putting on myself throughout my time in education. I recognised the identifying factors of the ‘syndrome’ in myself, and at the same time could see it in many of the people close to me, who had shared with me their own doubts, or inexplicably announced that something incredible they had achieved was purely down to luck. Which can be quite irritating, when you don’t identify the self-effacement at the base of it, as sometimes it can sound like the person is saying the accomplishment was easy, or accidental, and that impression can compound your own feelings of inadequacy.

Unfortunately however, this moment of enlightenment doesn’t seem to have any sticking power whatsoever. Three years later, I found myself saying to a friend while explaining my own academic history, “I mean, yeah, impostor syndrome is a thing, but I am a literal impostor”. He raised his eyebrows at me and said, “You realise that’s still imposter syndrome though, right?” I laughed, while secretly saying to myself, ‘no, I am still an impostor, a human piece of garbage infiltrating the sensible world’. And I’m not the only one. Most of my friends and colleagues are aware of the phenomenon, but only to the point where after a spate of self-deprecation, one of us will mutter “oh impostor syndrome”, and we’ll all nod sagely, smile slightly, briefly remind ourselves that this is a common psychological effect, particularly within academia, and then again, as I did, we all silently reaffirm the negative view we have of ourselves. The knowledge that this is a widespread and acknowledged issue doesn’t seem to be helping any of us move on from it. Sufferers are in fact more likely to assume that the impostor experience is something which happens to other people, while their issue is that they are just a bit rubbish. So what next?

The following ideas are partly my own, and partly taken from reading around the subject online. I’m afraid I cannot guarantee the effectiveness of any of them, as I am just as much stuck in the above stage as I’ll presume you are. However, it feels like the process of researching for and writing this post has been a helpful one, and I encourage you to share your own experiences, whether it be with your diary, your blog, your friends, your supervisor, or here, in the comments. Right then, here goes nothing.

  • Make a list of your achievements, skills, hobbies, things you enjoy doing, things you have enjoyed, things that you care about, things which you have learned, and refer to them often. While doing so, remind yourself that these things are enough, and that you are enough.
  • While it may feel at first like you are lying to yourself, it is good to combat negative thoughts with positive thoughts. It is not enough to simply push them away, repressing them for later. You need to teach your brain new habits, and while it may feel embarrassing, or arrogant, or trite, or painful to do so, over time it will become more natural (supposedly).
  • E.g. “I’m not good enough… hang on… I AM MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH.”
  • Try not to feel bad if you have the negative thoughts but forget to do the above. Do it when you remember. Remind yourself that it is a process.
  • Be aware that you can only be aware of your own self-doubt, while at the same time you can only see others’ external facades. Try not to assume that everyone else has it better/is better than you, despite what social media tells you (most people only post about the positive things in their life!).
  • Cut yourself some slack. Celebrate smaller achievements. Set realistic goals. By which I mean, write things like ‘eat’ and ‘shower’ on your to-do lists and if you tick them off, allow yourself to feel good about it.
  • Talk about it. Read about it. Write about it. Allow yourself to feel it, allow yourself to acknowledge it, and allow yourself to fight it. Because you deserve to not feel this way.
  • Collaborate with your struggling peers, to ‘undertake truth-telling and social transformation’ (oh, is that all? Thanks a lot, Beauvoir). This is a long-term project to take on, and involves the process of recognising and actively combatting the injustices which have led to us experiencing these feelings with such intensity.

While impostor experience can feel extremely personal and extremely isolating, it is important to recognise that it is a deeply political phenomenon, and really, we should be angry that the world has allowed and encouraged us to feel this way. I certainly am.

 

References and Further Reading (I’m so fancy)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

Hoang, Queena (2013) “The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming Internalized Barriers and Recognizing Achievements,” The Vermont Connection: Vol. 34 , Article 6.
Available at: http://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol34/iss1/6

‘Feel like a fraud?’, Kirsten Weir, 2013. http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx

‘Why Impostor Syndrome Is Good For You’, Shane Ferro, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/impostor-syndrome-is-good-for-you_us_5697d97de4b0b4eb759d7d74

‘The brilliant way feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir outsmarted imposter syndrome’, Sandy Grant, 2016.                                                                https://qz.com/874930/i-was-suddenly-uncertain-of-my-true-capacity-simone-de-beauvoirs-daring-response-to-imposter-syndrome/

I’m going to Paris tomorrow.

Although it might not seem like it, for once I haven’t started a blog with the best intentions and then entirely forgotten about it. I actually have four draft posts lined up! However, due to me beginning a new course of medication which has had some nasty side effects, I haven’t been able to get any of them even mildly coherent. You’re just going to have to wait for some primo content covering such topics as imposter syndrome, the effects of new medication on work (topical), and the pros and cons of to-do lists for easing anxiety. Excited? Me too.

My application for the distance learning MA in Library and Information Services Management is in the pipeline, and now I just have to hope that their admin team are faster than I evidently am, and manage to get me on the course which starts at the end of this month.

In other news, I’ve landed the role of Disabilities Officer on our student union’s Women+ Committee, and my activities for that will be informing future content for this blog, as clearly there is an amount of crossover here.

In summary, I’m still here, but due to brain fog, nausea, sensitivity to light (including the big white draft screen thank you WordPress) etc. I have not been able to post as actively as I would have liked. But it’s the beginning of a new school year, mercury is no longer in retrograde, and I’m going to Paris tomorrow, so all in all, things are looking up.

Stream of consciousness post while having an anxiety-filled work day.

Today I was going to write a post about imposter syndrome. I even went so far as to vaguely plan the structure. But things don’t always (read: basically never) go to plan, and I’m in such a foul mood today that I thought it would be more honest and potentially helpful to just go with that, tell you all about it, and see if we can both find a way to move forward from all this.

I’m having trouble staying focussed (by which I mean my eyes are blurring out if I don’t maintain the facial expression of a toddler having a temper tantrum) and I just want to curl up and cry for a few hours. My brain feels dizzy and occasionally my reactions to things I’m reading online/conversations I’m having/technology being slightly slow are coming out of my face instead of remaining within the unsafe confines of my brain. And considering I work in a library that’s a pretty unhelpful and moderately unprofessional habit to be falling into. Ah, I’ve just remembered that when I started this paragraph the point was that this post will not be the most well written, but learning to be okay with that is going to be pretty important for me, and maybe me pushing through that will help you push through some stuff too.

Talking to yourself in public is going to be the topic of another upcoming post too, because there is a lot to be said about that. For now though, we’re having a stream of consciousness style ‘I hate myself and everything else but hopefully writing this down while I’m experiencing it will help someone else feel less alone about having these kinds of feelings’ post.

I don’t usually work Sundays or mornings. It is quiet. It is calm. It would be a wonderful environment to get some things done if my brain hadn’t decided to go off on one today, and subsequently effect my body with a similarly foggy uselessness. First thing this morning, having a quick tidy round, I managed to bash the half empty remains of some kind of chocolate-y drink across one of the study pods, in an attempt to simply pick it up and deposit it in the bin two feet away. Instead I appear to have been briefly possessed by a deranged cat and so the ‘picking up and rotating towards the bin’ motion became a ‘squeezy grabby swiping’ motion which meant the top popped off and everything just exploded at the wall. It might have been funny if I was watching a gif of someone else doing it.

I spent the next three hours doing precisely nothing, hoping the chest pains would go away and thinking about tomorrow’s doctor’s appointment and how hopeless everything seems. The best/worst part is that I am used to this now, I know it isn’t real, so I just sit here, sulking, waiting for it to pass. The fact that I am even writing this is miraculous to be perfectly honest, so I’m pretty proud of myself whilst simultaneously detesting everything about me and the world I inhabit. All of my impulses are telling me to just wallow in it because we know it won’t get better today. It might be better tomorrow. What a rollercoaster. What a terribly not fun, dizzying, sickening, rollercoaster, which occasionally comes grinding to a halt, leaving you dangling upside down in mid-air with nowhere to go to get away from your brain telling you how terrible you are. Is this relatable? Is this helpful? I hope it is a bit, somehow.

We need to talk about the bad things, and not just in a ‘but then I did some yoga and ate some raw vegetables and everything was fine you should try it’* kind of way. I am at work right now and I want to yell and scream and cry and just do bad things generally. Because that is something which happens to me sometimes. I grin and bear it, or I sulk and bear it, or I go to the toilet periodically for a bit of a cry, or I freak out completely and have to go home. It’s a sulk and bear it kind of day, so really I should be grateful for that. I mean I definitely won’t be, but I can wryly twitch my eyebrow and sarcastically think ‘oh wow, well done for not being quite as useless as you could be being’ to myself.

There is a chance this post will be getting deleted in a fit of shame in an hour or so, but I will try to not do that. The point of all this heart-on-sleeve nonsense is to help you feel more normal. Is it working?

 

*YES I AM AWARE THESE CAN BOTH BE HELPFUL THINGS IN ACTUALITY BUT THAT IS NOT THE POINT.

An anxious librarian (in training)

I am going to really struggle to write this post. I am going to really struggle to continue to write posts for this blog. I am going to try really hard to produce regular content for this blog, and not let it fizzle out like every other blog I have created since blogs became a thing and I thought to myself, “If I’m going to continue thinking of myself as a writer, I’m going to have to maintain a blog, as that seems to be what’s happening now.” That was about eight years ago and the only blog I have maintained since is the one I use as a mental health outlet on Tumblr (and no, you cannot have the URL).

Until now, the blogs I have created, neglected, and deleted over the years have never really had a clear purpose, beyond ‘proving my credentials as a 21st century writer’. Until now, my dreams and ambitions have been vague, passionate yet insubstantial, idealistic to the point of naivety, with brief flashes of pragmatism which have fallen by the wayside as, time after time, my plans are proven to be unsustainable.

I once thought that maybe I could change the world with my writing, and I have spent years searching for the path which could make that possible. In the corner of the school library, within the stacks of folders and papers dedicated to careers information, I discovered how competitive the fields of journalism, editing and publishing are. I knew right away that I wouldn’t be able to make progress in a career like that (at the time I was still getting my best friend to buy my bus tickets, or order for me in restaurants). I thought that maybe I could be an author, and write a book, the book, the one which would fix the world (so ambitious, so vague)! I was told that that was all very well, but that I would still need a day job. I despaired.

A little later, I discovered a love of academic writing, and I thought, great, I can enter the world of academia, a sphere of wonderfully intelligent people making the world better with their research and with their writing. I began a degree in English Literature, and I planned to continue without stopping until I had received my PhD at the age of 24. At the end of my MA, aged 22, I stopped, exhausted, and crawled back to my hometown for 6 months. Academia no longer seemed to offer me a path towards changing the world for the better. Harbouring such a magnificent, impossible dream for so long had probably contributed to my sky-high anxiety levels, but the world of academia had begun to represent for me something closed, inaccessible, and self-congratulatory.* I was unable to present at the MA conference due to my mental health, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to focus on for my PhD, and I didn’t think myself worthy of the fight for funding. So I ran away from it all, to recover, and to try to find a new path towards changing the world for the better.

The three years which followed (to bring us up to now) were an unstructured tangle of half-baked ideas and schemes, financial and mental health problems, coupled with a hefty dose of reality. I learnt about some of the people and groups all over the world who are working hard to improve the state of things, and I came to realise that it was not down to me to ‘fix’ everything (yes, I am aware that this is obvious to most people). I was forced to reassess my assumptions and my priorities, and I learnt that I must continue to do this on an almost daily basis in order to keep everything in perspective. I worked in a pub, and in a shop, and learnt that I am a hard worker, who operates under the primary impulse of wanting to help people. I struggled with severe anxiety symptoms during all of my interviews, and after two and a half years of sweating and stumbling my way through windowless interview rooms, plagued by brain fog and panic, I secured a Library Aide job at the same university which had provided me with my degrees.

I have now worked here for a little over two months, and I am convinced that this is where I need to be, that this is, at least for now, the continuation of the path towards helping as many people as possible. While this may still be an ambitious and naïve goal, it is a marked improvement from the pressure I was putting on myself to ‘save the world’. I am painfully aware that issues of accessibility are as present and ingrained in this institution as they are in others however, for the first time in a while, I feel hopeful and excited because I can see a path towards change, and I can see a network of passionate people around me working towards the same goal.

This blog is for those people, because I am no longer operating under the mistaken assumption that I am the only one who feels these things so deeply, who despairs, who has mental health problems and who wants to change the world, and who is so overwhelmed and terrified by everything. I have found these people in academia, in pubs, in shops, in libraries. We are isolated, because we isolate ourselves, out of fear, out of shame, and out of guilt. I am here to be honest about these feelings, and to help foster an environment of intersectional progress amongst us. I can only try.

 

* After a while, academia stopped making sense to me, but I know many people for whom it does make sense, at least enough for them to continue struggling through it, often at the direct expense of their mental health. My personal views of academia as an institution are in no way a reflection on the individuals within it. Academia is intrinsically linked to librarianship and the mental health support that I hope this blog will provide is relevant to people within the entirety of this broad sector, and far beyond it.