Thursday, October 29, 2009

Attitude adjustment

Yeah, it's been a while.

And it looks pretty sorry that I got a Blog Award and then immediately vanished for four months.

Phyllis Diller [unattributed]Phyllis Diller used to say, "See this body? There's no excuse for this body. Lots of reasons, but no excuse!"

Well, substitute "blog" for "body" and....

But I have been busy. In fact, that busyness has nudged me through several successive layers of attitude adjustment.

When I look back to just before I took time out from this blog, I find a post called Vulnerability. The core of it was this passage:

You could call [this vulnerability] "thinned-skinnedness," except that's not quite it. The issue is personal boundaries and how strong they are, how permeable yet resilient they are.

Perhaps the more relevant term is empathy. Those of us who are sensitive to the wants and feelings of others are also vulnerable to them. At our best we hone the skills of being just open enough to others to be helpful, without being so open that our own boundaries are invaded.

Which brings us to burnout.

I went to library school in 1999, after resigning in despair from the clinical counseling career which I loved, yet which had burned me out....

Now I struggle daily as one anxious, demanding person after another comes to the Ask Here desk, needing help to seek and apply for email accounts, unemployment benefits, jobs, food stamps....

And I resent them. I catch myself wandering around the stacks muttering, "I HATE this job!" I want them to leave me alone so that I can "get my work done...."

Whoa! That's burnout.

And for me, it's a warning of a deeper challenge. I'm realizing how much—way more than I thought—the scars of my earlier burnout have gotten in the way of genuinely practicing empathy.
That "scars of earlier burnout" bit is the revelation.

It’s taken me nine years...ten, if you count library realize how far I had retreated from being able to maintain that permeable yet resilient boundary.

I haven't been feeling very empathetic toward customers. Just obligated in a tired professional sense. Obligated either by their demanding attitude of entitlement, or by my awareness that they genuinely needed help which I didn't feel up to giving.

Fortunately, I started to break through this impasse during the summer. Ironically, the six weeks subbing as manager of the little African-American neighborhood branch was actually the key to opening myself to new possibilities—rather than being the awful responsibility I had feared.

My more mature awareness recognizes that what I fear about supervisory responsibility is the necessity of taking a stand with customers (or staff) and saying "yes" or "no." I've lived a life of avoiding conflict…and, hence, of avoiding situations in which I am the designated person responsible for dealing with conflict.

"But wait a minute," you say. "Didn't you work 'on the yard' in a medium/maximum security men's prison for 12+ years?"

Well…um…yes. And I constantly surprised myself with my ability to stand up to inmates (and staff) in a professional, non-violent way, and say "yes" or "no." In other words, the innate ability is there. It's the feelings that get in the way.

Back to that word "vulnerability."

When any of us aren't certain, at that subconscious gut level, that we can protect our own boundaries, it feels unsafe to take a stand. This isn't really about knowing the right answer, though my fear is likely to mislead me into believing that to be the issue.

The former manager of Main Library gave me a great gift one time, when I was telling her about a difficult situation I'd had to handle as designated Person in Charge (PIC). I had acknowledged my discomfort with being unsure what was the "right thing to do" in that situation.

She said: "Mike, when you're Person in Charge, you are in charge. Just do what you think is best at that moment. As long as I can see that you are acting to protect people and property, I'll back you up."

I experienced this silly, wonderful sort of "aha" as the weight slipped off my shoulders. It was as if the overbearing inner policeman who's chronically after me for "not knowing" had been outranked…as he had indeed been…by someone with real authority.

What my manager was reminding me of was what I knew all through those prison years: real authority is about personal authority, not about having a title and enforcing the rules.

And, of course, this truth applies to all of us, not only to supervisors or PICs or managers. In any and all life situations, the real effect of our presence with other people depends upon our having the courage and faith to use our personal authority…to act out of personal integrity and a sense of fairness, not out of "being right."

One incident from a month or so ago demonstrates what I mean.

I was back at Main Library, PIC on a Saturday—a circumstance I usually dread, since not only am I PIC but most of the other supervisors, especially the circulation supervisor, are not at work.

I got the call:

An angry customer, furious because her card was blocked because the drop-box address she had used as a homeless person when getting that card five months ago is now not considered adequate but she had just paid over $17 in fines in order to unblock her card so she could get online to do coursework her counselor had recommended so she could get a job and….
You get the picture.

And somehow, thanks to some sort of grace, I just handed her my business card and said, "I understand, ma'am. I can't change the policy, but I want to find some way to help you get online today."

After finding no one else "more" in charge than I to ask for help, I went back to Circ desk and gave her a free Guest Pass for the day.

She, meanwhile, had calmed down. She apologized for her angry rant.

Then she said she gets some mail at her aunt's address.

I said, "Oh, well, bring some of that mail in Monday, and we can use that address on your account."

She left satisfied.

I left flying.

Boundary stone, Hognaston WinnThere's something about setting aside the fear of having boundaries invaded, the fear of "not knowing the right thing."

Something about just saying, "Here are the rules, but let's you and me together figure out some way to get what you most need without breaking the rules (if we can)."

It's that "let's be allies in this" shift that makes the difference.

The situation stops being my boundary versus yours. It stops being a boundary situation.

It becomes two (or three, or more) people puzzling out an awkward challenge, compromising, making do.

At such moments, for a change, I don't have to ask, "Can I go home now?"



Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post, Mike. Thank you so much for your honesty and for sharing this. Traci

Anonymous said...

I agree - that's a great post. I think we all have those same fears sometime.

leona Miko said...

Very enjoyable, great post.