Reflections on Shame and the Library Profession

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jenn Monnin, Scholarly Engagement Librarian, Health Sciences Library, West Virginia University.

Last October, I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Atlantic Chapter Conference of the Medical Librarian Association in Durham, North Carolina. The theme was Rising to the Occasion, and talks ranged from information management in emergency planning to building your own ILS system. One of the plenary speakers was Dr. Will Bynum, a shame researcher at Duke University. Physician suicide is, unfortunately, a common tragedy, and Dr. Bynum is working to counteract this by normalizing a conversation around shame in medical education. Near the beginning of his presentation, Dr. Bynum asked us to participate in a Poll Everywhere by texting our responses to the question: “In 1-2 words, what has triggered shame or imposter feelings in you (or could in the future).” Our submitted answers would appear on the screen in a public word cloud. 

Uncertainty

It’s amazing just how anxious that request made me, as this was my first professional conference and all four of my immediate coworkers were in the room. I was extremely self-aware of my identities as a new medical librarian, a new academic librarian, and as a new librarian. I began my current position a month and a half before this conference, and spent the previous two years as a public librarian. I just got the hang of managing the collections and all programs for adult and teen patrons for all six library branches, had established partnerships with all four local afterschool programs offering Girls Who Code Clubs to their students, and worked consistently with the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation and the local OhioMeansJobs office to offer In-Demand career services to the county. When my family moved, I had to get settled in a new position all over again. Now, at the very last session of my first conference as a medical librarian, I was being asked to publicly reflect on what made me feel so behind in my career. That felt like a lot to ask. I didn’t want to send anything in, and thought I’d leave the imposter-feeling explaining to people who knew more about librarianship than me. Thank goodness I was sitting alone so my coworkers wouldn’t see me not participating! 

As words started appearing on screen, I saw my own anxieties, fears, and insecurities reflected in real time. The more a word was texted in to the Poll Everywhere, the larger it appeared. Since I saw concepts that so completely described how I felt in my new position being sent in by others in the room, I decided to send in my own thoughts. Dr. Bynum posted a picture of our completed word cloud to his Twitter account shortly after the conference. 

Early on in his talk, Dr. Bynum pointed out that when dealing with a professional at any level, it’s possible to trigger something that disrupts their professional identity. In our profession this could happen when presenting in front of peers or encountering new library jargon, for example. This causes what he refers to as “a shame reaction,” and has the potential to cause the person to feel shame and/or react defensively because their identity has been threatened. Any time a shame reaction is triggered it is possible for the person to respond “I am bad; I must fix myself” instead of “I did a bad thing; I must improve at ____.” The first response, or the internalized shame response, is anti-learning and impairs belonging. When the shame is prolonged, it can turn especially destructive. The second response is a guilt response, and according to Dr. Bynum, when properly harnessed guilt can be motivational and lead to the healing of whatever caused the shame reaction in the first place. 

Many librarians are already talking about shame and impostor syndrome in librarianship, and I had been completely missing the conversation. Some great examples I’ve found recently are  Zoë McLaughlin’s great reminder that “we are faculty members too, so there’s no reason to feel lesser,” Veronica Arellano Douglas’s amazing internal monologue about her own impostor syndrome, or the important light that Yoonhee Lee shed on the difficulties of even learning how to introduce yourself “in a succinct but engaging way.” More and more librarians are being vulnerable and opening up about their impostor syndrome, and how it affects their everyday life. 

Millennials

After Dr. Bynum posted the word cloud to his Twitter, I noticed that two words to the right of mistakes, is the word millennials (it is written vertically and can be easy to miss). The inclusion of millennials surprised me. Up until this point, my perception of impostor syndrome, or more like my desperate hope, was that it had to disappear at some point in your career. There had to be some threshold where, if only I knew this much, if I could only go through this imaginary gateway, then all my impostor syndrome would simply be cured. The longer you’re in a field the more you know about it, so clearly one day I will get to a spot where I feel secure in what I know and never suffer from impostor syndrome again. The truth is the longer you are in a profession the more changes you will have to walk through, each one presenting a new opportunity for impostor feelings to arise. 

Rising to the Occasion

Comparison is the enemy of community, and comparing myself against someone who has been in the profession for their entire career ultimately serves no productive purpose. Similarly, it is no help for experienced librarians to compare themselves to new librarians. At the end of the day there are far more ways we can support and learn from each other if we actively create those environments where all people can grow, freely express themselves, and put down roots.

Thankfully, Dr. Bynum left us with some practical advice on dealing with our shame and the shame we see in others. I would say this advice can also be applied to impostor syndrome:

  • Know what shame looks and sounds like, because it is often hidden 
    • Ask “how are you feeling about yourself today?”
  • Actively identify when you or someone you know feel shame, and be aware of the feeling
  • Explicitly say “let’s take the blame for this mistake and put it on this other thing” so you can accurately process what went wrong and how to keep it from happening in the future
  • Speak up and break the culture of silence
  • Create environments where people can grow roots and freely express themselves

I am fortunate enough to work at an institution that supports early career librarians, and have plenty of experienced colleagues who want to learn from me as much as I want to learn from them. I have yet to open up a conversation about impostor syndrome other than with a few trusted, early career librarian colleagues, but that may be the next step for me. Yes, it is difficult to break a culture of silence. Yes, it means we have to be vulnerable with each other, which is not easy and opens you up to getting hurt. But when we break the culture of silence, when we actively love and care about the well-being of people around us, when we work together and harness our impostor syndrome instead of fear it, we are far more equipped to handle change and will be far more successful than if we had tried alone. 

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