Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Social anxiety

I'm a little afraid that if I share this story, you all will laugh at me.  Or think I'm strange.  But I need to blog this as therapy, and perhaps you will have some good advice.  You can tell me how a normal person would have reacted.

I don't like the children's librarian at our local library.  I just keep having run-ins with her.  The first time was when Marko was small and was banging on a table.  She came into the play area and told me to make him stop, and I was flustered and already in a bad mood, so I was somewhat rude.  I can't remember what I said, but I felt bad immediately ... sure, it's a little picky for her to be insisting a one-year-old be quiet in the children's area, but whatever.  It's her job.  She doesn't need to deal with rude patrons on top of that.

I tried to be nice to her after that, out of guilt for being rude that one time, and she seemed nice enough.  But two weeks ago, I had another negative encounter with her.  See, my kids are addicted to the water fountain in the foyer.  We arrive, drink from the water fountain, get books, get to the play area, and they instantly want to go get another drink.  But parading through the library with three kids (one of whom is a flight risk) is not my idea of a good time, so I always say no.

This time, Marko was begging to go to the water fountain, and finally I said, "Do you think you could manage to go alone?"  This is kind of a big deal for him.  Up to a year ago he wouldn't go to the bathroom in our own house without me coming along because being alone is scary.  I thought he'd say no.  But instead he said he wanted to try it.  I thought, "Hey, this is great.  My kid is actually being brave and developing some independence."  I reviewed the directions to get to the water fountain and off he went.  The first couple attempts, he came back a few seconds later because he was confused or lost.  (I guess the dozens of times we've walked this route, he never paid attention!)  But eventually he disappeared and I thought, "He must be doing it!"  I figured I'd go out in a minute or so in case he got lost on the way back.  But I was very proud.

And then I heard this terrified wail, the sound of Marko panicking.  I rushed toward the sound and was met by him barrelling into me.  On his tail was the children's librarian.  She said, "Sorry, I didn't mean to upset him, I just was telling him to go back to his parent."

I said, "Oh, he has my permission to be out there by himself."

She said, "Well, we have a policy.  Kids under eleven have to be supervised."

I said, "He's not out there playing or anything!  He just wanted to go get a drink."

She said, "Oh, in that case I guess that's all right."

And she left.  I felt proud that I had handled the situation assertively but not rudely, and happy that it was going to be okay to try this again.  But I was a little mad that she had scared Marko.  I wish he were not so intimidated by strange adults.  We have not ever tried to scare the kids away from strangers -- instead we tell them never to go anywhere with an adult without checking it with us first.  But we have told them that it's okay to talk to librarians.  It's just that he's shy .... well, more than shy, terrified.  Which he gets from me, I suppose.

Fastforward to today.  We're playing in the play area, I'm reading a good book, all is well.  Marko actually talks to one of the library workers!  It's an older woman who asks him about the dinosaur he's playing with.  Bingo!  He's happily telling her about all his favorite dinosaurs.  He hardly even stammers.  I'm so proud.

A little later he says he's thirsty and suggests going to the water fountain all by himself.  I say, okay.  And if the librarian asks you what you're doing, you can tell her you are just getting a drink.  She said that was okay last time.

A few seconds later along comes the librarian, telling me all about their policy.  I said, "But you told me last time it was okay if he's just getting a drink!"

She says, "No, I've thought about it and I really think it's not safe .... people come in and out of the library all the time and could just snatch him .... a kidnapping takes seconds ..... when I was four someone tried to take my hand and I ran away, that goes to show how common kidnapping is .... you need to talk to your kids about stranger danger ..... anyway I didn't make the policy ....."  On and on.

As she's talking, I get more and more tense.  I don't know what I'm supposed to do.  I don't know what to say.  I had tried saying I thought it was okay, and that didn't work, so what comes next?  Do I say "yes ma'am" or something?  Is that what she's waiting for?  And in the back on my mind a voice is shouting "I'M IN TROUBLE, I'M IN TROUBLE, A GROWN-UP IS MAD AT ME."  I am trying not to panic and also trying not to get mad.  I feel like she's switched the game on me, it's not fair.  I tried to follow the rules and here she is lecturing me.  I focus on her nose to try to calm myself down, but I think I'm weirding her out.  Here is this patron who has a history of being grouchy, and instead of answering, I'm staring her down.  I don't want to be staring her down.  But I don't know what to say.  She's not asking me any questions, but she's leaving pauses like she's waiting for me to .... what?  Argue?  Apologize?  I don't know, I feel like there ought to be a phrasebook for socially anxious people that gives the appropriate answer.  When I was a kid, "Yes Daddy" usually worked, but I feel like that isn't right, even if I knew this lady's name, which I don't.  I want a way to say, "Look, I didn't mean to break a rule and I won't again.  Also this rule is STUPID and there has NEVER ONCE been a kidnapping in this whole town.  And my kids have stranger danger out the wazoo and usually run screaming if a strange adult comes within ten feet.  I am not worried.  I am their mother.  It is my choice.  Only it's not actually my choice, because this is a library and it has rules.  Fine.  I will follow the rules but please stop talking!"

Eventually she sort of wraps up but says she's going to go doublecheck the policy with her manager.  And something about getting me a copy of the policy, which I don't want.  When she's out of sight, one of the kids starts asking for a drink of water again and I just feel like I am falling apart.  I tell Marko he can't go get water, and he starts to cry.  Then I say that I think we'd better just go home, and he starts to howl big time.  I drag them all up front to the self checkout, check out my books and am about to pick up Miriam (who is heading for the stacks again) when I see Michael doesn't have his boots on.  "Go get your boots," I say.  "Never mind, I will come with you."  Because heaven forbid my child should walk ten feet without me.

I'm so flustered at this point I forget Miriam and just walk over to the play area.  Then I hear wailing.  I turn and the children's librarian is holding Miriam, who is kicking and screaming, and bringing her over to me.  I take her, feeling even worse.  Apparently I really am an inept mother.  Apparently I cannot be trusted with three kids in a library.  Apparently I shouldn't have had so many.  Surely she is thinking I'm incompetent.  But it doesn't even matter what she thinks because I LEFT my baby all by herself by the checkout and didn't even NOTICE.

The librarian is trying to tell me something but I brush her off with "it's time to go, we're going now, sorry."  She asks if I'm okay and I call over my shoulder "yes!" in a tone that any human being would instantly recognize means "no."

The kids get their drink and we go outside.  Marko is still crying.  I tell them that we will go to the playground next door and read our books.  As we walk I start to cry.  When we get to the playground I just plop down while the kids play, and I cry and cry, big ugly sobs and snot and everything.  I don't know why this is so dang upsetting.  I don't know why it has to be this way.  I don't know when all the other grownups learned to handle this stuff, I feel like I missed that lesson of adult class.  But I feel like I'm the one who's five years old.  I don't understand how a well-meaning librarian with a gentle tone of voice can make me feel so small.

I'm flashing back to all the other times this has happened.  As a kid, my dad yelling and not knowing what it is he wants me to say, so I just cry but he tells me I shouldn't cry because I'm not hurt.  In school, my fifth grade teacher, who was very sweet, sitting me down privately to ask what's up with me, and all I can do is look at her eyeliner and sob and sob.  I don't know what she wants me to say, all I can feel is that I am gravely defective in some way, and this sweet lady doesn't know what to do with me.  I thought I was a normal kid but apparently not, because she expects me to be able to cope with this conversation and I am not coping.

And in boarding school, the daily haranguing at sports.  The consecrated would take me aside and ask me why I wasn't giving 100%.  And I know there is no answer that is going to be okay.  "I thought I was" does not work.  "I am feeling tired" gets me, "I don't want excuses."  I have been told the reason I struggle with getting lectured like this is because I am proud, and excuses are a sign of pride.  So usually I just cry.  But one time I am told that these are crocodile tears and I am doing it just to get pity.  I hadn't thought so, but later I think, well, maybe that is why.  I don't know why I cry when I'm on the spot.  All I know is that I do.  I guess maybe I think it will make the questions stop and someone will be sorry for me and stop being mad.  Which makes me a manipulative, terrible person.  I just wish someone would tell me what the right thing is to do.  Walk me through it, show me a skit, show me what a good person would say or do to show that they are sorry.  Because that's what I want to do.  I am not trying to be a bad person.

The kids have gotten over being upset at leaving the library, and Michael asks me what I am doing with my face buried in my hands.  I blow my nose and say, "Nothing."  Grown-ups aren't supposed to cry -- I hardly ever do.  I know it upsets the children a lot when the grown-ups don't have it together.  It's just I feel so helpless and defective.

That was hours ago now and I'm feeling some small amount better, but I still feel just as perplexed as ever.  What does one say or do in a situation like this?  How do you stop panicking long enough to think of the right words, how do you then make the words come out?

John says the librarian is a control freak and this confrontation was her fault, not mine.  He says he would have been rude to her.  I don't want to be rude, even though I was angry.  I wish people would keep this stuff short and leave me with a face-saving out -- "Hey, walk him to the water fountain next time, okay?"  Is that so hard?  The way she did it was humiliating and it felt like she wanted me to knuckle under somehow -- to agree that she had a point, that my kid could get snatched out of the library foyer when he went for a drink.  And I wasn't going to do that, because I think she was wrong.

After this, I am wondering how I can ever show my face in that library again.  You know that lady's going to be after me to show me her policy and explain yet more why she is right.  I can't face that, I just can't.  In fact I'm wondering if I even have any business leaving the house.  Here I've been, imagining myself as an adult, buying groceries and getting the oil changed, knowing the whole time that I'm playacting.  We're all playacting, that's how public life goes.  We know people don't know us, so we put on a persona of "kindly stranger," "pleasant customer."  Or is that only me?  I have always felt everyone's in on it, we know there are certain scripts that we stick to with strangers and we all know how to do it so it's okay.  And when it comes to confrontation, I feel I don't have the playbook.

I've been somewhat agoraphobic for a long time -- well, perhaps always.  The Public Square is a place I'd rather not be.  It's scary and you never know when things are going to turn sour.  For a long time I believed that a woman's place is in the home, before I realized that no, it's just me who wants to be in the home.  Since I got a car, I've been slowly stretching myself, coming out of my comfort zone teeny little bits at a time.  Chatting up other moms at the park.  Trading pleasantries with other people at the grocery store.  I was doing this!  It was going okay!  I was thinking that maybe I had this adult-in-public thing down and all my anxiety was for nothing.

But it turns out it isn't.  I feel like I shouldn't even try.  Stay home, hang out on the internet all day.  On the internet, no one can put you on the spot.  Or better yet, play outside with the kids and enjoy the comfort of only being with people who know and love me.

This is letting my anxiety win.  I shouldn't do it.  But I am sorely tempted.

11 comments:

SeekingOmniscience said...

Hey,

Ooph. I was working on a response re. that other thing when I read this.

So recently the guy who founded the school I'm (temporarily) working at had a chat with me. I'm not good at chats, because I never know what I'm supposed to be talking about. But I mentioned that I was interested in AI, and he mentioned that he knew some guys at a startup which is working to replace yet another low-income human function with an artificial intelligence--in this case, the secretarial function of scheduling meetings with people. And he asked me to check out their website, and tell him if I thought it was cool or I would like to work there, because he knew the guy who founded it and could put me in touch with him.

And I checked out the website that afternoon, and it was beyond cool, but it took me something like five days to tell him that I was interested. Part of this is just that I hate talking with authority figures, and don't know how and when to approach them. Part of this was just that he's busy, and I hate running a risk of interrupting people. But part of it was also that, in bad moments, I think it will go like this.

He'll set up a meeting with me and the other dude. I'll give the other dude my resume and stuff. And he'll ask me "So, hey, do you know [basic concept for natural language processing]?" And my smile will freeze and I'll say "Well, I've heard of it, but not really.." And he'll say "Well, do you know this [even more basic concept]?" And I'll have to say "Nope, not really." And he'll slowly see that I really don't know what I'm talking about; that I'm a self-taught neophyte in the field of machine learning, who can regurgitate the research of others in a few shallow fields but doesn't understand what he's saying; who can't even regurgitate that much; and who basically wants to enter a field dominated by PhDs and people like that because he's too much of a freshman to see how enormous the whole field is, and who has maybe the understanding of a mildly bright 13-year-old; and he'll moreover find that I've neglected the easier things I might actually be good at (which every one of my classmates are good at, because they put in the time for them instead of machine learning stuff) in favor of things I don't understand.

And so I won't make it; or get thrown out in a month or two if I do. And I'll eventually get some dumb computer job doing boring things, which pays the bills, because I'll give up on anything interesting. And so even in the one area I tried to actually do something I'll fail; and I'll not make any lasting friendships, because I suck at that incredibly badly; and I'll grow old and eventually die all by myself, having never made lasting connections with people or impact on the world; and despair will be the last thing that I feel before I start to rot.

...sheesh, maybe I shouldn't have written that all down. Phew. Ok.

SeekingOmniscience said...


I know you know that lots of people have this kind of feeling of being overwhelmed, but I thought it would be good to write it down so you could really see that I get that as well. Lots of people do. I don't know if that will be useful, but it might be.

I think you already know, in some sense, that you're actually quite competent and intelligent, so I'm not going to spend time affirming that.

I only ever feel like I'm playacting when I get a public persona--that is, I only ever feel when I'm playacting when I'm alert. (I just feel worried when I'm too tired to playact.) But don't think of this as a problem with yourself. There are people in the world who never feel like they're playacting--they sink into the role they inhabit entirely, and make choices which are the kind of choices the kind of person in the role they see themselves as constituted by would make. This is comfortable. It lets you be confident when you do things. It makes you comfortable because you're ignoring all the choices you really have. Everyone I've ever met who seems really comfortable in the world seems sunk in a role like this; lots of people whose job involves telling other people what to do tends to be sunk in a role like this. Your interlocutor above, was so sunk; that's why she talks about herself not making the rules. She isn't a PC, just an NPC constituted by character class.

But you aren't sunk in a role, which means you're less comfortable. And that's good. It means you're capable of changing your mind. It means you're able to do things better than people who have merged with their role, because you're able to critique it. It means that you're less likely to do Horrible Things your Role requires, or even just Suboptimal Things your Role requires. So that you feel like you're playing is good. You can make up things as you go along.

I'm pretty sure that was all vague and nebulous rather than concrete suggestions for how to deal with anxiety attacks. I wish that wasn't the case, although I did start from there because it seems less hubristic than attempts to say "Oh, that will cure this feeling." There's a blog (http://agentyduck.blogspot.com/2014/02/lobs-theorem-cured-my-social-anxiety.html) which I've been meaning to go through, which pertains with specific internal practices to reduce confusion / increase clear-headedness / and so on. I haven't read it at all, although I keep meaning to and I think it will likely be good, so I'm just throwing it out there in an extremely "Heck, maybe this will be useful" kind of a way.

But basically there's nothing wrong with you that isn't a symptom of something else being right. You see the heights of contingency from which all choices are made; that you're worried just means that you aren't blind. So don't retreat from the world, but don't entirely forget the internet friends either ;-). And I must off to work.

Sheila said...

Thank you that is helpful. It makes me feel better to know other people feel this way.

I was told, years ago in boarding school, that two things would solve my social problems -- empathy for others, and the ability to see myself from the outside, to take an objective view of my interactions. My problem at the time was being rather heedless and self-centered. But now my problem is the opposite. I am too aware of everything, I can't even focus on what I am supposed to say and do. I knew that she was uncomfortable having to deal with me, and worried I'd be rude to her like I was that one time. She kept talking and talking because she was anxious to convince me she wasn't a mean old librarian. I knew this (or projected this -- John says I've sized her up wrong and she enjoys slapping people down; who knows) but I couldn't work out the right response.

And yet, when I am *actually* objective, like I can be with your story, it's easier. I can easily see that the other person would likely to be happy to have someone with enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn, even if he doesn't have all the prerequisites yet. And that you should send an email saying, "Hey, I'm still super interested in xyz, though I'm a little intimidated because I don't have the knowledge I think I should have to work on this. On the other hand, I'm eager to make up the gaps in my knowledge if you think it's possible to learn on the job."

Because, of course, you're actually quite bright; I know this because I'm pretty bright and your GPA was .19 higher than mine. ;) And anyway it's always been my opinion that willingness to put in the effort is a MUCH more valuable asset than intelligence. There are brilliant guys living in their mom's basements because college was too much work, man. And you're not like that, so I am sure you can make a success of it.

Now, clearly I am NOT objective, because I am in a very similar situation to yours and I'm utterly terrified. A coworker of John's wants someone to teach a class at the library, and heard that I'm into textiles, so she wants to meet with me to discuss ideas. I was excited about this till I read this line of her email: "Bring some of your work so I can see what you can do."

Oh, right, she is expecting someone who is *good* at this stuff. Who can complete professional-looking projects. Not someone who monkeys around with wool in her spare time and conceitedly thinks that makes her qualified to teach a course.

Maybe I can come down with the flu.

Sheila said...

But yes (I meant to add) thank goodness for the internet, and the friends we know online. Every time I hear that the internet is ruining everything because now we're not talking face to face as much, I think .... if it weren't for the internet, I would have nothing and nobody. Even the face-to-face interactions I do have are mostly set up online.

So although I dream of a magical coffeeshop where you and I and Enbrethiliel and Belfry Bat and all the people I like who don't live close could hang out and chat about Interesting Stuff, the internet is the virtual version of it and I am thankful for that every day. This way the thoughts that rattle around in my head can wing their way into other heads and matter in a way they never would if they stayed inside. They might even make other people's lives better, which is the only thing worth doing.

Today I went well out of my way to help a friend. It made me feel massively better. The world doesn't need more people who know the right thing to say to a librarian. The world needs people who want to help other people, who are willing to go to some trouble to be kind. And that, on a good day anyway, is something I am perfectly capable of.

Laura said...

Ugh. There's a particular children's librarian who gives me the willies even though she's always polite. Then there's the other one whom I love, and not just b/c she cleanedup after us when one of my children had a diarrhea blow out all over the floor. (Sorry, now you'll never feel the same way about the library carpet . . . .) :-/

Anyway, yeah, I have a "nice girl" complex still lingering, which seems similar to what you're describing. I want people to approve of me, even if that takes groveling. I'm getting over it but old habits die hard.

Also--I lost my children twice in four days recently--once in Lowe's, once in the mall. And we got chastised twice by a saleslady at another store b/c they were climbing on stuff they weren't supposed to. So, solidarity.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

***HUGS***

I think I would have reacted like John would. I have a very low tolerance for people who keep talking and talking after they've got their point across, and if I didn't like her anyway, I'd probably put my hand up and said, "Okay, dude, I get it." Or worse, in response to "You need to talk to your kids . . ." I'd snap, "And you need to talk to your stylist." (Ironically, rudeness is the immature response! =P) Having said that, I've never felt the maternal worry that one is doing Something Terribly Wrong and that Others Are Judging, so that's easy for me to say.

On the other hand, I was once partners with someone who was an incredible control freak--and yes, she brought me to tears several times. I resigned from my job at the end of the year, feeling like the most incompetent loser on the planet. (For three years afterward, I was happy to be underemployed and broke in dead-end jobs, because those were seriously the only ones I thought I wouldn't screw up. Hahaha, I screwed them up anyway. =P) So what changed? I lucked into a job that I was a bit more challenging than I had thought it would be, which forced me into Fake It Until You Make It mode. (It also surrounded me with supportive people who believed in me "on credit." And this is probably what made the difference, but since I don't know about your social milieu, I'll focus on the "Fake It To Make It" part.)

So when did "grownups" learn to handle all this stuff? At different ages, I'm sure! I remember, a few years ago, when I had a uni degree and my first full-time job, how disorientating it was to realise that little children thought of me as reliable, the way I, at their age, had thought of people at my current age as reliable. I finally realised that many of the adults I had known as a child didn't necessarily have their hands on all the ropes, but were winging it almost as much as I was at every age. I think children can romanticise adulthood as much as adults can romanticise childhood. Everyone is just faking it, until they're finally not--but they only get to the point of truth by faking it all the way. Do you know what I mean?

Remember when I was all about TLP? Well, now I'm with language learning guru Khatzumoto. Everything he says about mastering Japanese seems to describe how I mastered all the "grownup" skills I have now. Basically, he learned Japanese by already thinking of himself as Japanese and acting accordingly. Never mind that he's British and black. He threw away ALL his English-language books, music, and even posters, replaced them with Japanese stuff, slept on a tatami mat rather than his bed, started eating everything with chopsticks . . . THE WORKS. And he got so good in eighteen months that native Japanese think he is one of them when they talk to him on the phone.

So how do you think a grownup would have reacted in that situation? Do that thing. And then one day you'll find it comes naturally.

By the way, I think your proposed speech ( "Look, I didn't mean to break a rule and I won't again. Also this rule is STUPID and there has NEVER ONCE been a kidnapping in this whole town. And my kids have stranger danger out the wazoo and usually run screaming if a strange adult comes within ten feet. I am not worried. I am their mother. It is my choice. Only it's not actually my choice, because this is a library and it has rules. Fine. I will follow the rules but please stop talking!") is fine! Well, you might want to find substitutes for "stupid" and "please stop talking." LOL! But in general, it's nice and direct--exactly the sort of thing I would have aspired to say when my word for the year was B@LL$!

Sheila said...

Laura, it's probably the same one! She seems so polite that I can never point to why I can't stand her, but there is something really offputting about her. Whatever it is, it's likely not her fault; at least I tell myself that.

The real trouble is that was conflicted -- I knew saying what I was thinking would be rude, but saying anything else would be knuckling under. I don't want to be unassertive -- I am working on that -- but I have a visceral instinct to avoid hurting people's feelings. So what's left?

E, being a teacher is one of the weirdest things. You feel young -- you were just in school recently -- and suddenly people are looking up to you and considering you a Responsible Adult. I was 22. I asked the kids to guess my age and none of them guessed a number under THIRTY -- that, despite having been mistaken for a middle schooler that summer. They saw me as A Teacher rather than the complex self I saw myself as. It came as a shock to find how much I could presume on this ... they would continue to see me as a responsible adult even when I wasn't acting like one at all! And it was oddly easy to just slot myself into the image people had of me and be that.

The trouble is, I know what the image is people have of a young woman in sloppy clothes with too many kids. It isn't a positive one. And that leaves me excessively worried in public, thinking that people are judging me at all times. Maybe they're not. But .... maybe they are, you know? And I feel like I'd better just slot myself into their expectations and let my kids run around like hoodlums, because it's not like I can ever overcome those expectations.

Certainly a bad attitude to take, isn't it? It is SO much easier to create my own self-image when no one's watching.

Anyway, thank you Enbrethiliel and Laura for commenting .... it helps so much to know I'm not the only one who struggles sometimes.

The Sojourner said...

I am having difficulty even composing a coherent comment due to writhing in vicarious awkwardness.

I think most adults really aren't nearly as put-together as we think they are. To pick a random example: It was a hard shock for me when I realized that my parents do not actually know anything about cars. I would ask for advice on my broken-down car and they'd say, "Take it to the nearest mechanic and pay whatever they tell you to pay." (If I had taken this advice it would have left me a few thousand dollars poorer over the years.) Being an adult is mostly just knowing how to Google stuff.

Sheila said...

"Being an adult is mostly just knowing how to Google stuff."

I want that on a t-shirt.

How my parents ever managed, becoming parents at 19 in an age before Google existed, is a mystery to me.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I think it's not just students, but pretty much everyone who doesn't know you really well, who will try to put you in a slot instead of seeing you as a complete person. And this includes us when we're with strangers. Schools and other environments come with ready-made slots, but even when we all meet on neutral ground, we play the person-to-slot game in our minds for a while. It's the flipside of the play-acting you were writing about (which I just call "faking") and it's just what we do so we get our bearings when meeting someone new. We can always correct ourselves later; though, yes, there are some people who never do.

Something I didn't say in my first comment was that the librarian's way of doing things reminded me very much of Filipino culture, where there is a tendency to deflect guilt on to others. Unfortunately, the only way to make people who didn't do anything wrong feel guilty is to shame them. For instance, a few days ago, I witnessed a motorcycle going north on an intersection clip the front wheel of a bicycle going west. It was the motorcyclist's fault and I think he took some responsibility. But after it was clear that neither the bike nor the cyclist was seriously damaged, he said, "You really should have been looking where you were going." Classic. And perhaps the cyclist later wondered whether he had any business on the roads. Anyway, the librarian was trying to excuse herself for changing the rules on you by making you seem like the one at fault.

Sheila said...

Ah, yes, deflecting blame. It upsets me when people do this because I wasn't going to blame them in the first place! I know one person who always, always tries to place blame for everything. But after watching carefully, I realized this almost always happens when he actually was at fault. He's trying to get the blame off himself, even though no one was trying to put it on him. It works sometimes to speak first, before he has a chance to say anything, and take charge: "It's all right, anyone could make a mistake, nobody blames you." Which *feels* like an imposition on my part, because saying I don't blame him implies he's at fault AND that I am the authority who gets to say whether he's at fault or not. But it actually does work, he relaxes, no fight occurs.

Perhaps if the librarian and I have another run-in, I can try this approach. Because I am almost certain you are right -- she felt bad for changing the rules on me and thus became MORE insistent than I was wrong than she would have been if she'd been confident in her rightness.

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