I think it was about a year ago when I first ran across the term “Emotional Labor.” I’m not alone; although the concept has been a staple of sociology for thirty years, it’s only recently I’ve seen it discussed on a wider scale. If you want to read more about it, this is a pretty good article, but in brief, emotional labor is the effort we take to regulate emotions and the expression thereof. It extends to modifying environments to make them more welcoming and comfortable, keeping track of details, and various types of nurturing. In other words, what used to be termed “Women’s Work.” Sociologists often make a distinction between “emotional labor” and “emotional work,” where the former takes place in a job setting while the latter is geared toward home and relationships. I personally find this distinction unnecessary and even a little offensive, so for the purposes of this post I’m using the terms interchangeably.
When I first saw the term (I think it was here), it was like a lightbulb flashed in my brain. “Oh!” I thought. “This is the piece I’m missing!” Here’s some context: I’m married, and have been for twenty years, to a wonderful, feminist man I love dearly, who is my best friend. If any of those pieces had been missing, I wouldn’t have married him. And for the most part, we have a great marriage. However, like any couple, we have our disagreements and rough spots. There’ve been numerous times in our relationship I’ve tried to communicate things to him and felt like I just wasn’t getting through on some level. The idea of emotional labor, the fact that my work to keep our household running smoothly is often taken for granted and sometimes plain invisible, gave me a way to explain in words he understood better.
I don’t know how much the division of labor in our household is due to the way gender socialization works, and how much is our particular characters and aptitudes. While I like to think of myself as a dreamer, the fact is I’m quite a practical person, with an organized mind and an ability to keep track of what goes where and when which thing needs to happen. My husband is the dreamer, and his great memory for detail sometimes leads him to get bogged down in minutiae, while his perfectionism causes him to develop intricate processes to accomplish relatively simple tasks. He’s capable of huge compassion for others, but not so much for himself, a tendency he attributes to the religion he was raised in. I’m very open and outspoken about my emotions and my process; him, not so much. While you could find reasons for all this in the different ways men and women are taught to behave, you might, if you knew us well, see these qualities as part of our individual identities.
But there’s one place where my husband and I definitely differ: I have a mental illness, and have spent more than half my life learning how to manage it. While he experiences intermittent episodes of depression, they’re not the life-threatening kind that leads one to intensive treatment. Consequently, he hasn’t had to do the emotional work I have, and gets along all right without it. He’s a great conversationalist, facilitator, and mediator. People feel safe with him. But he doesn’t have the skill I have at delving into deep matters or my comfort level with addressing extremely uncomfortable personal topics. When your emotions can kill you, when you’ve been held on a locked hallway until you learn (or make a viable pretense of having learned) to deal with them, you become adept at self questioning and self regulation.
Of course, not everyone does. Some people with mental illnesses are ultra resistant, some don’t have the insight and aptitude, some fall back into old patterns when they get into triggering situations, and some are simply too ill. I’m talking about those of us considered “high functioning” in one area or another: by reason of intellect, or ability to appear “normal,” or ability to hold a job. The people you wouldn’t immediately peg as having mental health issues. And some high functioning people don’t learn either, because they can manipulate or coerce others into doing their emotional labor for them. Some use their illness as an excuse not to do their own emotional labor. Our former housemate was one of these. From the outside, she was interesting, intelligent, and capable, a fun person to be around. It was only once you got close that the demands started, and these could take the form of anything from long conversations over coffee trying to “process” some real or imagined slight to waking people up in tears at three in the morning to spend three hours talking her through an event from days earlier. Any attempt to make her do her own work was framed as retraumatizing. Because, face it, emotional labor isn’t usually fun. It’s hard, and it’s often painful, and it feels much better to have someone else do it for you. It feels like being taken care of, and it is. She refused outright to go to therapy because therapists “wouldn’t understand” her, and this necessitated interventions a couple times a week to keep her from blowing like a steamkettle. Living with her was draining and frustrating on a level I’d never experienced before, and haven’t since, although one instance came close.
The psycho ex-housemate stuff will become relevant later, trust me.
Anyway, I’ve spent a good portion of my life doing the emotional labor of others. Trying not to trigger my repressed parents. Talking friends through fights and breakups. Reassuring people of their worth and attempting to shine a different light on their problems. As I said, it’s something I’m skilled at, trained in, even, since my degree is in Dance Therapy. It’s not to the advantage of my personal boundaries that I’m highly empathetic, because when I feel something “off,” I’m not content to let it lie. Doing so makes me uncomfortable; I have to get it out in the open. Also, I find trivial conversation tiresome. I’m always looking for a deeper level of interaction.
The problem is, when I exert my energy on the emotional labor of other people, I often drain myself to the point of not being able to practice self care. Before I know it, I’m empty and spiraling down into a depressive cycle. This is why, when this meme popped up on Twitter the other day, it really resonated with me:
Now, the above doesn’t exactly articulate my experience. It doesn’t take me a huge amount of energy to maintain my high functioning persona, mostly because I don’t bother with doing so; if I have it, I have it, and if I don’t, I don’t. I have an extreme distaste for masks and personas of any kind, and I never had much use for societal expectations (which is no doubt one reason I’ve always had a hard time working a “job” in the commonly understood sense). And when people rely on me for emotional labor, I generally come through. However, as I already said, I often do so at the price of my own mental health. And that’s bad.
Using my marriage as an example, and getting back to the psycho ex-housemate: I was involved with her for one year. My husband was for five, and during that time he did the bulk, if not all, of her emotional labor. He was the one she woke up in the middle of the night when she was upset and needed talking down. He was the one who never had time or space for his own activities, because he always had to be available to her. He was the one who faced The Wrath if he went down to the corner store for a beer to drink during their scheduled TV date and she flipped because she decided his absence meant he was going to blow her off. And, by the way, if you think this sounds abusive, IT ABSOLUTELY WAS. Bear it in mind: Refusing to do your own emotional work inevitably makes you toxic.
The year I spent in the same house with the pair of them, most of my energy was spent trying to get him out. When I succeeded and we moved far, far away, there was a consequence to both of us I hadn’t foreseen. He’d had to do so much emotional labor for psycho ex-housemate that he wanted no part in doing any more for anyone, himself included. I was so afraid of being like, or even appearing to be like, psycho ex-housemate, that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to. I expected that once we got out of the toxic situation, things would naturally assume a more normal condition. We’d be able to devote more time to each other and our mutual needs, like looking after our home and sharing chores and responsibilities, without the looming threat of psycho ex-housemate coloring every interaction. I hadn’t counted on him being so damaged, and simply worn out, that what I considered “normal” was beyond his ability even to consider. And because I hadn’t yet run across the concept of emotional labor, I had no way of addressing the situation.
On top of that, we got involved with another set of people who didn’t do their own emotional work. Because of my nature, and because I tend to believe doing the emotional work of others is my only value and setting boundaries will cost me friends, I took the bulk of it on. My husband was perfectly willing to listen to me vent about it, and even join in, but didn’t, or wasn’t able to, support me the way I wanted in the moment. I developed some physical health problems, including suffering the two miscarriages I’ve mentioned in other posts. There, too, I didn’t get the support I needed. Neither did my husband. I honestly don’t think we’ve done the emotional work around those losses that we should as of this day. There are a lot of reasons for that, not least that miscarriage carries a certain stigma and isn’t talked about much, but also my deep feeling that children are something more worthy and desirable women get, and I was asking too much by wanting them. Anyway, in the end, I broke.
There’ve been times along the way when I’ve been more functional than not, but I’ve spent basically the last twelve to fourteen years broken from doing too much emotional labor for others and not getting the help I needed doing mine. That’s the better part of my marriage. I have regrets about it I can’t even articulate. I’ve blamed myself for not being strong enough and for not being more demanding, and for not standing up for myself. And I’ve blamed my husband for everything you can imagine and probably more you can’t. But in the end, blame doesn’t do either of us any good and doesn’t matter. It’s how to go on that matters.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: As much as possible, do your own emotional labor. Whatever it looks like: caring for your space, finding a place and support to talk through your feelings, taking a long bath, learning how to paint or dance. If there’s scary stuff you need to work through, find a therapist. If you have health issues, get them looked at. Don’t rely on others to do the work, or invite you to discuss things, or prod you into it. Especially don’t do this if you know they have a mental illness, even if they’re really good at it. Being really good at it means they probably have to do more emotional labor in a week than you face in a lifetime. Okay, that’s hyperbole. But seriously, do your own work. Otherwise you risk damaging the people least able to bear it. People you love.
And I guess that’s all I have to say.