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How Emotional Labour Can Trigger Creator’s Depression

My family doctor first diagnosed me with clinical depression in 2002, when I was twenty-nine years old. Despite the fact that I had experienced stress and depression in high school and university, it was still a shock to admit that I was a person with mental health issues and that I needed to get treatment.

Coming to terms with creator’s depression

Reading Eric Maisel’s work on depression in creative people was a big help in reconciling me to my condition. Instead of seeing myself as sick, weak, or broken, I recognized that I was someone who had a high need for meaning and self-expression. That pull toward meaning felt like a strength, a positive quality. Yes, it made me prone to depression, but it also made me sensitive, motivated, and thoughtful, driven to live from a clear sense of purpose. I was able to embrace my experience of creator’s depression, to own it, and to be public about it, because I could see it as an occupational hazard of my vocation as a writer, not as a defect.

Creator’s depression is Eric Maisel’s term. He says, “the depression that creative people face is fundamentally caused by their upsetness with the facts of existence and their difficulties in making and maintaining meaning.” (The Van Gogh Blues, p. 223)

I was also attached to the idea of leaving depression behind, walking away from it. I worked really hard on healing—taking medication, seeing my doctor regularly, going to numerous therapists and counsellors, and changing my life to reduce stress and prioritize my own dreams and goals. I’m proud of the work I did. I faced some hard truths about my limiting beliefs, like “If I do the right thing all the time, nothing bad will happen to me,” and “I can’t be happy unless everyone else is happy.”

This story, of my first deep encounter with and recovery from depression, is the story I tell in my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire. It’s a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end—a full walk of the labyrinth, the inward journey of Release, the still centre of Illumination, and the outward journey of Reunion. I believe it’s a good story—hopeful, honest, and helpful for its true audience.

And the larger story of my life carries on after Pilgrimage of Desire ends. In 2015, just after my memoir was published, I entered the labyrinth again. My depression returned.

It took about six months for me to admit that I was depressed again. Not because I didn’t recognize it, not because it was mild (it wasn’t), but because I was ashamed. How could I, as a coach and author and a smart person, let myself get depressed again? I felt like I had gotten over-confident, that I had failed to apply what I knew and take care of myself. (Of course, that was the depression talking.)

Now it’s three years later. I am stable on medication (Celexa and Dexedrine). I see my psychiatrist for group medical visits. I support my immune system with supplements. My naturopath monitors my hormone levels. I have weekly sessions with my therapist. I’m mentally healthy, and I can look at my relapse with the clarity of time and realistic thinking.

So what have I learned? Why did I relapse? What, if anything, could I have done to prevent it?

I have a feeling that it will take me several posts to answer these questions thoroughly, so I’m going to start with one topic that touches on many aspects of my identity: as a creator, as a people-pleaser, as a wife, daughter, and mother.

I know a lot of people who share these traits. I know many of us are looking for answers to why we struggle with feelings of overwhelm, resentment, hopelessness, and despair, even when our lives look pretty good from the outside. What I’ve learned has been hard-won, and sharing it with others feels like putting that pain and effort to good use. So here goes.

Emotional labour: the hidden tax

Emotional labor is simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal—to leave a customer satisfied or to get someone to do something they might not otherwise want to, or to keep your household functioning.

Note that there are many other kinds of labor that can produce these outcomes too (simply providing information to someone, for instance), but emotional labor concerns the work of emotion management—say, delivering bad news about a flight cancellation in a comforting way, so that disgruntled passengers hardly notice the news is bad. At home, this might mean giving solace to a crying child with warm words and a calm demeanor or intervening between your mom and your sister when a fight about Trump threatens to ruin Thanksgiving.

Haley Swenson, Slate

Emotional labour is a concept that has caught mainstream attention in a powerful way recently. I first encountered it in 2015 on  MetaFilter, in this thread. … And wow, did I feel validated. An enormous part of my work as a human—work that I poured a lot of effort into, work at which I was quite skilled—had been largely invisible, even to me. And now it had a name and a public conversation around it.

Here’s the thing. At that time, I had become the hub of emotional support in our family. My kids’ emotions were getting more complex as they approached the middle grades, and I was having to dig deeper to help them process their fear, anger, and sadness and to solve the problems that were causing them turmoil. My husband’s job was becoming more demanding, which meant I was picking up slack at home and helping him cope with the extra stress from work. This emotional labour looked like: soothing my kids when they had meltdowns, comforting them through tears at bedtime, peacemaking between the siblings, prepping them for stressful situations and transitions, and talking to teachers and parents about what was happening in the classroom and on the playground.

And that’s just the emotional labour I performed at home. I also did this work with friends and extended family, at church, with my coaching clients, and on freelance jobs. Many people, especially women, do this emotional management all the time. That MetaFilter thread has hundreds of examples. I could give you six examples just from yesterday. I’m sure you’ve got your own.

How emotional labour triggers creator’s depression

Looking back, I can see how doing a lot more emotional labour contributed to my relapse.

Emotional labour takes a disproportionate amount of time and energy away from creative work.

In my experience, one hour of emotional labour does not equal one hour of purely physical or mental labour. I find emotional labour much more draining than cooking, cleaning, or even writing, and it takes me longer to recover.

Why? I would love to research a good solid scientific answer. Right now I have my anecdotal evidence, in which an emotional crisis at home requires every ounce of my empathy, ingenuity, faith, and patience, and can knock me down for a day or even a week. Where the low-level effort of acting normal and happy in public when I feel sad or upset sends me straight to bed for a nap.

With all that I was pouring into emotional management, I had even less to devote to the work of creativity: reading, writing, daydreaming, promoting my books, and keeping my mood up in order to do all of the above. And creators are vulnerable to depression when they’re not creating.

Emotional labour is often unrecognized, which makes it feel less meaningful.

So I’m doing all this demanding emotional work. But I’m not getting paid for it. I’m not getting a promotion to Vice President of Mothering. I’m not earning my degree in Advanced Parenting Techniques. When I get asked what I accomplished in a day, I’m not listing the hours I spent listening, validating, problem-solving, and limit-setting—basically acting as someone else’s prefrontal cortex.

When I can’t spend as much time creating, I try to find meaning in other activities that matter to me. Parenting and emotional labour are important to me. But because they don’t get the same recognition (let alone the same pay) as other types of work, their meaning can leak away, making me more susceptible to depression.

The burden of competence means we take take on more than our fair share.

What makes us creative often makes us good at emotional labour. Keen observation and self-reflection, a sense of justice and compassion, a desire for joy and beauty … the skills that attract us to art also make us good at managing emotions and give us the incentive to do so. And because we’re good at it, we end up doing more of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being good at emotional labour. I want to keep getting better at it. I love being of service. When I’ve turned a situation around, when a kid goes from screaming to smiling and saying, “I love you,” I feel on top of the world.

But the more emotional labour I do for those around me, the fewer resources I have left for myself and my creative work. And again, I’m left vulnerable to a deficit of meaning and depression that entails.

Our life design needs to take emotional labour into account

I’ve written a lot about making life changes so we can prioritize our creative work. Practical things like doing less volunteering and reducing our household chores. Now I’m beginning to understand that we need to consider how much emotional labour we’re doing and how it’s impacting our ability to create art and maintain meaning.

I hope to write more about how I’ve addressed the demands of emotional labour in my own life. For now, I’d love to know: How does this strike you? Do you see a personal connection between depression and emotional labour? What does it mean for you?

Please leave a comment or share your thoughts privately through email. This is an important conversation to have, I think.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Anna February 13, 2018, 7:38 am

    Thank you for your honesty, courage and commitment. I easily empathize with you as a mom, wife, sister, people helper/customer service star, who has battled depression most of my life. As I approach 40, I have finally given myself permission to seek professional help. Your description of “emotional labour” and the fallout really struck a chord. I will indeed look into this further. I am comforted by your words and knowing I’m not the only one experiencing this. Thank you.

  • Kimberly March 22, 2018, 7:34 am

    I read this article at the right time, I was developing an understanding of emotional labor even though I didn’t have a name for it. I feel such a release when I postpone dealing with a contentious topic with my children (can they have an allowance raise, solving the drama-crime of who broke my LEGO creation, or why my firmed never invites me over) and suggest that Daddy will have great ideas when he gets home. I can text him ahead of time and take a walk around the block when I know they will be problem solving (and weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth) and can protect my limited emotional energy and also provide them with the emotional support they need. Delegate! Delegate to a partner, spouse, relative, or family friend. It is so freeing. Your words have only cemented the importance of emotional health and how it relates to my depression, and the need to protect this aspect of my mental health. Thank you!

  • Tired May 15, 2018, 11:54 am

    This is so true. This month has been a fiasco for me, which has triggered another depressive cycle. I realized yesterday, as I was spending the second day in a row fighting uncontrollable sobbing, that much of this is due to emotional labour.

    I’ve been taking care of a needy neighbor’s animals while she’s on vacation. She calls multiple times a day, keeps babbling when I say I need to get off the phone, and creates more drama than necessary with other people who are also involved in the care of her pets. What was supposed to be a quick, nice job has eaten up hours of every day.

    Mother’s Day is a minefield for me and marks the fourth year of my son’s estrangement due to Parental Alienation Syndrome (which psychologists won’t even recognize). I miss my dog, whom I didn’t have time to grieve when I put him to sleep last fall.

    I’m sick and tired of chasing invoices with my clients, arguing about their demands, and paying bills late when said clients don’t pay on time (in spite of contracts–my only recourse is to go to court, which they know I won’t do). My car won’t start, and I can’t afford to buy another one (I don’t even have a credit score with two of the credit bureaus).

    I survived an arduous move from an unsafe living situation, but it drained my savings, and now I’m broke, exhausted, jaded, and resentful. I have no health insurance. Life for the last 10 years has been a struggle, and every time I think I’m over a hump, the Universe throws something worse at me. All I want right now is financial stability and some little luxuries; I have zero interest in writing. I’m so, so tired of life being so difficult. I think I need to put creative writing on the back burner for a while because it’s just one more pressure I don’t need.

    The beginning of the month had such promise, but now I’m behind again. I’m perpetually behind. I have 22,000+ emails in my inbox. Whenever I go back to creative writing my life always turns to crap. I’m beginning to think it’s a sign that it’s not meant to be. Maybe the purpose of this lifetime is something else. Maybe I’m supposed to struggle because of some karma or lesson I’m supposed to learn. I look at people who are happy, and they are a completely different species to me. How did they get so lucky?

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