My last post was about emotional labour and how it contributes to creator’s depression. I wanted to continue with some thoughts on how I manage the demands of emotional labour (AKA what I do when putting my hands over my ears and yelling at everyone to leave me alone isn’t an option).
Recognize and name what you’re doing as emotional labour.
There is some confusion out there in the popular media about the overlap between emotional labour and household management. As a technical writer, I appreciate and highly recommend Haley Swenson’s article, Please Stop Calling Everything that Frustrates You Emotional Labour, because it defines emotional labour as separate from 1) labour that creates feelings, 2) activism, 3) scheduling and mental load, and 4) educational labour.
Here’s an example. Scheduling my son’s dental appointment is not emotional labour, it’s logistics. The emotional labour comes in deciding when to tell him about the appointment, listening to him freak out about the appointment while staying calm myself, making sure we leave early enough so that I don’t have to rush him, reminding him of how he’s gotten through these appointments before, refraining from scolding him for not brushing his teeth, squeezing his hand tightly while the dentist inserts the freezing, sitting in the corner reading a magazine during the procedure, and hugging and praising him afterward. That’s the emotional labour of managing my own and Nico’s feelings so I can get him into the dental chair.
As I’ve noticed myself doing this stuff, I’ve given myself a lot more credit for it. I’ll notice when a weekend is emotional labour 24/7 and Monday morning feels like a vacation.
Noticing helps me stay realistic about my capacity. So I’m less inclined to beat myself up for not writing because I know how hard I’m working at other things.
Get someone else to do emotional labour for you.
Family and friends often get tapped to do this, and it’s an important part of relationships. You need someone to listen when you’re complaining about the kids’ latest antics or feeling anxious about money. But emotional labour between friends and family may not always be reciprocal, and they may not be good at it. (No shade here, feelings are just not everyone’s forte.)
This is where I highly recommend calling on a professional.
I don’t have to take care of my therapist AT ALL. I don’t have to ask questions about how she’s doing or remember things about her life. I don’t have to censor or modulate any of my feelings. I can just lay the whole messy pile on the table and she will find the patterns, give it some shape, help me dispose of some feelings and keep others. I can’t even tell you how nurturing this is. When I’m in my therapist’s office, I know I’m safe. She won’t get angry with me or disappointed with me. I won’t suddenly have to apologize or kick myself for saying the wrong thing. Whatever I’m going through, she can handle it. (Side benefit: seeing her perform emotional labour with such skill teaches me how to do it better.)
It’s okay to name your emotions, even when you’re regulating them.
I’m super-conscious of not making my kids responsible for my emotions. It’s not their job to look after my feelings. But sometimes I do such a good job of staying calm when I’m angry, or upbeat when I’m sad, that I worry I run the risk of making them think that their actions aren’t affecting me at all. I realized that there’s a difference between expressing my feelings and making my kids do emotional labour for me.
Now, I try to remember to state how I’m feeling so my kids are aware. For instance, I’ll say, “When you wrecked my [insert personal item here], I felt sad and angry.” Or “I’m really frustrated because we’re late.” Then I feel like my humanity has been acknowledged and they get a chance to be more thoughtful. (Side benefit: they copy my modelling. The other night my 10yo son said, “When Lia [does that sibling thing], I don’t feel safe or respected.” !!! Proud mama moment, that.)
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
No one can make me do emotional labour for others. I don’t owe it to anyone. I have promised it to my husband and kids, but I can still set reasonable limits with them.
But people-pleasers like me have a hard time exercising their right to say no. So maybe here is where the naming and noticing emotional labour can be put to good use. Say I’m in a conflict with someone—I’m upset with them or they’re upset with me. In the past, I might have done everything I could to resolve things to reassure myself and them that I’m a good person. Now I check my boundaries first. How much am I willing to extend myself? Is this relationship important enough to demand the emotional labour required? Then I make the decision based on my capacity and willingness to repair the relationship. I might engage or I might just let things go. And that’s okay; I’m just one human, after all.
One big insight that came to me during a parenting class I took this fall was about how boundaries are protective, not punitive. They’re protective for me, yes, because they preserve my energy and keep me from getting resentful. But they’re protective for other people too. Boundaries stop others from taking advantage. They communicate that I’m a safe person who can be trusted to take care of myself. They teach others about what’s appropriate or legitimate to ask for. And boundaries help people learn to take responsibility for their own emotional labour.
When I set and enforce a boundary, I’m not trying to punish the other person. I’m just reminding us all who I am, where my responsibility starts and ends.
I think I’ll end it there for now. I’d like to know from you, how do you manage the demands on your emotional labour? What works for you?