Understanding Emotional Labor

Emotional labor is an important part of feminist theory and is an everyday reality for many people, particularly women and feminine people. The phrase was first coined and defined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983. There are many different flavors of emotional labor, but I chose to interview Franny as her job is to be of service to others and she’s a kickass feminist.


Tell us about yourself.

I’m Franny, I am a Pisces sun, Pisces moon, Libra rising. I work for a community mental health organization, and I recently became a certified peer specialist, which I am very proud of. This is a person who works in the field of mental health or addiction treatment and identifies as currently being in recovery from a psychiatric condition. Peer specialists draw on their own recovery stories when working with others, and aspire to change the mental health “system” from within. My ultimate goal is to become a licensed clinical social worker (LICSW) and work with individuals recovering from substance use disorders. I collect kewpie dolls and other thrifted oddities, and my wardrobe is inspired by the mod styles of the 1960s. I have two cats named Agent Cooper and Marceline.

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What is emotional labor?

I think of it as the physiological toll that it takes to really be there for someone. I notice that I’ve spent a lot of energy on emotional labor when I feel physically and mentally drained. It’s the act of managing your own emotions in order to make others feel at ease. I’ve read a definition of emotional labor as essentially the work of regulating one’s emotions in order to conform to social norms. Any job that involves interacting with people requires emotional labor. We perform emotional labor in our relationships with friends and loved ones as well.

I probably discovered the term on Insta, Tumblr, or somewhere on the internet. When I saw it for the first time it really resonated with me because it was able to capture the feeling I got after maybe have a really difficult conversation with someone--something that happens frequently in my line of work. I’m likely absorbing that person’s pain and feelings, and I have to manage my own feelings as well.

How have you experienced it, exactly?

When I was a lot younger and I didn’t have many effective ways of coping with difficult feelings I would sometimes hear from my friends that I was “too much” or “too intense” or that they couldn’t solve all my problems for me. I think that was my friends trying to explain they couldn’t handle all the feelings I came with. They loved me but weren’t capable of performing that much emotional labor.

I was talking to a friend recently who was telling me about her job in sales and I remarked “I sell something everyone wants but no one wants to pay for” — that’s emotional labor. My friend performs emotional labor at her job as well; in fact, we all do. When I’m having a tough day and I put my feelings aside in order to help my clients, it’s emotional labor. Working in retail required an enormous amount of emotional labor; whoever came up with the saying “the customer is always right” underestimated the mental toll it takes to provide customer service.

Last week I sat with a client and a social worker from my outreach team while the social worker did an assessment for risk factors/triggering topics. Being present for my client, being able to offer words of support and validation as well as normalizing difficult and hard to understand behaviors like self-harm--this is emotional labor. I felt good because it seemed like my presence had been helpful, but I also felt exhausted.

I think that as an empath I tend to absorb the feelings of those around me. With that in mind, it’s important for me to set boundaries for myself and let other people know about them so that I can keep some care for myself. An empath is someone who seemingly experiences the feelings that other people are feeling. For example, when I was growing up my father and I both dealt with depression.  When my dad was really sad, I was sad too. I felt like I could feel his sadness.

What are the different settings it can take place?

Emotional labor is something that I always have to offer in any kind of relationship that I’m in. friends or romantic partners. I have in the past and recent present sometimes felt like I can be my partner’s substitute for a therapist. The way that I handle that is by encouraging them - if things are really tough and I may not be able to help them with - to talk to a professional. I’ve also sometimes had to turn off my phone when I don’t feel able to put all of my energy into supporting people I love. My emotional battery might be running so low that if I don’t take space to recharge I won’t be able to be there to support people I love at all.

What do you think the impact is of EL?

I have experienced emotional labor in positive and negative ways. When I am at full capacity to perform emotional labor, I can provide more support for clients, friends or loved ones. As I said before, it can feel physically and mentally draining, but sometimes it’s worth it when I can tell that my support has made someone’s day a little bit easier. When I do not feel equipped to perform emotional labor, I can usually tell because I will feel resentful when someone asks for my help. Many people experience burnout at work because they are performing more emotional labor than they are able to. People can feel burnt out in personal relationships for this reason as well.

It seems like people are becoming more aware of what emotional labor is, and who experiences it. I think it’s important for people to understand that emotional labor is “real work” and should be taken seriously. If more people learn about emotional labor, they might become more aware of their capacity for this work, and they may have more appreciation for it.

Do you think there’s a difference between how men and women practice emotional labor?

Perhaps people who were assigned male at birth have been conditioned to treat their emotions differently than people who were assigned female at birth. I think that traditional gender roles create an expectation that a woman’s role is to listen and to provide comfort, while men are conditioned to suppress all emotions except for anger.

I can’t speak for people who are genderqueer, non-binary, or agender, who are left out in the question of “What is the difference between men and women in terms of emotional labor?” I think most people have experienced gendered expectations around managing and expressing emotions, and those expectations are always harmful, especially for those who do not have cis privilege.

Has feminism helped to shape your understanding of EL?

I think that intersectional feminism has really shown that emotional labor can be different for each individual. I believe that it is always important to consider the ways in which we are affected by systems of race, class, and gender, especially when it comes to talking about our feelings. I try to consider these factors when I listen to a client or a friend talk about trauma, or depression, or anger or joy, and I don’t do this perfectly, but I keep educating myself.

How do you practice self-care?

I go to therapy, I think that over the years of being in therapy I’ve kind of learned to compartmentalize the people who I see for different types of emotional labor. Sometimes that’s appropriate - going to my therapist with a lot of big stuff about my mental health or things I might not feel comfortable sharing with my friends for fear of triggering them. I have had to deal with the fallout of dumping a lot of feelings onto a person without their consent, without considering if they were emotionally equipped to support me. Now, my self-care involves setting and respecting boundaries with the people in my life.

I really try to make use of my time when I don’t need to help anyone with anything, where I can just focus on my own needs. That can mean the weekend or nights after work. Or if I feel too overwhelmed to maybe be there for someone who’s going through something even though I love them. Setting the boundary to take time off from emotional labor is very important.

I also believe saying no is self-care, it has to do with making time for me. Really listening to my mind and my body. Sometimes I just need a nap, though I don’t nap often. Sometimes it’s my body telling me I need to eat, that makes me feel a lot more receptive to other people.

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If you’d like to learn more about emotional labor, here are some resources:

Emotional Labor: The Invisible Work (Most) Women Do, Dear Sugar podcast episode

Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, book by Gemma Hartley

Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Unpaid Emotional Labor, Huffington Post article