A Vacation from Emotional Labor

What follows are some (even) more personal reflections on the piece I wrote a couple days ago on emotional labor.

As I was writing that piece, I was feeling guilty. I kept thinking, “But some of these things haven’t happened to me for years. It’s gotten better. What right do I have to complain about this?”

As people (women especially) often do when speaking about their personal experiences, I kept questioning if it was really “as bad” and maybe I’m just unusually independent (or, as some would rather say, cold or selfish) and maybe none of this would be a problem for anyone besides me and maybe a few other people. It’s funny that I thought this even as I copy-pasted excerpt after excerpt of other people talking about this exact issue, and quoted two articles written by women who have dealt with it too.

Of course, whenever we talk about things like imbalanced emotional labor, others are eager to tell us that we’re the fucked-up ones, and pity to everyone who has to deal with us. These days, my response to that is a mental “okay,” because after years of very intense self-doubt (more intense than I expressed above), I’ve more or less reached a place where that shit just slides right off.

But other people are not at that place yet, and for those people (as well as for myself), I want to say this: even if you are Very Weird, and Entirely Too Selfish or Fragile, you still get to set boundaries for your relationships and to try to find ones that work for you. Yes, if you have more needs or dealbreakers than the average person, then you will find, on average, fewer compatible friends and partners. That’s rough, but that’s okay. That doesn’t make you “wrong.” That doesn’t make it okay for others to ignore your communicated boundaries because they expect or wish that they were different, more statistically normal.

And that brings me back to why it is that my experiences with emotional labor have been a lot more agreeable lately. That’s because a few years ago, I started really setting boundaries in ways that 1) attracted great people who know how to take responsibility for their own emotions, and 2) alienated people who wanted to take advantage of me. I left all those paragraphs-long messages unanswered, or answered them as monosyllabically as they answered my own attempts to share about my life. I started writing tons of blog posts about boundaries. I made Facebook posts in which I clarified my own boundaries to others. I mostly stopped having serious romantic relationships (not just for this reason, though–I’ve just lost interest in them). I decided that making sure that other people are happy is not my problem. I made it very obvious, in every way I knew how, that if you want a friend or partner who will take care of you, that cannot be me. If you want a friend or partner who will care for you, then that can absolutely be me.

Throughout all this, and still, I’m not always very nice. “Nice” is bending over backwards to accommodate people while silently resenting them for encroaching on your mental space. Instead, I try to be kind. Kindness, to me, is being honest and upfront about my limitations and needs and making space with/from people before it gets to the point of passive-aggressive sniping. Kindness is avoiding assuming the worst about people unless I have a good reason to. So when someone clearly wants things from me that I can’t give, I try to train myself out of assuming that they want to hurt me or take advantage of me. Instead, I say to myself, “We just need different things.” Kindness is making sure that whatever I do to support or help the people in my life, I do with all my heart, not grudgingly. I make sure they know that, too. I don’t want people to ever feel like they’re my obligation. I want them to know that I chose them. On purpose.

I do think that I probably overcompensated. Sometimes I guilt-trip myself about it, about how little emotional work I do nowadays. “You just want everything to be easy,” I berate myself. Maybe. On my better days, though, I understand that this makes complete sense. After years of wearing myself out with emotional labor, I’ve decided to just take it easy for a while. Consider it a nice long vacation after accumulating a decade’s worth of vacation days.

Moreover, I’m not sure I trust myself with emotional labor right now. I’m not sure I know how to get the balance right, so for now, to protect my own mental health as I went through grad school and as I take on the challenge of starting a career, I err on the side of doing very little. That’s why things are relatively easier right now.

Of course I worry that I’m a terrible friend and partner. I try to make sure to ask very little emotional labor of my friends and partners, so that it’s still about equal. (That’s why I’ve only asked for affirmation about not being a terrible friend/partner once that I can think of, in all these years.)

That said, I also trust my friends and partners to make their own decisions about me. I hope that if they decide they need more from me, they will ask, and if I say no, they will either accept that or choose to make more space between us, whatever feels right for them. I hope that if they feel that I’m asking too much, they will let me know. I think they will.

It’s super important to point out that nobody is A Bad Person in this situation. I am not A Bad Person for having limits, even if they are more limiting than other people’s limits. My friends are not Bad People if they were to want more from me. They also wouldn’t be Bad People if they decided that this doesn’t work for them and made some space or left.

I suppose some would call me selfish. I’m definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m anything but selfish. A selfish person thinks only of themselves without ever considering their impact on others. I think about my impact on others constantly, and I try to make sure that it’s a net positive. The challenge is doing that without burning myself out. I think it’s working okay so far.


I’ll close with one last example of gendered emotional labor that I forgot to include in the previous piece and haven’t seen discussed anywhere else. Men, you need to stop demanding that women laugh at your jokes and getting upset when they don’t. This is exhausting. Forcing laughter, especially believably, is difficult. But what else can I do when every time I fail to laugh at one of your jokes, you start with the “But you didn’t laugh!” “Hey, why didn’t you laugh?” “You’re supposed to laugh!” “Uh, that was a joke!”? Yes, I’m aware. It wasn’t funny. Learn from that and make a better joke next time. Or, if you can’t handle the relatively minor embarrassment of making a joke that doesn’t get laughed at (which everybody, including me, has done at some point), then don’t make jokes. Because if you ask me why I didn’t laugh and I tell you honestly that I didn’t find it funny, then I’m suddenly the mean one. Someone tell me how that makes any sense.

And especially stop demanding laughter at jokes that are sexist, racist, otherwise oppressive, or simply cruel.

Women are not your Magic Mirrors, here only to tell you that you are the funniest and the manliest in the land.


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A Vacation from Emotional Labor

10 thoughts on “A Vacation from Emotional Labor

  1. 1

    My therapist once used the metaphor of a joint bank account for emotional labour in relationships. I found it helpful, so I’m going to share:
    A bank account needs to be balanced in the long run, or better said, not run in the negative. Surplus is fine. But it doesn’t matter that much who is putting “money” in there and who is withdrawing and to what amounts. So sometimes you’ll need to “withdraw” more than you can give. And sometimes you can give more than you need right now. So my support will get you through this crisis, and your support gets me through this (and unlike with money, mutual support can also multiply, that’s why we can get us together through this joint crisis). It’s not tit for tat, just like with a real bank account usually one person makes more than the other person. You have a problem when the need permanently surpasses the supply. When one person always needs much more than the other can provide.
    That allowed me to accept that at that time I could not give much but needed lots. After all I’d done tons of emotional labour before and was working on getting me to a point where I could do it again. Because I had run dry since I had always given but never allowed myself to take.
    Of course, at that point there was the possibility that I needed more than my husband could provide. That I was crossing his boundaries. Fortunately it didn’T happen, but it also means that having healthy boundaries doesn’t mean people don’T get hurt badly.

  2. 2

    I love the distinction between “nice” and “kind”. I think from now on I will reserve “nice” as a word to describe things or experiences, like “the ice cream here is nice” or “that was a nice day at the pool”. Applying nice to a person or their actions feels wrong. Kind seems like a much better description of what I usually want to mean there anyways.

  3. 3

    It’s kind of scary how much our service economy runs on emotional labor. And how they stick people (usually women) in more public positions, based on how capably they are perceived (by their managers/supervisors) to perform emotional labor. Of course, “good at emotional labor” all-too-quickly becomes “able to take infinite amounts of abuse and sexual harassment from customers with a smile”. Because customer service.
    More good commentary here

    1. 3.1

      Yeah, that’s a really important angle to this too. At some point, the person making your burger, scanning your purchases, or bagging your groceries became responsible for taking care of your emotions, too. What the hell? Not only is that a ridiculous burden for the service sector employee, but it’s also a bizarrely infantilizing view of the customer. I’m capable of getting through the day without strangers making an effort to cheer me up.

  4. 4

    On the emotional labor in the service sector and infantalising the customer. It’s true that, for many of us, this is infantalising and suggests that we, the customer, need some kind of validation from people who supply fast food, coffee, groceries and other such bland everyday commodities. It also kind of trivializes real issues because it suggests that if the person selling me groceries smiled more, it would have a real impact on my life.

    But there are a number of people who feel that a bubbly, cheerful (*female*) cashier or server who gives them extra special attention is an entitlement. You know, guys who can’t go through a checkout line without making some attempt at humor which the cashier is obliged to pretend to laugh at (as if after 8 hours of being a cashier one would even identify a joke.) You touched on the whole joke thing, but it seemed more in terms of actual personal relationships. And I’ve even heard an online sermon where a preacher of some kind praised himself for trying *real hard* to make cashiers who seemed like they were having a bad day laugh, as if a corny wisecrack from a total stranger would really put a dent in the problems of a person making close to minimum wage. So the experience of being waited on by smiling, subservient femme-bots has been sold as part of the package to way too many people already. The ability to have an ego inflated is now part of shopping.

    And beyond that, I don’t find that people have to be male or affluent to share the attitude. For some people, their only possible chance at *not* being treated like they’re at the bottom is when they are the customer rather than the person on staff.

  5. 5

    Funnily enough, as a customer, I always feel it should be me making the effort to ensure the task of the person serving me is as easy and pleasant as possible. They have enough to deal with.

  6. 6

    Men, you need to stop demanding that women laugh at your jokes and getting upset when they don’t.

    There are men who do this?! I make jokes a lot, and they often fall flat but I’ve never expected listeners to laugh out of– what?– some sense of politeness? That’s downright pathetic.

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