Are you constantly engaging in emotional labor… and perhaps burning out as a result?
This post will help you examine where, how, and why you’re doing emotional labor in your life, what that emotional labor is costing you, and how you want to approach your emotional labor moving forward.
What is emotional labor?
Emotional labor was first defined in 1983 as any activity or task where we are regulating or managing emotional expressions with others as part of a professional work role (from Hochschild, The Managed Heart). Since then, this definition has expanded to include emotional labor that we do in other areas of life outside of work – including the home and in our social relationships.
Emotional labor is most predominant and most expected in jobs that require “service with a smile” or any public-facing job interacting with clients or customers. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers have to do emotional labor as well.
To perform emotional labor, workers in any of these roles may use what is called deep acting to modify their inner emotions – for example, “pumping themselves up” before going to work or giving themselves pep talks to make it through the day.
Emotional labor can also involve surface acting, where we hide our inner emotions and fake a smile – for instance, when dealing with a rude customer.
What is emotional labor costing you?
Like physical labor, emotional labor takes a lot of effort. It can be very draining when done all day long, or on a consistent basis. It can lead to decreased performance and burnout, especially when you have to engage in surface acting because it feels so inauthentic.
Anxiety and fatigue from surface acting while at work can spill over into your home life, often showing up as a reduced ability to be present, insomnia, and increased consumption of alcohol, drugs, sugar, or other substances to numb your feelings. Increased consumption of caffeine is also common to keep yourself going artificially even after burnout.
Expanding on this definition of emotional labor beyond the workplace, we can think of it as any task or activity that depletes your emotional, mental, or energetic tank.
Leah Fessler has said that “emotional labor is really pervasive—at work, at home, in the neighborhood grocery store. And yes, it’s nearly always shouldered by women.”
It’s so important to remember that, if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) or an empath, your energetic and emotional tanks tend to get depleted more quickly. As an empath, you’re highly conscientious and want to help others, which can easily go overboard. So you must be extra careful about not being constantly drained by emotional labor.
Here are some examples of emotional labor in daily life, outside of work:
- Having to smile and fake enthusiasm when someone gives you a gift you don’t particularly like
- Having to say “it’s totally ok!” when a friend is late to lunch, even though you’re fuming internally and feeling disrespected
- Feeling like you must keep the peace and manage everyone’s emotions at home, especially if you feel stuck in the middle between family members
- Feeling like you always have to initiate or make plans for your family and/or friend circle
- Feeling like if you don’t do the cooking, cleaning, organizing, and shopping for your household, it won’t get done (so you do it all yourself – and then feel resentful and tired)
- Being your friends’ “therapist”
- In your marriage or relationship, being the partner who is expected to tend to and soothe your children
- Being the partner who is expected to remember special events, dates, and appointments – and plan accordingly
Basically, any time you’re having to put on a façade or fake a positive emotion, you’re doing emotional labor. This uses up a lot of internal resources.
There are also physical consequences to emotional labor. If your energy tank is depleted on a chronic basis, physical symptoms will manifest at some point.
Sometimes, doing emotional labor requires you to step outside of your own integrity. You might even be abandoning yourself – or a part of yourself – when you mindlessly engage in emotional labor to take care of everyone else.
Doing this can lead to physical stress, pain, aches, and tension as your body tries to let you know that you’re veering off course and not being true to yourself. These physical signs can be used as indicators of when you need to return to your core self and your personal integrity.
Questions for self-reflection
A great place to start is to reflect on the following questions, which you can use as journaling prompts:
- When, where, and with whom do you tend to do the brunt of your emotional labor?
- Is doing emotional labor, especially at home, something that you were taught you HAVE to do?
- Who was the primary person doing all the emotional labor in your home growing up? What did you observe them doing, and what did this teach you?
- Based on your perception, who is expecting you to continue doing all of this emotional labor? Are you putting most of this pressure on yourself, or is it coming from outside of you?
- What secondary gain – or benefit – have you been getting from doing emotional labor for others? Note: this could be a sneaky one. Even if your emotional labor is exhausting you, there could be some counterproductive secondary gain that you’re getting from it, such as feeling valued, feeling useful, feeling needed, or proving your worth to others. Which of these apply to you?
- What would happen if you stopped doing so much emotional labor? Who do you believe would be upset? How would life be different, and what could you do with your energy instead?
It’s also important to identify the kinds of emotional labor that deplete your energy tank the most. Can you find ways to shift out of those patterns or bring more personal integrity to your interactions so that you’re not having to hide how you actually feel?
The most important question you could ask about this is: What would it mean to be radically honest, in a loving and respectful way, with yourself and others about how you feel in any given moment? How would that support you in keeping your energy tank fuller?
You might also make an emotional labor chart with three columns – one column for work, one column for home, and one column for personal relationships – and begin tracking when and how you engage in emotional labor in these different settings. This can help you answer the questions above and gain more awareness as you observe your patterns in real time, as you experience them.
And remember: you don’t owe anyone anything. You don’t have to prove your value by taking care of everyone else at the expense of your own needs and sanity. You deserve peace, joy, and vibrant health in every area of your life.
For more help creating a sense of inner peace and self-compassion, you can explore my podcast episode (with guided meditation) here.