The Importance of Naming Emotional Labor

Recently my boyfriend thanked me for doing emotional labor for him.

As in, he actually used that phrase: “I appreciate all the emotional labor you’ve been doing for me.” And then he apologized for not doing as much in return. (I disagree, actually: I think it’s been quite balanced.)

It was an interesting moment in that it illuminated the empty space around it–the space where all the emotional labor I’ve done for others, previous male partners especially, has gone unacknowledged.

I told him that nobody had ever thanked me for that before.

Sure, people have thanked me “for listening” or “being there for me,” and that was obviously meaningful. But few have ever done so in a way that acknowledged the work involved–the emotional labor. Nobody has ever used that term.

It’s not that I do it for the gratitude. I don’t support my friends and partners to get something in return, or so that they feel deeply indebted to me or any other power play-type shit like that. I do emotional labor for the simple reason that it feels good. Same reason most of us do anything, at the root of it.

But it stops feeling good when I feel like I’m expected to do it, especially if I sense that I’m expected to do it because of my gender. It stops feeling good when rather than directly asking me for what they need, they try to passive-aggressively coax it out of me. It stops feeling good when they demand tons of emotional labor and then half-heartedly return the favor by offering me types of emotional labor they know I don’t want. (For instance: I don’t like talking at length about my problems. Stop offering to listen and then considering your share of the work done.)

Issues like that surrounding emotional labor have plagued most of my relationships with men. In fact, they’re what ultimately ended most of my relationships with men.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the few partners I’ve had who understands the term emotional labor and is able to use it to acknowledge a pattern in our relationship is also one of the few partners I’ve had with whom I did not experience (at least not yet, and not in my perspective) a noticeable imbalance in it.

It’s hard to value things that we have no language for even thinking about, let alone speaking about to each other. As I mentioned, there are words and phrases that get at little pieces of what emotional labor is–“being a good listener,” “being considerate,” “good manners,” “sensitivity”–none of them really address the fact that it is work, and work takes effort. Considerate and sensitive is something you are. Emotional labor is something you do.

When you name emotional labor for what it is, you’re able to treat it as valuable. That doesn’t just mean literally thanking someone for it–I’d felt completely happy with the emotional labor I was doing for my boyfriend before he explicitly thanked me. The thank-you was nice, but what’s even nicer is the way he responds to my emotional labor with increased intimacy and vulnerability, the way he makes an effort to figure out what sorts of emotional labor I might appreciate from him and do those things, and the way he treats my emotional labor as mine to give rather than his to take. That requires an understanding of what it is that’s being given or taken.

I don’t doubt that there are people who do what he does without having ever heard the term “emotional labor,” but that’s doing it on the highest difficulty setting, in my opinion. Clearly he’d been thinking about this for a while before he said anything to me, and that meant that in his head he’d been organizing things under the heading “emotional labor that my girlfriend does for me” and “emotional labor that I do for my girlfriend.”

I would be curious to see what those lists look like for other people, with their partners and friends. What they think emotional labor is, what they don’t think it is. To me, it’s a combination of things most people would want to do, such as showing concern if your partner’s had a rough day or picking out a gift that’ll make your partner feel loved, and things most people probably wouldn’t want to do, such as pretending to be happy so that your partner isn’t upset by your negative emotions and reminding your partner for the millionth fucking time to do the thing they promised they’d do.

Those seem like totally different things that don’t belong in the same category, but they do, because it’s not about whether it’s positive or negative. It’s about whether it requires effort and energy. It’s just like any other work in that way–I have tasks at work that I love and tasks at work that I hate, but regardless, they’re all work and I want all of them to be seen and acknowledged.

Knowing what emotional labor means and feeling comfortable using the term in context is a great way to start seeing and acknowledging the less-tangible ways in which your partner supports you.

 

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Check Your iPhone At The Door

Now that I’m in graduate school, the beginning of each semester is an opportunity for me to hear the same lecture four times over: the lecture on How It Is Rude And Disrespectful To Your Fellow Students To Use Technology In Class For Anything Other Than Taking Notes, and how, therefore, technology use for anything other than notes is strictly banned in class on pain of lowered grades or public humiliation.

I mean, usually I don’t care that much. I have other ways of distracting myself when I’m bored or anxious, such as writing blog post drafts in my notebook. Presumably, that is okay because it does not involve a keyboard or a screen.

But this past week, two things happened that made me realize/remember how irritating this is. One is that a professor kept rattling off dates and assignments and I was unable to effectively record them because my to-do list and my calendar are both in my phone. (I wrote them down on paper instead, obviously, but that adds an unnecessary extra step and thus an extra opportunity to make an error.)

The other is that I have eight hours of class in one day a week this semester, and that means eight hours during which I am not allowed to respond to emails or messages. Here’s the thing. My role as a student is not my only role. I also have a job. I also have friends and loved ones who sometimes need things from me. I also have projects and other things I organize or volunteer for. I have money to manage. I have an apartment to maintain and roommates to maintain it with.

I am, obviously, not the only student in this situation; we are all in this situation. Maybe it bothers them, too. Maybe it doesn’t because we have different priorities.

Regardless, not being able to access technology for eight hours of one day actually has consequences for me in my role as a friend, partner, roommate, daughter, employee, freelancer, volunteer, and organizer. They’re not horrible consequences; they’re not unmanageable consequences. They are consequences that I might accept if I were choosing them by myself as part of a tradeoff.

But I’m not choosing them here. They are being chosen for me in a paternalistic and condescending way. The message is that I must prioritize my role as a student–in the limited way this role looks to my professors–during these entire eight hours, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of my life.

I am an adult, and I should be able to, at times and within reason, prioritize other things, such as comforting a depressed friend or moderating an online support group I run or doing some online banking or jotting some notes for a piece I need to write, over being a model student.

The patronizing way that my classmates get dragged into this is irritating, too. In a progressive program such as this one, professors probably know that they can’t get away with demanding that we refrain from touching our phones as a sign of respect and deference. So instead, much is made of the fact that the use of electronics for non-approved purposes is a “distraction” to fellow students and is thus “disrespectful.” From authoritarianism to communitarianism, I suppose.

First of all, if my checking my email is distracting to you, I don’t see why taking notes on my laptop wouldn’t be (and that’s, of course, grudgingly allowed). These things look about the same on the outside. They look like scrolling through text and typing things.

Second, our professors are always expecting us to learn how to deal with various adverse situations because they will be part of our work. This is good, though sometimes they take this too far. Bigotry from classmates, for instance, is expected to be tolerated and responded to kindly and copmassionately, because we will encounter this in our work. Guess what? The presence of a person texting on their smartphone may also occur in a work environment, and you need to learn how to manage that and not get distracted by it.

It’s interesting that expressions of bigotry in the classroom are not considered too “distracting” for the students who are presumably targeted by that bigotry. Me taking some notes for a piece I’m working on, though, is a distraction too severe to be tolerated. What I’m hearing here is that professors don’t feel like challenging bigotry or finding ways to prevent its expression (preferring instead to to have everything up for “discussion”), whereas banning technology serves their own needs and purposes. So what is distracting and what is not distracting, or what we need to learn to manage and what we do not need to learn to manage, depends more on the professors’ whims than anything else.

Finally, it is irritating to me, as a student who does not get distracted by other students’ laptop or gadget use, to be spoken for in this way. When professors say, “Do not check your email; it is distracting to your classmates,” I am one of these classmates being used to restrict someone else’s behavior. Nevertheless, I am capable of keeping my eyes on my own notebook and on the professor. You could be watching porn on your phone next to me for all I care.

I can’t help but contrast this with my experience at conferences and other types of lectures. Technology is welcomed into these spaces. We use hashtags to connect with other attendees and respond to the material we are being presented. There are disadvantages to the proliferation of technology use at conferences and lectures, but also advantages. I feel that I learn as much, if not more, at these events as I do in my classes.

Obviously, conferences and classes have different aims and work in different ways. My point isn’t that classrooms need to become more like conference halls and that we need to adopt course-specific hashtags or whatever. My point is that technology doesn’t necessarily inhibit learning, and nor does it necessarily distract others around you from their learning.

And none of this is to deny that technology can interfere with classroom experiences, that professors can experience it as disrespectful, or that students can make irresponsible and ultimately harmful decisions about technology use.

But I don’t appreciate being treated like a child, and that doesn’t make for a great learning experience, either. I don’t appreciate the adverse effects these rules have on my ability to keep my life and my education organized and productive. I don’t appreciate feeling “on display,” like I have to “perform” my student role by refusing to ever glance at my smartphone screen or open a new tab for my email. I already have problems with feeling like my behavior is constantly being watched and judged; I imagine many women do. This seems like the opposite of the sort of space a social work professor would want to cultivate.

I’m sure they imagine they’re creating a space that’s focused and respectful and engaged. To me, it just feels stressful, restrictive, judgmental, and infantilizing.

I Don’t Want To Talk About It

#depression #mentalillness

I feel like an ungrateful jerk when I say this, but I dread the moment when a friend says, “Do you want to talk about it?”

I dread it because I have to lie and say no. I do want to talk about it, at least sometimes. But I can’t.

It used to be that I measured the strength of a friendship or relationship purely by how willing the person was to listen to my bullshit and how well they responded when I vented it. I truly believed in the idea that True Friends will be able to listen to me at my most raw and vulnerable, because that’s how True Friendship is often described when it comes down to it. You can Be Yourself around a True Friend. Well, Myself was often very, very sad.

“If you can’t handle me at my worst then you don’t deserve me at my best,” and all that.

And then I lost a ton of friends and partners who couldn’t handle me at my worst.

They were good people, maybe not as good at communication and boundary-setting as they could’ve been, but then who is at that age? This wasn’t a case of shitty shallow people just not being willing to deal with any negativity; this was a case of normal people not being able to deal with someone’s mental illness.

Eventually something in me snapped, and my entire outlook on it changed. I no longer judge the strength of a friendship by how much the person can listen to me vent and cry. I almost never do anything I’d describe as “venting.” I do not consider it important to have someone I can “vent” to. I do not consider it important for friends and partners to see that side of me.

Am I bitter? Yes, a little bit. Many people who suffer from mental illness tell me that they don’t know where they’d be without their loving friends and partners who listen supportively to all of their completely unfiltered crap. It seems that my crap is of such an especially strong variety that nobody is able to handle it for long.

As if to test my resolve, plenty of people in my life try to convince me that they really can listen. “Yes,” they all say, “I know other people have let you down, but trust me, I want to be there for you.”

For a few years I fell for a few of these lines. Inevitably, “listening” and “being there” went along with “being determined to fix,” and you can’t fix a mental illness. So they’d try to fix me and they’d fail and they’d get frustrated and sooner or later I was such a source of negative feelings and it wasn’t worth it anymore.

It became a boy-cried-wolf situation. Every once in a while someone still tells me that, really, they’re a very good listener and they won’t get frustrated and they won’t expect to fix me and I really can talk to them.

I don’t fall for it anymore.

What is it about me? What is it that makes people so desperate to fix me that they lose the ability to set appropriate emotional boundaries and take a step back when they need to? What is it about my particular problems that make people think that they must fix them immediately or else it’s the end of the world?

I mean, certainly depression makes me feel that way, but as I said, plenty of people with depression nevertheless manage to vent to their friends without destroying everything.

There is a lovely Captain Awkward post that my friends and I often pass around at relevant times, called “The Sandwich Means I Love You.” It’s about a person with depression who worries that they are becoming too much of a burden on their friends, who are always helping them and generally being really great and supportive.

I love your friends. They are wicked practical about emotional matters, and when they say “Keep the pills at my house,” or “I will make you a grilled cheese now” they are really saying “I love you.

I’m sorry your Jerkbrain is translating that differently for you. I think it is hearing “I love you…for now…as long as you don’t actually like start to depend on that love and count on it too much and maybe become a burden? Enjoy this grilled cheese of temporary toleration and eventual judgement and abandonment.

But your friends? They’re just saying “I love you.” Really.

This post consistently makes me cry happily, but the truth is that I don’t really believe in it. I mean, I believe that the people who post it on my Facebook wall are being as honest as they can be, but I also believe that when they support me it’s more of the “temporary toleration and eventual judgement and abandonment” thing. Because that’s how it has historically been.

And it makes me sad when I share this and people accuse those ex-friends/-partners of being horrible or selfish or ableist or any number of other bad things. The truth is that dealing with depression is fucking horrible, and if a person with depression is telling you all of their thoughts and feelings, that’s not very far off from the experience of actually having it. The hopelessness. The going around in circles. The fact that nothing seems to ever help at all.

You are not a bad person if you can’t deal with this.

But this is why I feel like I can never fully open up to anyone again. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s adulthood.

Except, I guess, for all the other adults who seem to manage it just fine.