Much has been written with regards to emotional labor in the past few years. Specifically, women have been writing about the emotional labor they must bear in the world in various ways, specifically, with cis men and their own families. As a trans-femme of color with light-skinned privilege, I have had my share of emotional labor. I do become exhausted with providing emotional support with people in my circle of friends, my family, and my community. I also need to constantly assess my capacity for emotional labor because I am a therapist. Being a clinician five days a week provides me with the opportunity to hold space for people of various backgrounds with different personal stories, and I am honored to do so. However, performing constant emotional labor on a daily basis can be emotionally taxing. Nevertheless, emotional mutual aid and emotional decolonization is one site of personal liberation.
Capitalism, white-supremacy, and patriarchy thrive on self-destruction and isolation. Emotional mutual aid brings people together to share one’s internal world with one another. It brings people together to question, “How are any of my daily practices or interactions with others problematic or self-destructive?”, “Is this or that habit a product of my internalized oppression?”, or “How are my own idiosyncrasies rooted in my own individual privilege and dominations of those around me?” Whilst emotional labor tends to be an activity through which marginalized folks perform for their privileged counterparts, emotional labor is what brings marginalized people together to emotionally survive on a daily basis.
In this conversation here, I want to name six ways I notice I am exhausted from providing emotional labor. However, I also want to take some time to share strategies I employ to prevent becoming burnt out from emotional support.
1) Being Overstimulated
There are times I notice when I become easily overwhelmed by sounds, smells, and visual stimuli. I then become avoidant of being out in public and being in large crowds of people. This is an internal cue that sometimes leads me back to assess the interpersonal work I have performed throughout my day. And, when I do this, more times than not, I notice that I did some pretty emotional heavy-lifting with someone.
2) Intellectually Incapacitated
I make it a point to read a couple of times a week after work for about thirty to forty-five minutes. I read to learn more about the world as well as to validate my own feelings and social justice convictions. However, after a long day of social work, sometimes I don’t feel like reading. As a radical social worker, I attempt to provide empathy for person’s journey which may be very tragic. Reading about oppression at the end of the day is basically out of the picture because I bear witness to intersectional oppression all day.
A hallmark experience for me when I have been performing too much emotional labor is anxiety. A very common psychological characterization of the folks I support is catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is not only a personality trait of the folks I work with as a professional, but also in my personal life. I have found that catastrophizing is a personality characteristic of empaths and folks with trauma. By catastrophizing I mean constantly worrying about something will go wrong. I find that I perform a lot of work helping folks assess their immediate realities and help them self-soothe. After doing this for long periods of time, I find that I then begin myself to catastrophize. I begin to second guess myself constantly and worry about little things.
4) Less able to hold space for myself / less time for self-care
When I am constantly holding space for people I am less capable to hold space for myself, and have less emotional time for self care. Sometimes I attempt to schedule a time to work on me in solitude or with the support of someone else. Most likely I will not have the capacity to support myself if I have supported someone earlier in the day, which then gets consequently gets rescheduled for another time. Other times I just want to relax and enjoy my evening after work and watch TV. This gets disrupted if I have to support someone in the middle of my evening. I also always try to keep a regular meal routine at lunch and dinner. However, when called to meet with someone at my job, I will sometimes wait to eat till mid-afternoon.
5) Increased co-dependence on the person for whom I am performing emotional labor.
If I am rigorously attending to someone’s emotional needs, sometimes my personal boundaries with them become blurred. I begin to become hyper-vigilant that I may say the wrong thing. I begin to hold their feelings for them. I often worry about what they will say when words gets around about something or an event they endured comes back in their disfavor.
6) Avoidance or resentment at the person for whom I am performing emotional labor.
Lastly, I notice I begin to become resentful of a person for whom I am performing emotional labor. This resentfulness does not have anything to do with if this person is or is not reciprocating emotional labor. They may not be someone who I feel comfortable sharing a particular problem at a certain point in time. To be honest, I begin to feel resentful at someone when they are not taking action to begin personal healing. I understand the readiness to change is a process with which I have to be patient. Part of my emotional labor facilitates people’s internal guidance to problem solving. If I have been holding space for someone regarding the same issue for an extended period of time, I would hope they begin to problem solve. It is when they do not take action steps is when I begin to feel resentful.
Holding space for someone is an honor and sacred act. It is with this sanctity from which I have learned to honor myself, others, and the process of emotional reciprocity. I have been blessed to become a constant learner in the art of emotional mutual aid.
More Radical Reads: 8 Lessons That Show How Emotional Labor Defines Women’s Lives
Here are some strategies I employ or which I hope others employ when engaging in emotional labor:
1) Asking for consent to get deep.
Many times, when I visit my mother, she immediately begins to inform me about deep tragedies affecting immediate or extended members of the family. Although I understand me visiting is a time to catch up, sometimes I don’t want to come to my parents home and hear all this struggle. I wish my mother would ask, “Can I check in with you about a few things that are heavy?”. My partner and I have a best practice of asking each other for consent before we delve deep into traumatic experiences we share, whether it be of our own or others. Obtaining consent from someone one before I begin to get their emotional support gives them the cue that I explicitly need support, and provides them when the space to determine if they possess a capacity to do so. This also relates to ways I identify as becoming overstimulated or intellectually incapacitated. When someone asks me for consent to hold space with them, it allows me the opportunity to check my current level of stimulation and emotional capacity. It helps me prepare to get into a mindset of supportive role. Asking for consent brings me into the next strategy.
2) Clarifying roles for the moment
Although one of the hardest things to do, and something I need to start consistently practicing, is clarifying my role as a person providing emotional labor. Emotional labor consists of different dimensions: listening coaching, encouraging, reflecting, problem solving, or physical assistance or accompaniment to name a few. Being explicit about what role one is seeking or asking is another way to cue someone to mentally prepare for emotional labor. It gives someone informed consent about what type of emotional labor one is providing.
3) Scheduling deep conversations at appropriate times:
Scheduling appropriate times to have a deep conversation, I find, is key. This also goes hand-in-hand with asking for consent for or to obtain support. Asking someone through text or voicemail if they have time to support me is the first step I take when asking for emotional support. I am providing them with an opportunity to check-in with themselves to see if they have emotional capacity to do so. When someone asks me to support them, I attempt to schedule it at an appropriate time, such as not too early and not too late. Or, also, not before a regular scheduled meal, such as lunch or dinner. It is much easier to schedule an appropriate time to ask or provide emotional labor when one ask asked for consent to do so ahead of time.
4) Trigger warnings – trauma reminders
Giving someone trigger warnings has become a common practice in the the art of emotional labor. Even when I am in an already deep conversation with someone, I attempt to not be remised to provide trigger warnings. This gives someone the cue that I may bring up something that may trigger their own trauma.
5) Caring plans: what are you doing for self-care and healing.
Assisting someone to develop self-care plans may be cumbersome to employ all the time, but it has many benefits. This leads me back to all of the ways that I identify I am feeling exhausted from emotional labor, specifically becoming resentful. I mentioned that I become resentful of a person for whom I am providing emotional labor on a consistent basis, but they have not taken it upon themselves to begin problem solving or heal on their own. Developing a care plan solves this. Included in a self-care plan outlines how they will self-care between now and later. It also outlines what steps they need to take to being problem solving their situation.
More Radical Reads: 7 Tactics of Emotional Abuse Used By Trump Supporters Post-Election
6) Community Care: Support Groups and Traditional Healing
Another important strategy to avoid emotional labor burn-out is to always refer someone to a form of community care. Community care can be a support group or some form of traditional community healing, such as a healing circle. I attend various 12-step groups as well as started attending a healing circle for an organization of which I am apart. For those who are familiar or a part of support groups, there is unspoken power about hearing other people’s struggles as well as verbalizing one’s own struggle aloud with other people present. Many community healing forums already have built into them a format for personal recovery and collective liberation, such as rigorous forms of self-reflection, holding oneself and others accountable, power analyses, and connecting with one’s ancestors, or a grasping a meaning or symbolism greater than oneself.
Emotional labor is a primary means through which marginalized folks help each other emotionally survive on a daily basis. That being said, the experiences we bear in the world are heavy, and we need strategies to prevent emotional burnout with one another. I hope my naming of the ways I become emotionally exhausted resonates with others. I also hope the strategies I have outlined here bear some resemblance to what folks are already practicing, or might point someone in the right direction to caring for themselves and others. Emotional labor should not be the physical labor through which we are exploited by capitalism, it should be the practice of loving through which we achieve personal transformation and collective liberation.
[Featured Image: Two individuals stands outdoors captured from the neck down as they stand face to face. The person on the left wears a green coat, plaid scarf, jeans and boots while the person on the right is wearing a black jacket, jeans and gym shoes with their hands in their back pockets. Pexels.com]