What is Emotional Labor?

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You know when you feel one way on the inside, but you can’t show it on the outside?

It’s no secret, because we’ve all felt it; we’ve probably felt it three times today. And it’s only 9:22am. But, we don’t often have the word for it.

Let’s say you’re out at a business luncheon and bored to tears by the person you’re speaking with. You feign interest, because that’s what you need to do in this setting, but you’re not being congruent with your feelings on the inside.

The word for it is emotional labor, and it’s one of the ways we tire out our executive function. When our executive function gets fatigued, we become more reactive.

It’s a funny train that happens. By not showing how we are feeling on the inside, we become so tired that – eventually – what we’re feeling boils over, often explosively.

Now, if you’re like me, when you read this section, you think, “Yes. That sounds like being a mother to toddlers.”

Invisible labor has become a buzzword and, as such, we all have some understanding of what it means. It means all the behind the scenes work that happens to manage a home or a life – especially with dependents. It is laborious enough to cook me solid by 7pm each day.

But, the emotional labor of raising toddlers, that is laborious enough to cook me solid by approximately 9:22am each day.

The bad news is: as a caregiver to toddlers, you cannot put a pause on emotional labor. They infuriate you, but you can’t show anger. They irritate you, but you can’t show annoyance. They make you want to throw up your arms and walk away, but you can’t abandon your kids.

I have found two things that work for me to combat the fatigue of emotional labor.

Energy Management

Energy management will sound a lot like “self-care.” It is nearly synonymous, but there are some key differences. Self-care is a way to become our own caregivers. It typically involves the acts of physical care involved in managing our hygiene, well-being, and overall physical state.

Energy management takes place on a deeper level. It involves toning our nervous system to make us more resilient and less reactive. As our nervous system constantly takes a hit through our emotional labor output, caregivers need extra doses of energy management.

My favorite tools are: sleep, meditation, breath work and supplements and nutrition aimed at down regulation.

Any tool that acts on your nervous system counts. What are your favorite ways to practice energy management?

Rupture-Repair Cycles

This tool only comes out when I fail to manage my energy and end up boiling over. So, this tool comes out just about every day!

For a relationship to be healthy, it needs consistent doses of positive interactions. A number of experts have statistics on this. Some say we need 70 percent positive interactions to 30 percent conflicting ones. Some say we need five positive interactions for every one misconnection.

I try not to get too hung up on what experts say and focus more on what feels good for me. Zero eruptions would be ideal. But, that sets me up for failure, so I aim for:

  • No more than one eruption a day
  • Recognizing my error quickly (rather than a drawn out bout of yelling) and stopping the behavior
  • Naming and labeling what occurred. “Wow. I just let myself act out my emotions rather than handling them with my toolkit.”
  • Taking ownership of my behavior with an earnest apology. “I’m sorry I did that. I don’t like that behavior, and it’s my fault for allowing it to occur. I’m working on this as a person.”
  • Repairing the space by collaboratively building an alternative path. “How did it make you feel when I did that? What can we do to bring ourselves back onto the same team?”
  • And, importantly, demonstrating forgiveness to myself. “Well, that wasn’t my best moment, but I love myself on my good days and my bad days. I also want to give myself some credit. I’m proud I recognized my mistake quickly. I’m proud I yelled at the pillow instead of at a person.”

What does emotional labor look like in your life? What do you do to manage your energy and prevent explosions? What are your best practices for when explosions do occur?