Emotional Labour

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

If you’re familiar with emotional labour, you know that it’s not the best situation to be in for your own mental and emotional health, but what is it exactly? Well, it can mean a variety of things depending on the situation, but it’s essentially managing your own feelings and suppressing them for the sake of others. The term is usually applied to the workplace. The concept was developed by sociologist, Arlie Hochschild, in 1983. Hochschild’s described emotional labour, in The Managed Heart, as needing to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. However, a point of contention exists in how the term is used, as Hochschild believed it should only be used at work. With that, I must disagree, as emotional labour can experienced in a variety of situations outside the workplace. It can occur within your relationship, your friendships and your home life. Unfortunately, emotional labour is pervasive, and it can occur in the task of giving advice to friends.

What happens when it occurs through the unpaid and draining task of doing more for a friendship or relationship than you should, especially when there is so little return? What happens when being the sympathetic advisor has to talk on board the anxieties of another? It’s easy for others to take advantage of these situations, in particular, and unknowingly by those closest to us. The effects of this emotional labour is often hard to see when asking for favours, needing that shoulder to cry on alongside the continuous and monotonous complaining mount up. That’s how the pressure builds up. Is it beneficial to be your friend’s first person of contact when they need your help or they need your sympathy? No, not necessarily, because it can add to your own personal anxieties and stress which turns can transform these connections into burdens.

The advice I was giving to a myriad of friends became a toxic and exploitative situation. I began by advising them on how to take care of their sexual health and how to solve problems in a couple’s bedroom – something I wish I’d never have to know. It then mutated from being their friend and becoming a person they were all emotionally dependent. After I’d find myself advising more people on how to ease problems within their family, within their relationship, with their own mental health. I would shudder in anger and fear every time my phone went off, knowing there was a possibility it could be one of the dozen people relying on me to give advice or help solve their problems for them. It wasn’t about not wanting to extend my shoulder, or my time, or my advice. They were looking to be heard. I could have given them advice or a solution to simply solve some of their very easy problems, but they didn’t want to acknowledge reality and the truth, they didn’t even want my advice if it didn’t fit with how they desired for events to pan out. This is the labour of it all, blowing hot air, and having my words and sympathies disregarded. 

Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

There is a fine line that needs to be followed carefully. Your friends should ensure that you’re in the correct mental and emotional space to listen to their issues before they unload all of their problems on you. I was reminded by another friend, after my eighth round of solving yet another issue for a friend, that I have the right to say no. Yes, even asking your friend if you can unload your problems onto them is crossing that line, it puts them in an awkward position where it’s harder to say no. In turn, you are shifting responsibility onto your friend, as well. Of course, that’s not to say you can’t share your problems sometimes, but when you’re putting your friend in that position where you continuously complain it’s a problem. It’s unsurprising if they want to leave that environment, it is toxic for the person on the listening end, because your friend isn’t your therapist or an advice counsellor. They’re your friend, they care about you and they love you, so when you seriously need help and/or constantly need help it adds to their anxiety.

On an important note, it is good to check in on your friends, and mental health is a prominent issue in our society. Although, it should be remembered that, even as the mental health services in the country are being stretched thin, that your friends are not trained to give you advice. For all I know, I could be giving the world’s worst advice, and I could be the reason why their situation has worsened. It’s vital that we can regulate how much emotional labour we are being put through. Be receptive to the other person’s situation, but make it clear that when it’s affecting you, you should tell them that you’re not in the capacity to help them. Find a response that helps both you and your friend. 

It’s hard to pick up on the signs that you’re picking up all of the emotional labour in your friendship or relationship. These signs can include: resisting genuine and open discussion; you always feel exhausted; the person coming to you isn’t open to solutions; you’re the one repeatedly venting; you find yourself making excuses for their behaviour and they’re minimising your feelings. It’s okay to need space from the mental and emotional demands that are placed on you, it’s important we take a stand on that, because we cannot save everyone. Nor can we help the few who can benefit from it if we can’t even save ourselves and our own mental and emotional health.

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