Expressing Your Emotional Labor

Melvin Tillman, Melvin Tillman, MA

Posted by: Melvin Tillman
Melvin Tillman, MA
267-428-2612

            Emotional labor is the process of repressing and/or emphasizing feelings that are deemed desirable within a situation.  Being calm when you’re angry, cordial when you’re irritated, and acting happy when you’re sad are all examples of emotional labor.  Though some degree of emotional labor is necessary, repressing our feelings can be too much at times. 

            Similar to having high physical labor, there are usually signs for being emotionally fatigued.  Exhaustion and irritability commonly occur when we suppress our authentic feelings for too long.  For instance, if the high emotional labor isn’t addressed, the person may find themselves unconsciously distancing themselves from certain relationships.  Specifically, the person is trying to distance themselves from the situations that would require emotional labor.  Expressing your high emotional labor can prevent this, however.  Before going further, let’s look at a fictional case for clarity.

 

Miguel

 

            [Miguel is a 4th grade math teacher who takes pride in his work.  Every day, he tries hard to be attentive and patient with all of his students.  Though they can be a handful, Miguel never shows his irritation.  At home, Miguel spends time with his wife, Mary.  Like any relationship, Mary vents about her day, and asks Miguel to complete chores around the house.  Though he rarely complains and respectfully listens to Mary, Miguel did express his exhaustion once.  Mary rebutted that she also gets tired, yet she still finds the time for him and to do the chores.    Following this, Miguel decided that Mary’s requests were small and more than fair.  However, despite all of this, Miguel finds himself spending more time with friends than with Mary.  When asked about this, Miguel is unable to formulate an answer.  He genuinely believes that nothing is wrong with Mary, yet he is unable to articulate what could be going on with him.] 

 

            So, what is going on with Miguel?  Though he doesn’t have the words for it, it’s very likely that he’s experiencing emotional labor fatigue.  After weeks and weeks of being respectful and patient with his students, Miguel may want to be in an environment where being rude or annoyed is more accepted, hence, wanting to be with his friends.  Miguel loves Mary, and it’s likely that the two can create a home environment that doesn’t add to Miguel’s emotional labor.  This is especially the case considering Mary’s small, understandable requests.  However, he doesn’t bring up nor realize his emotional labor, which leads to Miguel pulling away.  Though Mary’s rebuttal to Miguel’s exhaustion was more than fair, he took it as a reason to fully dismiss his emotional labor.  He felt as though he had no right to complain, instead of realizing that one person’s emotional experience doesn’t have to trump the other’s.  This is only one example of having high emotional labor, however.  Regardless of the various situations, it is almost always beneficial to occasionally reveal your emotional labor to your loved ones.

 

Telling Your Loved Ones How You Feel

 

            A common trap to fall into is being quiet about your high emotional labor.  People are best able to help out with a problem once they know what it is.  After you’ve recognized your high emotional labor, let the people around you know what you’re experiencing.  Going back to the example with Miguel, it would be beneficial to tell Mary that he’s exhausted from having to be respectful with his students.  This shouldn’t be limited to partners, though.  Whether it’s parents, siblings, or friends, the people whom you spend a lot of time around should know your high degree of emotional labor.  Here are a couple of statements to get that conversation going.

 

  • “Work has been demanding a lot out of me emotionally.”
  • “My student said X and what I responded with Y, what I really felt like sharing was Z.”
  • “I’ve been feeling really emotionally drained lately.”
  •  “I think sometimes I simply do what you are asking of me, without sharing sharing all of my inner thoughts.  Can we talk about it?”
  • “I realize that some of what you are asking for is totally reasonable, but I still find myself uncomfortable.  I need to figure this out”
  • “Have you ever been emotionally exhausted?  I feel like I’m going through that right now.”
  • “I don’t think that I can bring my A game to this conversation right now.  I feel emotionally tapped from work.  Can we talk tomorrow at 2pm?”
  • “I’ve never realized how demanding it can be to have kids.  I feel as though I haven’t had the chance to just be myself.”
  • “I feel as though I’ve been listening to others a lot lately, but I don’t feel as though anyone’s been listening to me.”
  • “I have a lot on my plate right now.  Do you mind helping me out with the chores?”
  • “I’ve been trying to help my friend get through a hard time, but I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed.  Can I talk to you about it?”

 

For clarity, let’s see what this process would like if Miguel implemented it.

 

How It All Can Look

            “Hi, Mary.  I’m sorry that I haven’t been spending too much time at home.  I guess that I’ve been emotionally fatigued with work.  Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with you.  At the same time, I know that I have certain responsibilities with you that I don’t have with my friends.  For example, I don’t have to worry so much about offending Joey or doing things for Jimmy.  Regardless, I know that I’ve been distant, and I want to change that.  I think that I’m emotionally exhausted with work, so hopefully we can work together on not letting the fatigue affect our home life.”   

 

Needless to say, not every conversation is going to be as articulate or insightful as Miguel’s, nor does it need to be.  What’s truly important is simply bringing up the issue of high emotional labor.  Once again, your loved ones are only able to help you with a problem when they know what it is.

 

Final Thoughts

            Emotional labor is an essential function for our relationships that can easily go overlooked.  This leads to high emotional labor, which can then lead to distance, frustration, fatigue, depression, resentment, anger and other unsavory outcomes.  However, by simply expressing your emotional labor to those around you, you can nip those problems in the bud.