Feeling Over It: Doing Emotional Labor

You only need to look to our society’s treatment of emotionally intensive jobs (i.e. childcare, homecare, nursing) to understand the widespread devaluing of emotional labor. This is not just reflected through the low pay or poor benefits of emotionally intensive work; it is also made evident through its blatant exclusion from the realm of “labor” and its associated protections. This means that emotional labor not only goes unrecognized in our society but often simply taken for granted. Certain people are conditioned to constantly give, and others are trained to thanklessly receive.

These dynamics do not magically go away in social justice circles. Much of the “struggling with love,” “holding each other,” and “calling each other in” that activists call for require a deep sense of awareness and practice around emotional labor. And yet, I find myself always face-to-face with “revolutionaries” that do not know how to name their own feelings, let alone emotionally support another person. I do not believe that we can achieve liberation, let alone a supportive space without the emotional labor of allies. There are times when supporting another queer person of color brings up too many painful memories about my own family that I shut down. Other times, I agree to sit through a processing session with a cis man and suppress all my queasiness simply because I do not trust that his fellow dudes will say the right things to hold him accountable. To have others that I can trust step in for those moments would be a better way to deal with my anxiety than these doctor-prescribed pills. I honestly believe that this is what the movement needs. And what we all need to keep fighting this fight.


What is Emotional Labor
Below are short blurbs of what emotional labor means to me (this week). Note that emotional labor is not inherently bad, that emotional labor is necessary and required of all of us. Hopefully this list can help not only identify what is emotional labor and who does emotional labor for whom, but also provide tangible ideas on how to go about taking on emotional labor. This short list was drafted after inspiration from this article.

It might be interesting to draft your own list of emotional labor: When do you provide emotional labor to others? What does emotional labor commonly look like for you? How do you respond to receiving emotional support/labor? Name instances when you provided emotional labor without receiving in return.

  • Emotional labor is running around calculating how much everyone should pay, giving people their change, and writing their credit card numbers and amounts down on the back of the receipt to give to the waiter.
  • Emotional labor is reminding people of my gender pronoun for the 27th time, listening to people fuck up again, walking out, crying by myself, apologizing for walking out, and then smiling through their apology to assure them that yes, it’s all good because they are “trying.”
  • Emotional labor is digging through old Facebook statuses to provide stories that can explain my experience in bite-size pieces so that they can finally understand and respect me as a whole human being.
  • Emotional labor is being intentional and purposeful about pairing with more soft-spoken individuals in activities. It’s about listening actively & intently, vocalizing my affirmations. It’s about giving encouragement and emotional support to share their stories in the larger group.
  • Emotional labor is turning to my friend and sharing a knowing look when someone says something problematic (yet again for the hundredth time).
  • Emotional labor is interrupting and reminding someone that they fucked up my pronouns. And dealing with the flailing apologies that always follow.
  • Emotional labor is staying up to text a friend and check if she got home okay late at night.
  • Emotional labor is laughing at his attention-seeking antics, smiling at that man on the street, politely declining when a stranger asks if “Miss” would like to get on the bus first.
  • Emotional labor is thanking people for sharing their insights in a large group and genuinely acknowledging the bravery & energy & work that it took.
  • Emotional labor is note-taking during meetings, timekeeping to make sure the group is on track, and staying behind to clean up after everyone has left.

Read more on Emotional Labor


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