What is emotional labor? (Episode 61)

What is emotional labor? And why does it matter to you and the way you approach your responsibilities as a family caregiver, sandwich family caregiver, or parent? Once you understand what emotional labor is, you can become more intentional about sharing the load, instead of doing it all yourself.

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: What is emotional labor? (episode 61)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a life coach for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers who want to get some rest and set some boundaries. I’m not only the CEO of my own business, but I’m also a wife, a mother to two teenage young men. And I’m the primary caregiver for my own mother. I figured out how to navigate all of these responsibilities. And get into the mindset I need so that I can prioritize me. That’s what I help my clients do too. And if we can do it, I know you can do it too. That’s what this podcast is all about.

This is episode 61.

When I went to record last week, I had my two teenage boys at home with me unexpectedly. I don’t know if you’ve listened to that episode yet. That is episode 60, but today my younger son is home again, unexpectedly because the schools here were closed today because of winter weather. I’m actually recording this, uh, back in January.

It’s not going to release until early March, but it’s January. I’m feeling a little frazzled today because of that and because our internet keeps going out and I’m having to record this using a different microphone than the one I would normally use because my microphone seems to be not working or somehow having some kind of a conflict with my computer and I can’t get it to work anyway.

There’s a lot going on today, besides my usual workday. I’m also a little more tired than I usually would be. This is a Tuesday. Because my older son and my husband had very weird work schedules all weekend long. It’s very unusual for them. So at one point, our clothes dryer was running at 3:30 in the morning and that’s in my master bath closet. And it’s just been a pretty wild time.

Here’s why I’m telling you all of this. I’m not, I mean, I am whining, but I’m not really whining about my life. I want to tell you that I think this is all very appropriate because I’m preparing to give a webinar tomorrow on something that is called emotional labor.

And when kids are home unexpectedly, like mine have been, and when everybody’s schedules go haywire and nobody could get any stuff done, I have to provide additional emotional labor for everybody. And so today, instead of just having my typical workday, instead of just focusing on my work, I’m recovering some of my energy, I guess.

Yeah. I’m recovering some of my energy from all of the emotional labor over the weekend, and I’m having to provide an extra dose today for my son who’s home. What this made me think is that today is actually the perfect day for me to record this podcast episode on emotional labor. I was going to do it anyway and I just bumped it up in the queue because I thought this is the time to do it.

So it looks like today, what I’ve got for you is another explainer episode. And I know last week was too, so I hope you’ll bear with me. I just think this stuff is really important.

What is emotional labor? Here is my definition. And you are not going to find it described this way in any dictionary, you know, go look it up if you want to. And it’ll probably be similar, but this is my working definition. I say that this is using energy to take care of other people’s needs, and that can be physical needs or emotional needs. Right. Like when my family was home all weekend and my boys have been home and there is stuff they need from me that I wouldn’t typically be doing during my workday. They need help, you know, finding some things in the kitchen or maybe finding different things in the laundry room, that’s physical stuff. But then there’s also the emotional stuff when we are all stuck at home together.

And because it’s COVID, we have limited access still to people outside of regular school and regular work. You know, I do try to step up my game and provide a little more companionship than normal. That’s emotional labor too.

One thing that emotional labor is particularly useful for, I would say, is to anticipate people’s needs and do planning. Now, of course, there’s only so far that you can go with that. There’s only so much that you can do in terms of anticipating, but you know, when you’re running a household or when you are managing a warehouse or running an office, somebody has to make sure that there’s toilet paper available for all of the bathrooms. That is emotional labor. That’s that anticipatory kind of thing. And it’s useful and somebody has to do it. So that is one thing that emotional labor is actually good for.

Emotional labor though, cannot control situations. It can’t control outcomes or manage other people’s behaviors and feelings, that is not possible. Anyway, life just doesn’t work that way. We, we cannot control things in that way. If you find yourself doing emotional labor, and I think you’ll know if you’re doing it because you’ll be able to feel it, it feels cumbersome. It feels heavy, and it can feel exhausting and overwhelming, if you’re trying to use it to control other people. If that’s a place where you’re going a lot with your emotional labor, I think that’s a place where you will have an opportunity to either work on yourself or work on your relationship so that it’s not such a burden in your life.

One of the things that’s tricky about emotional labor, I think is that it’s actually a neutral thing. It’s not a bad thing. I think that’s surprising, but if you really think about it for a second, you can see that emotional labor is one of the reasons that we come together in relationships and in communities. And it’s one of the reasons that those communities are so helpful to us because we can share the burden.

And I think it’s easiest to see emotional labor as neutral when you can see it as being shared by people. And I’ll tell you that rather than looking at emotional labor as a negative thing, and it’s really easy to slip into that trap, but I don’t want to go there, I want to say that what we need so that it can be more of a neutral concept and something that’s actually really helpful to us as humans. I think what we need is more people sharing that emotional labor because when people share it, it’s healthy and it’s supportive and it pulls us together with common needs and shared experiences in communities.

Now it’s when people don’t share it or the balance of it falls too much onto one person or maybe a certain group of people, that emotional labor really kind of tilts into what I would think of as a negative place or harmful or overwhelming place.

Now there’s a part of emotional labor, and I talked about it a second ago, where this is, this is where we’re trying to manage what other people do and how other people feel. Especially things like disappointment, shame or guilt, we try to manage or maybe even out, or even relieve some of those feelings for other people. But we can also do it with emotions that we think of as quote unquote, good emotions, like happiness. We can try to manage those emotions for other people. But then that emotional labor falls into that negative or draining side of the concept, because you’re trying to do something that actually is impossible to do.

So when you’re doing emotional labor, you can sort of trick yourself into thinking that you’re being helpful or that you’re being useful and providing the service to other people by trying to manage their emotions, but it just does not work.

And there’s another trap that we can fall into when we try to manage other people with this emotional labor. And it can end up looking a lot like manipulating people. So what I have to say about this right now is we all manipulate other people at some point in our lives to some degree or other, I just think it’s a really, really human thing to do. I mean, some people do it to try to get power, that is also true. Most of the rest of us just do it because it seems like a way to deal with relationships or maybe help people out or maybe make things turn out according to the way we want them to turn out.

So, so manipulating people is actually pretty normal. I’m not saying it’s something that we want to do or that we should strive to do or aspire to do. But I, we all do it sometimes, so I just don’t want to be judgmental about it.

But I do want to tell you that as you move towards having much more mature expectations in your relationships, manipulation is probably going to become less and less appealing to you as a mature adult.

So let’s talk for just a minute here about expectations. Expecting people to anticipate needs, but without communicating expectations, is very confusing for us. And it’s also a very common for us as humans.

So let me give you an example of this. Let’s talk about making coffee at the office. If you have a new supervisor come in, who has a very particular need for the coffee area, I don’t know a special kind of creamer that they use or a special kind of sweetener that they use, but they don’t tell anyone. Nobody can anticipate that, nobody can plan for that, planning is a better word than anticipating, because I think with anticipating, we try to guess a little bit, so let’s use the word plan. Well, if someone doesn’t tell you that they have a special kind of coffee preference, you can’t plan for that. You, you cannot meet that expectation. You cannot meet that need no matter what.

And we do this a lot when we expect people to be on time or it’s important to us that they’re on time. And so we have that as an important expectation, but we don’t tell them. Or, you know, maybe you’re someone who goes to church every Sunday morning. And so you’ve never planned anything for Sunday mornings because you block out that time and then a good friend calls you and asks if you want to do something on a Sunday morning, it could be easy to get offended about that. If you haven’t set the expectation that you won’t be available on that particular morning.

So setting expectations, expressing your wants, expressing your needs is actually a very important part of emotional labor because it takes the guesswork out of it.

Let’s go back to the part I talked about earlier, where I said that emotional labor is actually a neutral concept. I mean, it really is neutral. I’m not kidding about that. I think that’s true, but it still feels like a problem. Here’s where that comes from. The problem comes from not the feeling of emotional labor, because that’s not a feeling. Emotional labor is a concept and maybe it’s an experience. I think the feeling that’s behind it comes more from imbalance, being overwhelmed because there is an imbalance in a relationship and the imbalance is the problem, because it can be very hard to ask someone to share the load with you, when that goes against everything you’ve been taught and everything you’ve learned in your life.

And I think this can be especially hard for you, if like me, you happen to be a perfectionist. And in that case, you would probably think that you’re doing it wrong if you ask for help, and as perfectionists our core fear is that we will do something wrong, or someone will think we’ve done something wrong or perceive that we have somehow done something wrong. That, that, that thought really cuts me. 

Another time it’s going to be very hard to ask someone to share the load is if you tend to be a people pleaser. And in that case, you could think that people won’t like you if you ask them to pitch in.

So, these are just two examples of times where we can really let that imbalance of emotional labor grow and grow and grow because we think it’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s what we’ve been taught or conditioned. It’s what we’ve learned to do across our lives. And that’s where it goes from becoming neutral, to becoming more of a problem and something that really is negative in our lives.

One of the places that this comes from is this ancient set of beliefs that I’ve talked a lot about across this podcast. And that is called Human Giver Syndrome. And I’m not really going to talk about it today because you can go back and listen to my other episodes on Human Giver Syndrome. But I do think that plays a big part.

Now, let me tell you about the two very best tools that I use to help reduce the amount of emotional labor that you are doing. These two tools are number one, setting boundaries. And then number two would be asking for help and receiving help. Why are these the two best things? Well, because these are things that you can do. You can initiate them. You can take action. And they help to balance the load that’s on your shoulders.

Now, another thing that I talk a lot about in past episodes, my podcast, and I I’m telling you, I will continue to talk about it in future episodes is boundaries. So I’m also not going to talk about that a lot today.

But let me take a moment here to talk about asking for help. I never talk about the concept of help as just asking for help. I always talk about it as the two separate pieces, asking for help and receiving help. They’re different skillsets. When you ask for help, there’s this kind of courage that you need to sort of drum up from deep inside of you to open your mouth or send an email and actually ask someone for help.

And that looks different for all of us, but, but I think when I even talk about, you know, having to build up the courage, everybody kind of identifies with what that looks like for you and feels like in your body.

When it comes to receiving help, there is this whole other mindset that you have to develop so that when people help you, you actually can let them help you. This is something that I see talked about a lot in forums for caregivers and parents. And what happens is you ask somebody to help and they offer, and then they start helping you and it feels terrible. And you find yourself wanting to micromanage that. Then you find yourself wanting to just do it yourself or you feel guilty?

There’s a lot of guilt about suddenly having the time to yourself. This is actually something that I work on quite a lot with my clients, but it’s a whole other mindset and it’s very different, asking for help. And we’re going to save that discussion for another time too.

Before I end today, I want to remind you, and I do say this a lot. If you are struggling with anything that I talked about today, and there are challenges that are causing you to lose sleep or, you know, they’re, they’re causing a lot of tension for you and your relationships, or maybe at work or with your family. Any kinds of challenges like these, I really want to encourage you to get help.

Now I know I just talked about how hard it is to ask for help and receive help, but I’m still, I’m still going to recommend that to you here. You can join my Boundaries Community, that is free. That is private. I have designed that to be an emotionally safe space. There’s a link for that in the show notes, or you can just go to my website and you’ll see a link for it there. And I really want to encourage you to please join me over there.

You can also get help from a professional therapist or counselor or a professional life coach like me. I do a lot of helping people get over some of the challenges or get through some of the challenges that we’ve talked about today. Or you can find a healthy and supportive community. And I like putting it that way because there are a lot of communities out there. Some of them are in person and some of them are online that I actually wouldn’t consider to be healthy and supportive. I did a podcast a while back on what it means, to have emotional safety. And if that’s not a concept that’s familiar to you, that’s what I mean, when I talk about a community being healthy and supportive or a relationship being healthy and supportive, it’s something that’s really important to me. And so I would actually advise you that if you’re looking for community to try and figure out what it is that you need from a community and what healthy and supportive actually means to you personally.

One thing that I really, really want you to know is that you don’t have to do any of this alone. You know, in the U.S., as of early 2021, we know that there were about 53 million people who identify as family caregivers. And I’m not even going to try to estimate the number of people who, who are parents and have parenting responsibilities.

So you do not have to do this alone. We all struggle with this. So go out there and find a community or get some help.

That is it for today. We made it through, I didn’t get interrupted. My new microphone worked. I’m feeling my load of emotional labor is lighter right now because I was able to get through this today.

And I know that I can go back and be with my family with a little bit less stress and a little bit lighter heart. So that’s wonderful. But I would actually love to hear what you think about this idea of emotional labor and what it means for you as a person with caregiver responsibilities. And that does include parenting.

So leave a comment wherever you’re listening to this podcast, or go on over to my Boundaries Community and leave your comment there. And we can talk about it.

If you liked this episode, you have to go check out my free community to talk about boundaries. It’s a safe space for us to do the work of making decisions about what’s okay and not okay. And communicating those decisions to the people around us. It’s not easy, but we can support each other while we do it. You’ll find the link to it in the show notes. Or you could just go there now. You’ll find it at facilitatoronfire.net slash boundaries. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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