“At its most basic level, all of this emotional labour is saying to another human being “you matter. I will take my time to show you that you matter.” ― Emotional Labor: The MetaFilter Thread Condensed
Emotional labor is an interesting concept, although you may know it better as the phrase “labor of love”. That phrase tends to be applied to something that feeds your passions or gives back to you in some way, whereas emotional labor is the flip side of the coin; the side of love (deep caring) that often depletes. Here’s an illustration of how this happens; ever masked or hidden your feelings about another person (or a decision) at work because you cared about how it would make someone else feel, or how others might perceive you if you gave voice to your thoughts? This level of self-management is emotional labor. Sometimes we use this for good purpose at work (holding back an unhelpful opinion) and sometimes we hide behind it because we feel too vulnerable or it is unsafe to bring up (career limiting move).
Arlie Hochschild defines emotional labor as the way we hide or mask our own emotions to present “a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace”. Emotional labor is exhausting when ever-present, causing us to unwittingly create a double-life; being one person in our personal lives and another one at work (or within parts of our work). That toggle can feel inauthentic and usually points to an unhealthy compromise of values or principles. This gap can be difficult to live with long-term, causing frustration, self-loathing and other negative outcomes, even impacts to health and well-being. Of course from time to time at work we all experience moments when it is best to keep our opinion to ourselves (I’d like to think even Mother Theresa mentally rolled her eyes every once in awhile), but having no freedom to professionally voice concerns, provide opposing views or bring up new ideas in your work is depleting. When this circumstance exists because you are unsure about what is the best approach; too afraid to even check if this would be career limiting or you doubt how skillfully you could navigate a vulnerable conversation, you end up with unmet needs.
Everyone has felt the pinch of needing to do something that scares him or her, to act on good and moral purpose. What stands in the way of having vulnerable and difficult conversations is the cost of the emotional labor they require. “No real conversation can ever occur without some vulnerability. We often close the conversation by forcing ourselves to make a premature and sometimes absurd choice between our self preservation and having a proper conversation, even when there is no real threat to our person.” (David Whyte, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship). It points to the need to get very honest with yourself and see what is being called for; continue to remain inauthentic and silent, or take the time needed to figure out how best to approach the conversation(s) that would clarify or alleviate your gap in authenticity and address what you need at work. A good starting point is to think about what it is you share with this other person. Emotional labor is based on deep caring (yours and others), and if you reflect objectively and with compassion on the other person, there is likely something you share with her or him that deeply matters to both of you. Start there, and then determine how best you could approach this person from a place of shared meaning, allowing you to be both authentic and empathetic in your approach, open to an exchange of ideas and options to build both your relationship and a better outcome. This takes practice, but is well worth the investment as emotional labor pays off over time.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.