Not My Problem: The Feminization of Emotional Labor

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about how I allocate my time and how this can and should be affected by the way that people respect or disrespect the time, energy, and expertise I put into my endeavors.  For me, this has a lot to do with emotional labor.  Emotional labor is, essentially, lending your emotional capacity to ameliorate someone else’s emotional distress or just to serve someone else’s perceived emotional needs.  This often goes without acknowledgement, compensation, etc. and it is coded as very feminine.  Women, feminine-presenting people, and people taking on traditionally feminized positions are trained from day one to offer themselves as people who are present to listen and to help, which has a lot to do with the ways gender roles are constructed in our society.  Women, and consequently feminized roles, are coded as being positions of support.  Some classic examples of this are the secretary and the nurse, which are both highly feminized professions that are considered to be support for higher up executives and doctors, respectively.  This stems from a long, deep-seeded history of conflating femininity with weakness and also conflating emotional sensitivity with weakness.

Something that has both served and hindered me is my ability to read and work myself around the affect and emotions of the people I’m interacting with.  On one hand, I believe this to be incredibly important because empathy is a necessary trait that is not valued nearly enough and, in fact, is often devalued by our society and its structure.  On the other hand, it means it is very easy for me to sacrifice what is best for me for the comfort of those around me.  And while this can be an incredibly important thing to do, it can also have damaging effects over time, particularly when its emotional toll and value are not acknowledged.  It becomes something that is expected rather than appreciated, which is a dangerous place to be.  When people expect you to be self-sacrificing, they often become angry or frustrated when you have to place you and your well-being first and treat it as though you owe them your emotional labor, which you most certainly do not.

This has manifested in my life in both my personal and professional relationships.  The personal is perhaps a more obvious manifestation than the professional – people have expected me to be there for them emotionally all the time without that being necessarily reciprocated, and that’s just not possible.  Professionally, for me, this has often taken the form of people capitalizing (non-maliciously, generally) on my desire to help make things better for the people involved in them and expecting me to always be willing to throw myself into this, which is just not feasible.  This takes an emotional toll, and because it’s not rewarded and often not even acknowledged it becomes an incredibly exhausting (and unreasonable) expectation.

Something I’m trying to internalize at the moment is that it’s sometimes important and valuable to say that something really just isn’t my problem.  There is certainly value to taking on the problems of the world and working to make the spaces you exist in better spaces and working to help spaces work better for other people, but when this comes at the expense of your ability to make your life worthwhile for you, it’s doing more harm than good.  You don’t owe it to people to fix the problems they’ve created, and you certainly don’t deserve to be blamed for not solving the problems they’ve created.  This ties back to emotional labor because the expectation that you exist to solve other people’s problems and to offer yourself up as a resource to take blame and take on work that will be emotionally taxing is a form of emotional labor.  And it’s feminized.  And it’s devalued.  And the two are decidedly related.

All this to say, you don’t owe anyone your capacity to bear an emotional burden, despite what society tells you.  You do not have to exist to bend your life around the expectations of others for you to be there to support them and to fix the things that they’ve broken.  You’re not their servant.  Emotional labor is valuable and important, but if it’s not acknowledged as such there’s a severe power disparity in the relationship that will also be refused acknowledgment.  When someone has the power to demand your time and emotional support without acknowledging its value, they have the power to essentially own a lot of your mental resources.  And that’s not ok.  And it’s especially not ok if they refuse to reciprocate by giving you access to some of their emotional resources, whether this refusal is intentional or otherwise.

I write this in large part to, as the title says, convince myself that there are some things that are just literally not my problem.  As harsh as this can sound, it’s an important thing to be said because your time and your emotional capacity are valuable and important and you do not owe them to anyone except yourself.  They are resources that you have the power to choose to give out, and it is unreasonable for anyone to demand this of you.  Don’t let your resources be devalued; don’t let your power be taken away.  In a society that devalues emotional labor and simultaneously demands it, it is an act of defiance to make a conscious decision to do what is best for you rather than what society demands from you.

For an excellent article from one of my favorite sources of feminist media, Everyday Feminism, on the concept and manifestations of emotional labor, see here.  Seriously, read everything Everyday Feminism posts.  They’re great, and I’m sure I will be continuously referencing their articles.

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