Please Stop Misusing The Phrase “Emotional Labour”

Almost as soon as it hit the mainstream, the concept of 'emotional labour' was co-opted by exactly the wrong type of people.

emotional labour

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Every other week, the internet will approach the same issue from a different angle, and try to work out the best way for people to take on the problems of others while looking after themselves. And every other week, the internet will clutch at the same, increasingly broken concept — that of ‘emotional labour.

Once upon a time, that phrase maybe meant something. Emotional labour was what you called the unpaid work that people in positions of power — abusive partners, abusive bosses — constantly demand of those around them.

Repeatedly shouldering the problems of a person who should be sorting them out in private, and in a way that causes you undue suffering and pain? That’s ’emotional labour’. Apparently.

But already, we’ve hit upon some nuances. At what point does somebody need to take responsibility for their own problems? What if they can’t see the problems? How much are you required to help them?

Moreover, what renumeration should you be asking to perform emotional labour? Can you charge somebody else simply for listening to their problems? That sure sounds like what a therapist does — and is it ethical to take on that job when you’re not qualified?

These are difficult questions with no easy answers. And if there’s one thing that the internet can’t do, it’s solve nuanced problems. So almost as soon as it hit the mainstream, the concept of ’emotional labour’ was co-opted by exactly the wrong type of people.

These people began wielding the phrase like a bludgeon. Suddenly, the simple mechanics of friendship were being called out as though they were identical to the tasks handed out by a paid job. “Venmo me,” became an unironic catchphrase, as people demanded money from strangers over the internet for the simple act of being within digital earshot when a problem was aired.

All of this was being done under the apprehension that it helped those in need. In fact, the concept of ’emotional labour’ as it now stands is one more damaging trend in a capitalistic world full of them.

We Need To Talk

When I was 20, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For a lot of people, that first diagnosis comes with a lot of shame, and requires re-navigating social relationships in light of this New Big Thing.

That wasn’t the case with me. The diagnosis freed me. The worry I felt before attending my first psychologist appointment wasn’t that they’d give me a name for what was happening to my life. It’s that they wouldn’t.

But that wasn’t the same in the case of my drinking. I’d always used alcohol as a crutch, ever since the day of my eighteenth birthday, when I bought a crate of red wine and a pack of Marlboro Reds, and didn’t stop smoking for six years and drinking for ten.

By about 2017, I had a list of things I simply could not do without alcohol, and every day I added a couple of things to it. I knew things had to change. But I never sat down to talk to anyone about it.

I didn’t because I was ashamed. The words, “I have a drinking problem” never glide easily into a conversation. They make people uncomfortable. They make immediate demands of the other person. As soon as you tell someone a detail that personal, they have two choices: to ask a follow-up question, or to pretend that you haven’t said anything. Either option hurts. And who wants to hurt somebody?

This is the problem that ’emotional labour’ aims to solve. Of course, it doesn’t. All it does is make those necessary conversations seem like burdens — like the kind of thing that needs to be apologised for.

In a perfect world, we’d only ask people for help that we knew could help us, and only at the time those people were ready to take it on themselves. We do not live in that world. Asking for help is messy, and painful. It is also life-saving.

When I was at my most sick, I was painfully aware that the things that were troubling me required the help of others, and that asking for that help would put people in a difficult position. I wasn’t unusual in this way. It is the case with most people who are suffering. We all know that what we have to do is not easy. But we know that not doing it is worse.

‘Emotional labour’ has no scope for this. It is founded on the idea that people are wily-nily with their problems — that they will overload others at random, clinging and screaming to whoever will listen.

The opposite is true. We don’t need people who are hurting to constantly imagine that their friends and family consider them a difficult burden. We need the opposite.

Friendships Aren’t Transactions

Of course, nobody’s saying that ’emotional labour’ is a demand only created by the suffering or the mentally unwell. But bandying about that term sends every kind of person deeper into themselves. It makes the whole world appear cruel, and inhuman, and unfeeling.

That’s because it perpetuates the worst foundational myth of capitalism — that everything can be boiled down to work, and that work is synonymous with money. Emotional labour imagines that we live in a world where human interactions are founded on a tit-for-tat system — where everything is a process of equally measured transactions.

I call it a myth for a reason. Human beings are not objects with one single use. It’s just capitalism that pretends they are.

Existing in the world means taking on other people’s problems. That’s easier for some of us than it is for others. But just because asking for help can be hard, that’s not a reason to reduce kindness to a transaction. It’s not a reason to pretend that human friendship is inherently selfish; that we only like people because of what they can give us.

The world is better than emotional labour imagines it to be. People are too.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.