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  • Writer's pictureRai Cantisano

emotional labor

when soothing others is your full time job and you are not charging for it.

labor (merriam-webster definition) noun

la·​bor ˈlā-bər

a: expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult or compulsory

b: (...) human activity that provides the goods or services in an economy

emotion (merriam-webster definition) noun emo·​tion i-ˈmō-shən a: a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body b: a state of feeling

feeling tired lately? have you considered the amount of fucking work you've been doing to predict, manage, soothe and appease the emotions and nervous systems of people you're in relationship with? no? let me show it to you.

imagine your life is a pool. you are taking exquisite care of yourself, measuring the water for chlorine levels, scooping residues that have come in with the wind, making sure working hours stay enforced and that you are providing a safe, fun, gorgeous space for those around you.

now imagine someone who claims to want to be in support of pool maintenance. a relationship in your pool-life, if you will. every time they come over to the pool they are anxious. they have just had a thought about you drowning and they want to make sure you are safe. they barge into the pool, off hours and expect to see you there. when they can't find you, they ignore the sign that says "NO SWIMMING TODAY" and jump into the water, covered in oils to "make sure the conditions are safe for swimming", and that the water isn't too deep that you should drown, ruining the perfect pH balance you've cultivated. you come up to the pool to see that the water is now green. rid of the sticky-ness on their skin, they feel better. they shout "hey, look, i helped! i made sure it is safe here!". you feel angry at the hours of work you have lost and point out the mess you are going to need to clean up. when you ask please come during pool hours, or please clean yourself up before entering my pool they cry: "i did this for you", "this was only because i love you, to help you out, you could be drowning!". they do that often. to them, it feels more important to imagine they are helping than to actually help by, perhaps, respecting your stated boundaries. to maintain this person in your life, you will have to swallow the hours of extra labor it'll take to re-establish the pool's conditions every time they disregard the boundaries (to me, in real life, that looks like doing yoga, breathing, talking to my therapist, getting supported by friends, or a cry session).

those extra hours are what i call emotional labor. it happens in relationships where people aren't responsible for what they are bringing into the pool.

i've learned this the hard way. in the culture i grew up in, it was expected that family members manage each others emotions all the time (aka, clean themselves in each other's pools). depending on where you fell on the power structures that be (children<adults, women<men, poor<wealthy) you were responsible for bringing the least disturbance to other's nervous systems (our nervous system the part of us that creates the ability to respond X react, fight or flight X make conscious decisions - our heart rate, our thought and emotion processing). like making sure my pool didn't ruffle any feathers. not only did i have to spend hours (try years in therapy) cleaning up emotions (the oils in my pool) that were projected onto me (brought into my pool without consent, outside of functioning hours), sometimes while they were still swimming in it, i also learned to curate the way i expressed myself, what parts of me i chose to share and the choices i made (my pool hours, preferences) to be the less likely to disturb the emotions of those near me. in some relationships, that required having a pool that ran 24/7, all seasons of the year, even in the dead of winter. or having pool signs that always took into consideration the emotions of those coming in instead of my own. my pool signs would read "would you please find it in your heart, at your earliest convenience to please find another place to swim in this off hour moment, please?", rather than a truthful "get the hell out of my pool i am feeling overwhelmed".

obviously, that was detrimental to the life experience i want to have as pool manager and human being.

i want to be responsible for the emotions i am bringing to this post. i am, by no means, in a totally neutral space, as i'm going through some real reckoning with people who have (for what feels like forever) disregarded my pool hours. i am tired. i am angry. i feel righteous. and it is my goddamn pool getting shat on, again.

still, i wanted to come in here and remind us of a few things:

  • it is not our job to clean people up before they enter our pool. if you do, make sure to be receiving a nice paycheck, like most therapists.

  • it is not our job to add hours of tending to our garden (pool) because someone insists on stomping on it in the name of love.

  • no relationship status is an enter-at-all-hours card. if people want to contribute to the wellbeing of our pool-life, they will understand that.

  • when people in our life don't understand our boundaries, our job is not to explain it to them. they can be responsible for their own learning and closure.

  • feeling guilty for turning someone down from the pool is normal. and we don't need (or want) to be in relationships out of guilt, do we?

  • we are not wrong for wanting peace. we are not wrong for wanting peace. we. are. not. wrong. for. wanting. peace.

  • enforcing our pool boundaries is, perhaps, the one way to assure we don't end up disrespecting someone else's pool boundaries.

  • it is our goddamn pool. we do not have to justify how it looks or how we want it to look. consider uninviting people who invalidate that or how we feel about it. some people's lives will look more like a ski lodge, or a jungle. if you want the pool, stick to the damn pool.

and last but not least... imagine what we could do with all the energy we'll regain if people who are around actually take the time to clean up before entering our waters. putting down doing emotional labor for others frees up space to labor towards our dreams. our hopes. building our lives and our planet. time and space and the bandwidth to create.

i don't know about y'all, but the pool party i am envisioning is definitely worth ruffling feathers and saying NO for.

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