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Burnt Out? Plug This Sneaky Energy Leak

Sisters are weary from work that isn’t acknowledged or paid. This Labor Day, let’s tally the costs of emotional labor — then boost our health-, wealth- and self- balance sheets.

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Sis, you know that feeling when you’re exhausted, not just from the day’s work, but from holding back your feelings, keeping your cool and always putting on a brave face?

Maybe you’re a flight attendant who routinely handles unruly passengers or you work in customer service and sometimes get racist comments, but you hold your tongue to avoid risking your job.

That’s emotional labor, an unseen weight we as Black women carry every single day.

When managing others’ emotions is a full-time job

You might be asking, “What’s emotional labor?” In essence, it’s the behind-the-scenes work we do managing our emotions and maintaining harmony, often at the cost of our peace. It’s smiling when we want to scream, and it’s appearing calm when inside we are boiling over.

Have you ever been followed around a store by a suspicious employee because of your race? You may have chosen not to confront the clerk to avoid escalating the situation. That’s emotional labor.

Even worse may have been a time you were passed over for a promotion given to a less qualified white colleague. Let’s say you remained professional – even as you had to train him – because you didn’t want to seem “negative” and desired to be viewed as a “team player.” Has something like this happened to you? That’s emotional labor.

The term “emotional labor” was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. In the book, she explored the ways in which employees are required to manage their emotions in accordance with organizational or occupational rules and guidelines. Her initial focus was on two groups of public-contact workers, but the concept has since been expanded and applied to other contexts, including personal relationships and daily life.

Because emotional labor is the invisible work of managing and often suppressing personal emotions for the comfort of others, it permeates every aspect of society, from workplaces to our homes. This silent toil disproportionately burdens Black women due to systemic racism, entrenched gender roles and even family situations.

Were you raised to swallow rage?

How many of us remember, as kids or teenagers, hearing our mamas or grandmothers telling us the following expressions?

“Fix your face.”

“Stop all that crying before I give you something to cry about.”

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

“If you keep making that face, it’ll get stuck like that.”

They meant well. But bless their hearts, they were making us handle a huge amount of emotional labor, stuffing our feelings so as to avoid the wrath of adults, their disapproval or even whippings.

Granted, our elders and ancestors often had good reason to be strict with us: They may have feared for our safety given the reality of racism in this country and the risks associated with even minor infractions. Black parents had to prepare their children to navigate a society that could severely punish them for being oppositional or viewed as “uppity.”

I have a friend who was raised in the U.S. by strict Nigerian parents. She told me that she learned recently, through therapy, that for her “silence was safety” while growing up, because she didn’t dare backtalk or question her father especially.

Our loved ones can also subject us to emotional labor in other ways.

You may have gone to a family function and heard a relative make colorist remarks about your light, or dark, skin tone or “jokes” about your traditional African features. If this or a similar situation feels relatable, it’s likely your feelings were hurt, but you laughed it off or didn’t speak up to avoid conflict.

All the lying made her feel like she was dying

At home, as adults, we’ve typically been raised to be the backbone, the fixer of problems and the provider of emotional support. While there’s strength and beauty in our roles, it can also leave us weary and worn out. Juggling work, kids, spouses or partners – and then somehow finding the time to care for ourselves is a monumental task.

When stresses in our personal relationships develop, the burden of emotional labor becomes even heavier.

That’s what Lisa V.* of Maplewood, New Jersey, found out when, for the longest time, she suspected her now-ex-husband of infidelity. “I had to stuff my feelings [of betrayal and hurt] for the last five years of my marriage,” Lisa recalls. “I called it living in my pretend world.”

Lisa, a mother of four, said she felt stuck and afraid, unsure of how she would make it on her own, so she initially buried her emotions and sacrificed herself in the process.

“Then one day I woke up and said I owe it to myself to release myself from this prison, because I’m slowly killing [Lisa] — who I am as a woman, friend, mother, daughter and a person who’s supposed to be making a difference in the world,” she said. “I was killing myself by lying to myself and everyone else about my situation and my feelings.”

She prayed constantly, took a leap of faith and decided to end her marriage. After a 23-year union, she divorced in 2018. Today, the 55-year-old Lisa is happy and thriving, emotionally and personally.

Getting pissed off at work; venting at home

In the professional world, we know the drill. We code-switch, handle microaggressions with grace and continually prove our worth twice over.

Maybe there was that time you received feedback from your manager that you were “too aggressive” in meetings when you were just being direct. So, you changed your communication style to avoid being labeled as an “angry Black woman.”

Then there was that instance when you overheard racially insensitive jokes made by coworkers. You didn’t speak up because you didn’t want to cause conflict or be seen as a complainer.

Situations like these force us to constantly regulate our emotions and perform emotional labor. Our emotional energy is precious. But all too often, it’s used just to survive and succeed in environments not built for us. Under such scenarios, the cost of emotional labor is too high.

Diane B* in Marietta, Georgia, knows full well what it’s like to juggle demanding work commitments, family responsibilities and other personal obligations — and feel like it’s all too much. Diane says she used to be “bitter and frustrated” feeling like she had to do it all.

Whether it was fixing mistakes made by employees, working early and overtime to meet client needs or helping others at the job navigate their personal and professional problems, Diane says she was stretched way too thin.

But Diane says she would never let loose on people at her company. “They only hear the kind, gentle, supportive side of me,” she notes. “I don’t go cussing out my employees. But I have been guilty of going off in my personal life. I’ll give you a piece of my mind in a relationship,” she admits.

Stuffing her emotions and taking her feelings out on her significant others became a pattern she repeated until one former boyfriend pointed it out to Diane and encouraged her to get therapy.

Now, she compartmentalizes her life. “It’s a tool,” she explains of the technique.

“I learned the hard way that your work life can spill over into your personal life and relationships in damaging ways,” says Diane, adding: “If you bottle up your feelings at work, you’re going to take it out somewhere.”

Reflect, reset, demand respect

We can create all the Black Girl Magic in the world, and while it’s important to stand strong, it’s just as vital to let down our guard and prioritize our well-being.

That’s what Diane has done.

One strategy she uses: simply taking time off. “Resets are really important,” says Diane.

“Anger has to have someplace to go,” she adds. “When you hold back your own emotions, you’re just going to build resentment. So you have to release it, whether that’s praying, meditating, singing, dancing, painting or something else — you have to do something with it.”

Posting on Psychology Today’s site, Tara Well, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, recalls a client in the service industry whose “cheeks hurt from smiling” at the end of the night. What helped her release, reflect and reset was a simple exercise that can be done with a cellphone. She recorded videos of herself venting about the workday for 10 minutes or so. Giving voice to pent-up emotions can provide some instant relief in the form of affirmation and self-compassion. Played back after she was feeling better, this worker’s “… videos gave her a broader perspective. Eventually, she even found humor in some of her kooky customer interactions. She learned to take it all a bit more lightly.”

Minda Harts, an advocate for women of color in the workplace and the author of Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace, suggests naming and documenting problematic behavior that forces you into emotional labor. Writing down what happened can bring clarity, offer healing, help you establish boundaries and allow you to see patterns also. It can be helpful to simply vent in a stream-of-consciousness, nonjudgmental recap — finding your own truth.

If you choose to engage with those you seek change from, you can diplomatically distill productive, rational talking points after pausing for perspective.

Harts says another way to promote our well-being is to leverage courage. She adds that we must act courageously, doing something that may frighten us, in order to disrupt the status quo or to dismantle practices, systems and ideologies that harm us.

In the workplace, Harts suggests thinking about a courageous act you can take – perhaps calling out microaggressions, confronting toxic workplace behavior or asking a supervisor for support – and then asking yourself: “Who’s going to be a beneficiary of my courage?” Are you likely to receive support in the near term, or will you be chipping away entrenched inequities in a way that may benefit others in your shoes later? This practical, choose-your-battles approach will help you get clear about what moves to make.

Those moves will undoubtedly take the form of setting boundaries — with yourself or others. “It isn’t easy to set limits, especially with the people we love. It may seem far worse to risk making someone mad than to have an uncomfortable conversation,” writes therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab in her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace. But she also observes, “People don’t know what you want. It’s your job to make it clear. Clarity saves relationships.” Learn her practical tips for setting limits here.

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