The toll of emotional labor: “You have a hierarchy of whose experience matters and whose doesn’t”

I used to have a boss who, shortly after he joined the company, informed me that my job was to be his therapist. He didn’t say it in a jokey, “Whoops, I overshared today” way. He said it often, always privately, always while venting about how difficult his own job was. I wasn’t paid extra to be his therapist. I didn’t hand off any of my other responsibilities that went with my actual job title and qualifications. Instead, I was just presumed by him to be privileged to be in his confidence.

“What is so fascinating about emotional labor,” journalist Rose Hackman tells me when I relate this story to her, “is that the perpetrators of emotional extraction are constantly forcing us to exactly be their therapists, to be their emotional containers.”

Hackman knows that it’s called “emotional labor” because it’s a full-time job. Whether it’s enduring the commands to “Smile, baby” when we walk down the street, fretting that our professional successes will threaten our partners’ egos, or being treated like the office mom instead of the office mentor, the burden of carrying around other people’s feelings extracts a high price. And though our American emotional labor force primarily runs along predictably gendered lines, as Hackman explains in her new book “Emotional Labor: The Invisible Work Shaping Our Lives and How to Claim Our Power,” the dynamics aren’t always so straightforward. At its core, emotional labor is an issue of who and what we value, in our workplaces and in our own homes.

I talked to Hackman recently about the ways in which emotional labor creates a “third shift” in the lives of millions of Americans — and why it’s beneficial for everybody not to overcome it but embrace it. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

In the book, you go into the whole etymology and the different facets of emotional labor. We hear the phrase a lot, but what does it really mean?

I would say that it is the editing work of feelings that you will do on yourself, in order to have an effect on the feelings of those around you. It’s a smile that you will give to people regardless of whether you’re feeling good inside, in order to make them feel good inside, for example. It’s something that I argue in our society is incredibly important. It’s not just important, it’s actually vital and essential to the smooth running of our families, communities, and even our economy. 

But in spite of that, in spite of this essential nature of emotional labor, it’s a form of work that we devalue, that we render invisible. It’s a form of work that is highly feminized, sometimes racialized, depending on the context. My book, obviously, is trying to make a case that we don’t need just to reckon with this devaluing and invisibility, we need to radically shift our value system to accurately reflect how valuable emotional labor is. 

Let’s start with the way that it plays out in the home. The Cut recently did a really interesting series called “It’s Over,” and had a bunch of women talking about the moment that they knew their marriages were dead. Pretty much every story was a story of emotional labor. Of course emotional labor is also there in the ways that we interact with our mothers, with our kids. But how does it affect us in the relationship sphere? 

Emotional labor is a form of work that is expected of women in all spheres of society, whether it’s private or in public. In private specifically, a woman will be expected to cater first and foremost to the emotions of her family. But if she’s in a relationship, which is what you’re talking about, she will absolutely be expected to first and foremost cater to the emotions of her partner. That can play out in different ways, where people will pretend they don’t see it playing out. For many of us who’ve been in straight relationships, I spoke to hundreds of women for this book and it’s very clear that these male partners are aware of what they’re benefiting from. It’s the double standards of men “helping out” with the kids. That framing is revealing that we expect women to do it just by virtue of being women. With all sorts of domestic chores, including care labor and emotional labor, when men do it, it’s seen as an added [value].

The way in which this dynamic plays out in intimate spheres is so interesting, because in the larger society, you really see it from a bigger scale. But when injustice comes into the home, it’s particularly upsetting. When emotional labor is unequally put on to the wife or the woman or the person who’s playing the feminine role — because emotional inequality is definitely also in same-sex relationships — you have a very clear hierarchy of whose experience matters and whose experience doesn’t. In these straight dynamics where both partners would say, “We believe in gender equality, we’re in an egalitarian relationship,” if a woman is doing all the emotional labor, fundamentally, you’re expecting her to put herself second. And fundamentally, that means she’s at the bottom of the hierarchy. And that, to me, is very upsetting. 

I get if that was the deal you were going to get in the 1950’s. But when I see people in Brooklyn in 2023 in their families playing out this exact same thing, it’s amazing to me.

You talk about the awful, no-win situation we often find ourselves in at work. It’s very difficult to play this right in the workplace, because you won’t be as successful if you don’t play that game. But there’s a toll extracted for playing that game.

My generation of millennial women, a little over ten years ago, were told that we weren’t rising up to the top of all the industries, because we weren’t leaning in enough, we weren’t being confident enough, and the problem was that we needed to stop apologizing. That’s not necessarily just what Sheryl Sandberg was telling us. Really the culture said that to us.

So a lot of us were trying to be more confident and tried to emulate our male counterparts in these white-collar industries. And we were punished for it. A woman is assertive, and she’s seen as aggressive. Or a woman speaks her mind, and she’s seen as being a bit of a problem person. She’s told to go back to catering to male egos around her, or she’s told to just soften her tone a bit. We get policed in our tone in a way that very, very, very clearly, our male counterparts are not.

That really speaks to a double standard that we find in the literature of social psychology, and organizational psychology, that has done research on this, and very clearly says that if you are a man and you want to get ahead in these white-collar industries, you need to be two things. You need to be competent, to be good at what you’re doing. And you need to be confident in displaying these attributes, so people will be inspired and want to promote you. If you’re a woman, you definitely have to do those things too. You have to be competent, to be good at your job, but you also need to be confident. Then on top of both of those displays, you’re expected to be other-oriented. You’re expected to be nurturing, you’re expected to be caring, at the same time as you’re expected to display dominant, aggressive, competitive, male-type attributes. You’re expected to dole out an extra third shift, a third layer of emotional labor that is going to basically make the other people in the room feel comfortable. 

Not only is that a total double standard, that forces us into doing a whole extra job on top of the job we’re actually being paid to do, it’s also very, very hard to pull off being on the one end extraordinarily pushy and competent, and on the other end being terribly demure and apologetic. Basically that is what we’ve been required to do. It’s a Catch-22. If you really want to think about why women do not get into the top of industries, it’s because we are expected to find this extra shift. We are actually discriminated against if we don’t do this extra form of work that’s not required of our male counterparts.

I do not think the problem is with us. I think the problem is with a system that forces this emotional labor, and then sees this as a symptom of subservience. We’re being pushed into performing the role of the support person. In an age where we’re told increasingly that we should be authentic and to bring our whole selves to work, I think the conversation about what that actually is, is totally skewed. And it’s hypocritical beyond belief.

Let’s talk about how it’s compounded if you are a woman of color, if you are a person of color. The expectation and the consequences if you do not fulfill that role, then become even even greater.

What’s fascinating about emotional labor is when you first talk to people about it, a lot of the cultural stereotypes around it are that it’s just something that women are good at. In fact, that’s not perfectly accurate. What’s accurate is that if women are better at it, it’s because we’re more accustomed to doing it. In fact, studies across neuroscience and psychology show that everyone is definitely able to perform emotional labor, which is effectively being empathetic and taking that into account as you decide how to act.

Think about a workplace, let’s say a workplace with only white men in it. The person at the bottom who has just been recruited will likely have to be performing a lot of emotional labor for their boss, and that boss will probably perform a lot of emotional labor for the CEO. There’s a level of emotional labor that’s really effectively about deference.

“Emotional labor, even if we think of it in terms of gender, is really about power.”

Whoever in a situation of the least power is expected to make the most of it. In a work context, where we have multiple different identities, that means that people will do emotional labor according to their rank. If you complicate rank with gender, women will definitely be expected to perform very specific kinds of emotional labor tied to their identity as a woman. But then if you, for example, have a black man in a situation where he might be a middle manager, he’s probably going to have to do all sorts of emotional labor within a white context, to not come across as quote unquote, “aggressive.” He’s going to have to understand ways in which his presence needs to be modulated. He has to do emotional labor in order to reassure his white counterparts who work with him. Then when you now think about Black women, that’s a whole extra form of identity.

I want to talk also about the ways in which emotional labor plays out in terms of violence, To live under this fear of violence all the time, whether it is from intimate partners, from acquaintances, or from strangers on the street, it’s work that I don’t know if everyone on the planet understands. That mental energy takes up so much space in our lives. 

The world is so incredibly violent and somehow it’s become normalized. But stop and think about the ways in which we are perpetually not just living with the consequences of a violent world, [but] we are generally, often daily, forced into preemptively avoiding violence — specifically, rape and sexual assaults. As women that means that we end up having to do not just the de-escalation, but emotional labor of preempting avoidance. That ends up having a huge effect on the ways in which we live our lives and a huge effect on the options that we have, not the economic options, but the social options. There’s just so much thought every single day that goes into effectively protecting us in a culture that won’t protect us.

I appreciated that you ask the question of “What about men?” in this book. When you talk about “the man box,” tell me about what emotional restrictions men are dealing with.

Before I started even doing this book, I was a writer with the Guardian. When I wrote articles in The Guardian and had conversations with people out in the wild, what was fascinating to me is a lot of men see the feminist fight as something that goes against concern for men. To me, that doesn’t make any sense. By cutting them off from their emotional selves, we effectively groom men into being hyper-dominant if they are to participate in the supposedly epitome of patriarchy. It’s not just violent for us, it’s extraordinarily violent for themselves.

“A world that effectively only lets one gender have emotions is harmful for all.”

Patriarchy promises us that men will be at the top. It also promises men that they can dominate certain small spheres, but it doesn’t mean they are ultimately the winners. I’ve had a lot of men who would probably consider themselves not progressive, not feminists, who say, “Well, what about the men who go to war? What about the male suicide rates?” I’m extremely concerned with that too. A world that effectively only lets one gender have emotions, and only trains one gender to step into their full emotional selves and to develop a rich emotional literacy, while also denying a full emotional landscape to another gender, is harmful for all.

The “man box” basically refers to a very restrictive emotional landscape that we teach boys that they should not have more than a very small amount of emotions. That’s going to be pretend stoicism, because that’s not real, that’s repressive. And then there is going to be the emotion of anger, which is the one emotion that reinforces the manliness as opposed to challenges it. 

I think that a world in which we address the inequality of emotional labor distribution is not going to just be good and helpful for women and girls who are going to have the load shared. We don’t need to get rid of the emotional labor, we need to spread it more evenly. But that world, where we start valuing emotions, we start valuing emotional labor, we start letting boys and men really step into the breadth and the reality of their emotional landscape, that’s going to be very, very healing to them. As we know, the average age of death in this country has been falling since 2018, which is pre-pandemic. It’s been falling mainly because of deaths of desperation, including suicide, including overdose, including alcoholism, and those are mainly deaths that are male.

I think those deaths of desperation are very clearly tied to an epidemic of loneliness, an epidemic of men who do not have strong relationships. That is something we need to address. But as we address it, we don’t need to say, “Oh, let’s worry about our boys.” We need to say, “Hey, boys and men, there’s this work that’s already been done by girls and women, you need to value that. Then you also 100% are allowed to do that too.” That will likely not just redress the injustice, it will probably be very healing.

You end the book by talking about love and power. What is that equation? What does that look like when we are pushing that rock up that hill every day to build a world that is kinder, that values the power of love for men and women and everyone in between? 

“We fictitiously are living in a world where we’re told love and power are total opposites.”

The truth is that so much of my research in this book, very clearly and in very tangible ways, points to the fact that emotional labor — love in action, empathy in action — that’s not the symbol of submissiveness. That shouldn’t be. Fundamentally, love in action is one of the most powerful healing forces out there. It’s what forges and reforges community. It’s what runs our economy. It’s also the secret to longevity.

I quote that study researchers at Harvard did starting in the mid-20th century. They followed groups of men who were Harvard undergraduates who came from socio-economic privileged backgrounds, and others were inner city teenage boys, with in theory, drastically different roads ahead of them in terms of life outcomes. What they found, having followed them well into their eighties, is the biggest predictor of how long they would end up living was not how much they were making; it was not the degree that they had. It was the strength of their relationships. It was the acts of emotional labor that they were not just benefiting from but, in theory, they were performing. It was the strength of a happy marriage, and the strength of both personal friendships and relationships. That was the highest predictor regardless of income, regardless of background. 

That tells me, the only form of value that really can be exchanged equitably, is time. That shows me that emotional labor, love in action, could not be more valuable, is way more valuable than the cash we have at the end of the ride. But we have divorced ourselves from that, because we currently live in what I call an extractive state of emotional capitalism, which forces certain groups to do emotional labor, and refuses to recognize their work or full value and meaning. Fundamentally, if we all don’t just take care of ourselves but of the entities around us, ultimately, everyone wins.

Read more

about emotional labor


Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar