How Much Emotional Labor is Too Much?

A couple of years ago I spoke at a conference on The Benefits of Being a Bitch (if you haven’t seen this talk, go check it out!). We got to the Q and A portion of the event and a teacher from the audience asked:

“I feel like I’m barely holding everything together at work while trying to manage a difficult situation between the principal, students and parents. I am stressed and exhausted. I’ve decided to leave the position for my own well-being, but I can’t get over the guilt that everything will fall apart once I’m gone and that will affect the lives of the students I work with. What should I do?”

And haven’t we all been there? Feeling the duty to stay, whether it be sacrificing our mental health, physical safety, sanity and well-being. Every woman has experienced this struggle in one form or another, feeling like it’s up to us to keep the weight of the world on our shoulders.

I certainly felt this way when I was going through my divorce. I had come to believe that the most important thing I could do was prevent my then husband from harming himself. He’d made threats and I didn’t feel like I could leave him. It was only when we got into couples counseling that I felt safe leaving, knowing he would have someone to talk to in my absence.

Throughout that ordeal, I never even considered myself and what was best for me.

This is what’s known as emotional labor, the free, invisible work that is mainly done by women to manage the emotions and lives of those around us. And while we all perform some form of emotional labor from time to time, the weight of it can be deeply detrimental to our well-being, sense of worth and ability to go after our dreams.

Back to the woman who raised the question, here’s the advice I shared with her:

1. If your own cup isn’t overflowing, how do you expect to fill anyone else’s?

In other words, what use are you to the world, if you can’t even take care of your mental, emotional and physical well-being? I would argue that we need to spend less time touting the virtues of selflessness, and more time being selfish.

Yes! Take the time you need - whether that’s a night off, or not answering a call from that particularly angsty friend, not trying to be a productive powerhouse and jam fifty things onto your to-do list, asking for help, pampering yourself, resting, saying yes!, saying no!, and delegating tasks that drain you.

2. An inflated ego has many disguises, including martyrdom.

Believing that you are so important that people cannot possibly find a path forward without you is misguided. Life goes on after we leave jobs, relationships and communities. Crisis creates opportunities for growth within individuals and an organization.

You are not responsible for carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. And the truth is, you can’t do it anyhow.

How often do we, as women, try to take care of it all? How often do we fall on the sword of chores, emotional labor and pleasing others, completely forgetting about ourselves?

Let’s make February the month we learn to love ourselves up, so that we can give to others from a place of abundance.

Some ideas to fill your cup:

  • Dancing to your favorite song in the morning.

  • Belting out your favorite tunes in the car.

  • Wear something that makes you feel like a million bucks.

  • Take yourself out to your favorite restaurant.

  • Flirt! (even if you’re married, you can make it harmless fun!)

Have fun, be shameless and try something that goes beyond a mani/pedi, a glass of vino and meditation.

I’d love to hear what you do to love yourself up.

Laura Khalil is a keynote speaker, life coach and women's empowerment champion. She has spoken with audiences at Creative Mornings, Zingtrain, Consumers Energy, Ladies Get Paid, Intermitten and more. As someone who has found great comfort in comedy when the “you know what” hits the fan, she has also told comedic stories at The Detroit Women’s Comedy Festival, The Moth, RISK!, Go Comedy and through her weekly podcast, Force of Badassery.