Recently a guy I went on a few dates with was going through a rough time. We were texting about it and I said “If there’s anything I can do to be supportive, please let me know.” He responded by asking me how he could accept support from me without exploiting my emotional labour. He pointed out that I, as a woman, am often expected to perform emotional labour, and that he, as a man, frequently benefits from the emotional labour of women. While he surely meant to demonstrate his knowledge of feminist issues his response annoyed me. It implicitly denied my agency in offering emotional support. It reminded me of a lot of the discourse I see floating around about emotional labour—discourse that bemoans the exploitation of emotional labour but simultaneously does not acknowledge the ways in which emotional labour is the glue that holds our communities together.
Emotional labour is a skill set. It is work that is supportive, that lifts people up and holds space when things are hard. Often invisible, emotional labour is always working behind the scenes. Foundational to emotional labour is the capacity to listen deeply without trying to fix things; to hold space for people moving through difficult feelings; to offer constructive feedback; to help people feel loved, valued, seen, and cared for. Emotional labour can look like remembering that people need to eat. It can look like making sure a space is clean and ready for work to happen. It can mean being available, showing up, holding someone’s hand, making space for someone’s pain. Sometimes emotional labour takes the form of educating others, of drawing on painful lived experiences to offer up important knowledge. Sometimes it takes the form of creating the conditions for others to speak their truth. For those of us who do emotional labour frequently, we can be very good at it without having ever articulated what it is we are actually doing. It is only when emotional labour fails to happen and things start to fall apart that we begin to notice how essential this work is.
Acknowledging the ways that emotional labour goes unseen and uncredited is important. We need to name the exploitation and devaluation of this important work. At the same time, the acknowledgement that emotional labour is frequently exploited has translated into a belief that emotional labour is inherently exploitative. As a femme who frequently performs emotional labour, both in my personal and professional life, I do not appreciate my important, needed, complex skill set being framed as something that is necessarily oppressive to me. I do not appreciate the suggestion that I am somehow being tricked into doing the hard and necessary work that is deeply important to me. This discourse devalues emotional labour.
So, instead of assuming that emotional labour is necessarily and inevitably exploitative, can we consider how we might accept emotional labour ethically?
If we can accept emotional labour ethically we can value it for the important, world-changing work that it is. We can begin to take seriously how much this labour, so often unacknowledged, actually keeps our relationships, communities, movements, and selves alive.
Is it consensual?
The first question to ask yourself is “Is it consensual?” Did the person offer? Did they offer freely and without coercion? If you guilt trip someone into providing emotional labour, it is not consensual. If you lay heavy stuff on someone without checking in to see if it’s okay first, it’s not consensual. If you assume that now is a good time to get into things without asking first, it’s not consensual. If you demand that a person with less power than you do the work of educating you, it’s not consensual. If you make ultimatums or use other manipulative tactics to secure emotional labour, it’s not consensual. If you want to know if a person is willing and able to provide emotional labour, the answer is simple: ask.
There are a number of ways you can phrase this question. The important thing is that it be framed as a genuine question, meaning, it can be replied to with yes, no, or maybe under particular circumstances. For example, a friend may say they are able to chat on the phone for fifteen minutes but not longer, or say that they are happy to give you their attention once they have finished something they are working on.
If you are asking for emotional labour from someone whose emotional labour is regularly expected or taken for granted, it is especially important to give them an out. For example, you could say “Something upsetting happened at work that I’d like to talk about. If you have the capacity to hear about it let me know, but if not I totally understand.”
Letting the person know that you have other people to turn to for support can also take the pressure off. You can say something like “Would you mind if I told you about what’s going on? I’m going to be talking to my therapist about this later this week, so no pressure.”
Consent is also about informed consent. Being specific about what kind of support you are looking for allows the person to decide whether they are able to offer it. For example you could say “I’m having a really rough week and it would be helpful to have someone just come over and sit with me. I don’t want to talk about stuff though. Does that sound like something you’re able to do? If not, no worries, I can ask around.”
It can be hard to do this work when we are in crisis, and I get that. Many of us are not getting the support we need, especially those of us who experience multiple forms of oppression. Professional support is often inaccessible or straight up harmful, so I want to stress that I am not shaming us for reaching out when we are desperate. It is important that we reach out when we need help, even if we aren’t doing so perfectly. We aren’t always in a place to carefully think through the ways we ask for support. At the same time, doing this work is an important part of respecting the labour of those who care for us. Remembering the importance of consent when seeking emotional support leads to stronger and more sustainable relationships and communities. It can be helpful to write out a list of people we can turn to for support and a list of questions we can use to ask for support, when we are not in crisis. This list can include friends, partners, family, professionals, and crisis lines. That way we can turn to this list when we need it to assist in asking for support. It can help us to remember we have options even if the people closest to us aren’t able to offer the support we need at a particular time.
Is it valued?
We all benefit from emotional labour in our daily lives, whether from the cashier who performs friendliness while actually having a terrible day or the partner who listens to us venting about our own awful workday, whether it’s the friend who always lifts us up or the Facebook friends who we bounce our ideas off of. Emotional labour comes in many forms and supports us in many ways. Yet emotional labour often remains unacknowledged for the role it plays in our lives. Part of accepting emotional labour ethically is valuing that labour by not taking it for granted, acknowledging it and naming the ways in which we are supported by it.
I had a partner who had never experienced sexual violence. This person was a member of a collective that was developing a policy on sexual violence. My partner would frequently come to me to talk about the process and get my input. As a survivor of a lot of sexual violence, I had a lot of important input that I was happy to share. What upset me was that the emotional labour of using my trauma to help my partner’s collective develop their policy was completely unacknowledged. My partner returned to the collective with lots of new and important ideas but did not credit me for them.
That is an example of doing it wrong but there are many ways to do it right. From thanking people directly for their emotional labour to describing how their emotional labour has supported us to crediting them publically, there are many ways we can show that we value their work. Each situation has its own appropriate response. Simply smiling back at a cashier and not wasting their time can be enough to show our appreciation. We can tip service workers well and consistently (not to mention the importance of not using service workers as emotional punching bags). We can credit our Facebook friends in our work by acknowledging their contributions (ask first to find out if they’d like their names used or not). We can say out loud to our friends and communities how much we benefit from the ongoing support of our partners. We can tell our partners how much we value the ongoing support of our friends. We can publically acknowledge that none of our work is created in a vacuum and thank those who have contributed to it by offering their emotional labour.
Part of accepting emotional labour ethically is giving sincere thanks and credit where credit is due. A little acknowledgment goes a long way in making people feel valued for their hard work.
Is it reciprocated?
Finally, we need to ask whether the emotional labour is reciprocated. When we are paying for emotional labour, like from a therapist or a sex worker, we are obviously not expected to provide the same level of emotional labour in return. We are offering payment in lieu of that. However we can still honour their work by sticking to agreements, respecting their time, remembering that professionals are human and can have a bad day, and treating professionals respectfully.
In relationships where we are not paying for emotional labour it is especially important to ask ourselves if the emotional labour we are given is reciprocated. Do we offer this person support? Do we listen to their problems? Do we come through in a crisis? Obviously it is impossible to be emotionally available all the time, but in reciprocal relationships we should be giving as well as receiving. If we find that we receive a lot of emotional labour from someone, it is important to reflect on whether we also provide that person with support. Do we return the favour?
If you are used to receiving a lot of emotional labour but not used to giving it, this may be an area where you need some work. Some people, due to their positions of privilege, are so used to being emotionally supported by others that they have never learned how to do this work themselves. They may be unaware that emotional labour is in fact labour, that it is a skill set.
If you are not used to providing support to people, the first thing you need to do is educate yourself on how to do that.
Part of educating ourselves on what emotional labour is and how to do it is educating ourselves on systemic oppression and how we benefit from it. An important part of learning about emotional labour is learning how those we oppress are expected to provide us with education on that oppression. A big part of reciprocity is taking on the work of educating ourselves, and this is just a beginning. From there we need to ask how we can give back to people in our lives, especially those from whose oppression we benefit, and those who are navigating multiple systems of oppression.
Reciprocity is foundational for building strong relationships and communities. If you continually lean on someone, ask yourself “Who is that person leaning on?” You can text a friend to ask them how their day was. You can listen to an acquaintance talk about something that is stressing them out. You can hold space for your partner to feel their feelings without trying to fix the situation. You can bring your lover food when they are sick.
There are many ways to offer emotional support to the people in our lives, and doing so helps those people to feel cared for and valued. Learning to perform emotional labour is an important part of accepting emotional labour ethically.
It is important to acknowledge that some of us need more care than others. Some of us, due to trauma, disability, mental health stuff, poverty, or other reasons, may not be in a position to provide as much emotional labour as we need to receive. We may go through periods where are able to provide more emotional labour or we may always need more care than we are able to give. We may be able to reciprocate care in some ways and not others. This is totally okay. We need rich networks of emotional care, so that all of us can get the care we need without being depleted. We need communities that value and perform emotional labour—communities that come through for each other. Reciprocity is a commitment to building communities where all of us are cared for and no one is left behind; it is not a one for one exchange.
Emotional labour is the invisible glue that holds our relationships, communities, movements, and selves together. It is indispensable, world-changing work. It is important to name the fact that emotional labour is frequently unacknowledged and exploited and that it is frequently demanded of particular groups of people including women, feminine/feminized people, and racialized people. At the same time, we must acknowledge that emotional labour is valuable and important. We need more of it, not less of it, and we need to share this work. Instead of backing away from emotional labour out of fear that we are being exploitative, we can ask ourselves “Is it consensual? Is it valued? Is it reciprocated?” And if we can genuinely answer yes to these questions, we can accept that labour with gratitude and respect.
In closing, I would like to thank all of thinkers, activists, artists, writers, and friends who have articulated the importance of emotional labour, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, disabled, and/or sex workers. I couldn’t have written this without a lifetime of learning from those who have come before me, and I continue to learn. Thank you.