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What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor refers to the work we do to keep others happy. This work is often unrecognizable. Emotional labor was first used to describe the work employees did to manage or hide their emotions in order to protect the feelings and emotions of customers (e.g., “the customer is always right!). Emotional labor manifests itself in many different situations and environments, but most commonly occurs in the contexts of work/occupation, romantic relationships, and friendships. Examples of emotional labor include: redoing someone’s work because we want to avoid hurting their feelings with feedback; being the partner who always brings up difficult conversations; or being the friend whom everyone vents to. Despite emotional labor typically going unnoticed, it is a burden shared by many people which can have negative effects on their wellbeing. 

How does emotional labor affect people?

Emotional labor is burdensome work that typically goes unnoticed due to people not realizing that this work is being done. When we consistently prioritize the comfort and happiness of others, we deprioritize ourselves and our mental health. Emotional labor can lead to excess burnout, anxiety, depression, and poor relationships with others. Certain groups of people, such as people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ people, tend to be burdened with more emotional labor than others. This because these groups are already stigmatized for their emotions (e.g., being too emotional), and they are often put in situations where they have to explain to others why their behaviors are racist, sexist, or homophobic. Moreover, this level of emotional labor contributes to the mental health disparities within these groups.

How can people combat emotional labor?

One of the first things we need to do when combating emotional labor is to recognize that we are doing it. When we are used to doing emotional labor, it can become unrecognizable even for us. Second, it is important to remember to recognize what is within our control. The reality is that no matter how hard we try, we cannot control others, and that means no amount of emotional labor can make others happy. Finally, setting boundaries with people in our lives is one of the most effective ways at mitigating emotional labor. This can be as easy as telling your friend, “I am sorry but I do not have the emotional bandwidth to listen to your vent.” You and your therapist can practice setting boundaries together. Remember, it is not selfish to prioritize your own wellbeing. 

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.