Noticing Your Emotional Labor in… | Counseling | Therapy

Noticing Your Emotional Labor in Relationships

Noticing your emotional labor in relationships image

Emotional labor is something that we do every day, yet rarely pay attention to. Acting understanding to a demanding boss, being friendly to rude customers, and being patient with stressful kids are all examples. Though emotional labor is a necessary and beneficial skill, sometimes we can overdo it. This can leave us feeling overwhelmed, irritated, exhausted, depressed, and even resentful. To help ensure that you have a healthy balance between your feelings felt and feelings expressed, noticing your emotional labor is crucial.

How Emotional Labor Looks

With physical labor, it’s easy to tell when you’re exhausted. Your muscles ache, you feel fatigued, and you have an urge to stop doing whatever the activity is. Emotional labor isn’t much different. You can feel mentally drained, annoyed, or even resentful with too much emotional labor. Let’s look at an example for clarity.

[Tyrone is a 34-year-old, black man who works as a social worker, and part-time as a waiter. Needless to say, he works hard fulfilling the needs of others. This is especially the case for his job as a waiter. After one tiring week, Tyrone’s wife asks him to change the oil of the family car. Tyrone smiles and agrees to the politely asked request. However, he notices a strange sensation while he’s in the garage. Tyrone feels angry and irritated, but he isn’t too sure why. Unable to place his frustrations, Tyrone ignores them and continues to work on the family car.]

In this example, Tyrone seems to have overextended his emotional labor. His exhaustion and irritation stem from a pattern of constantly putting others’ feelings over his own. Once again, emotional labor is necessary for our interpersonal relationships. However, Tyrone is not giving himself time to rest. Just like with physical labor, we have to pace ourselves in order to prevent fatigue. When trying to run a long distance, do you try to sprint from beginning to end? Doing so would leave you exhausted long before reaching your goal. It’s similar with Tyrone and his emotional labor.

To curb his irritation and annoyance with changing the car’s oil, Tyrone needs to first acknowledge the other contributors to emotional labor (i.e., his demanding two jobs). Following this, Tyrone can have a conversation with his wife about what he needs before doing another activity for someone else. This could be time to relax, help with the activity, or a myriad of other options. What’s ultimately important is that he has that conversation, as opposed to setting his feelings aside and simply engaging in more emotional labor. Similar to Tyrone, there are some activities that you can do to prevent resentment and exhaustion from occurring with your partner.


Before emotional labor becomes too great, try to notice it during its infancy. Grab a computer or a pen and paper, and take two minutes completing the following sentence, “Regarding my romantic relationship, I feel…” Say whatever comes to mind; there’s no shame nor judgment involved. After you’ve made your list, look to see if there were any signs of emotional labor. Feeling exhausted, annoyed, and underappreciated are all possible examples. Next, take one of your completed statements and spend two minutes writing down causes for it. Here’s an example on how it can all look.

  • “Regarding my romantic relationship, I feel…underappreciated.”
  • “I feel underappreciated because…”
      • I give more than I receive.
      • My partner doesn’t say “thank you” a lot.
      • My partner doesn’t realize how much I sacrifice for them.
      • My partner hasn’t done anything nice for me in a while.
      • My partner rarely acknowledges my hard work.

Once again, try not to feel guilty or judgmental when doing this activity. You may not like some of things that you put down, but being aware of certain statements or feelings gives you more power to change them. Furthermore, trying to fix a small problem with your partner will always be easier than trying to fix a big one.

Final Thoughts

Similar to physical labor, emotional labor is something that we undergo every day. Unfortunately, emotional labor isn’t always as noticeable as its physical counterpart. By doing a simple check-in, you can notice and prevent small, romantic problems from becoming big.

At TCFG you can schedule directly online with a therapist. If you prefer talking to a therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have six physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.

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I am still struggling to understand what is emotional labor. Please try to explain it again:

Explaining the concept of emotional labor involves describing the process of managing and regulating emotions in various social and professional contexts. Here's a simple way to explain emotional labor:

Emotional labor is the effort and energy we put into managing our emotions to meet the expectations of certain situations or roles. It's like putting on a 'face' or adjusting how we feel to match what others expect from us. We do this to create a positive atmosphere, maintain relationships, or fulfill our responsibilities.

Here's a more detailed explanation:

Emotional labor refers to the work we do to manage our emotions, feelings, and expressions in specific situations or roles. It's not just about how we naturally feel, but also about how we present ourselves to others. For example, imagine you're having a bad day, but you need to be cheerful and helpful at work. That requires emotional labor. It involves suppressing or amplifying certain emotions to fit what's expected.

Emotional labor is common in various settings. Think about customer service jobs, where employees have to be friendly even when they're feeling tired or stressed. Or in personal relationships, when we hide our frustration to keep the peace. It's about adapting our emotions to meet social norms, organizational expectations, or the needs of others.

Emotional labor can be taxing because it asks us to manage our feelings, sometimes going against how we truly feel. It's not always bad, though. It helps maintain harmony, fosters positive interactions, and allows us to fulfill our roles effectively. However, if emotional labor becomes too overwhelming or constant, it can lead to burnout and emotional exhaustion.

There are two main types of emotional labor:

  1. Surface Acting: This involves modifying outward expressions of emotions without necessarily changing one's inner emotional state. For instance, an employee might put on a smile when dealing with customers, even if they're feeling stressed or upset.
  2. Deep Acting: In this type of emotional labor, individuals work to genuinely change their inner emotional state to match the required display. For example, a nurse might empathize with a patient to truly feel concern and compassion.

Emotional labor can have both positive and negative effects:

Positive Aspects:

  • Enhanced Relationships: Displaying appropriate emotions can build rapport and improve interactions with others.
  • Customer Satisfaction: In customer service roles, emotional labor can lead to better customer experiences and loyalty.
  • Conflict Reduction: Emotionally regulated interactions can minimize conflicts and maintain harmony.

Negative Aspects:

  • Emotional Exhaustion: Constantly managing emotions can lead to burnout and emotional fatigue.
  • Inauthenticity: Forcing emotional displays can feel inauthentic and create a sense of disconnection.
  • Stress and Strain: Emotional labor can contribute to stress and negatively impact mental well-being.
  • Misalignment: When true feelings and displayed emotions don't align, it can lead to cognitive dissonance.

Emotional labor is often associated with certain professions, such as customer service, healthcare, and hospitality. Flight attendants, nurses, customer service representatives, and teachers, for example, frequently engage in emotional labor as part of their roles.

It's important to recognize that while some degree of emotional labor is a natural part of social interactions, excessive or constant emotional labor without adequate support can lead to negative consequences. Being aware of emotional labor and finding healthy ways to manage it is crucial for maintaining well-being and authenticity in both professional and personal settings.

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