Cripping Emotional Labor: A Field Guide
During my first months of graduate school, without ever applying or asking, I was given an unpaid job: campus disability consultant and consoler. My graduate colleagues started coming to me for advice about their mental health. More than just advice, they implicitly asked for validation of their feelings and used me as a receptacle for all their deepest insecurities, frustrations, and disclosures. At first, I was proud to “help out” because I am a strong advocate for mental health awareness as part of a larger platform for disability rights. Furthermore, part of me was touched to think that others could trust me with such sensitive information. Soon “advice about mental health” amid the grind of grad school turned into 3 am text messages, pages-long emails, and in-person monologues filled with disclosures and questions such as, “How do I process my past trauma?” These other students did not know me very well and I did not know them too well either but they reached out to me because I was a known disabled person on campus. While shared bodymind experiences can indeed create certain intimacies among people, I later realized this was not the case. Due to my interest in feminist, queer, and disability studies and status as a proud crip myself, these new “friends” were “sent” to me by my colleagues, supervisors, and faculty. In a shocking twist on the concept of “graduate student solidarity,” people had made me a de facto mental health support worker without my consent.
Looking back, it is clear to me that that I was forced into performing what is called emotional labor. Generally defined, emotional labor is managing another person’s emotions and social expectations. It’s about keeping someone else’s emotional experiences and wellness in check, which typically results in the laborer’s own emotional experience being disregarded and thwarted by this lack of respect and consideration. There is no salary involved or compensation and acknowledgment, and more often than not emotional labor occurs between friends, family, colleagues, or partners. Even as emotional labor may seem like just “being a good listener,” it is work. Emotional labor is gendered, considered ‘women’s work’ and part of an ongoing history of care-taking labor where certain groups of people (e.g., women, femmes) are expected to give their energy, time, and emotional capacity to serve others.
At first, emotional laboring felt good. Never before in my life had my lived experience as a queer crip woman was the reason people wanted to talk to me rather than avoid me or look down upon me. So many asked, “But how did you get through it, and how can I get through it?” “It” being my life, one they thought was only filled with trauma and oppression that has given me magical wisdom that they desperately wanted for themselves.. I don’t have any special wisdom or advice, they just expected it due to my identities and lived experiences. Emotional labor is more than knowledge-sharing, it’s a performance and expectation of care that occurs asymmetrically. It is a reduces me to my perceived identities and drains my bodymind.
Over the years, my identification as a disabled woman has become more nuanced as more people have expected emotional labor from me and resented me when I refused to perform their expectations. Per these expectations, it is almost as if emotional labor is constitutive of disability ethos; I promote interdependence so I must want and be willing to help everyone on-demand. Disability justice emphasizes vulnerability, collective access, and interdependence as values necessary in order to survive in an ableist, classist, heteronormative white man’s world. I do believe we have to stick together but emotional labor is not collective survival. It’s an unequal power dynamic in which one party views the other as an infinite resource for emotional management.
In my case, it was not until many months later that I realized what all this work was doing to me. All these disclosures began to ferment inside me. My head felt like furnace filled with all the emotional excess that others had cast off onto me. I didn’t know how to stop— if I told them the truth and set boundaries, was I being a bad friend or a hypocritical advocate? As a proud feminist and crip, two movements devoted to care and interdependence, the bind of emotional labor is as follows: How does one provide care for others when the act of providing that care can become harmful to one’s self?
Here arises one of the utmost misconceptions about disabled women, including other marginalized groups: We are unproductive, messy, and emotionally unstable burdens of society. Yet it is us, multiply marginalized people, that are also expected to perform more emotional labor than more privileged groups (Carter 2015).
Emotional labor must be contextualized within the wider systems of power that fail to recognize what they are asking of us when they disclose so much emotionally charged information. One way to address emotional labor is by considering how systemic ableism affects more than just disabled people, but all people. Ableism is an ideological force that structures how one perceives the ability of another person as an indicator of their value. For example, when someone expects me to manage their emotional experience, it is implied that I am capable of absorbing all the trauma, wounds, and secrets they hold. I am not. And when I cannot do this, the question remains as to how my “value” to them remains or dwindles. Whether either party in an emotional labor relationship disabled or not, emotional labor thrives off the ableist assumption that bodyminds are resources to be extracted and utilized without cost or replenishment.
As easy as it may be to resent the other person, the one cosigning you to being their emotional counselor, is it vital to retain a crip ethos. In a 2017 essay, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us that:
People who need a lot of care are often told we are a “drain”—on the system, on our families or communities, and this can play out in everything from “better off dead” suicide laws targeting disabled people to parents and disabled folks feeling like we’re too “needy” to be part of movements. Everyone deserves to get the care we need.
Everyone deserves care but we cannot provide care all the time. Nobody is a drain on “the system,” unless you relying upon one person for your emotional needs. Care must always be part of a network that also holds institutions and those in power accountable for providing access to the care we need and deserve. Emotional labor is not the result of an individual, but of ableist and gendered structures and the increasingly widespread lack of accessible and affordable mental and physical health care resources.
In the remainder of this essay, I propose a “crip field guide” for managing and taking care of yourself and others when you’re confronted with emotional labor. This field guide is extension of a Twitter thread I started months ago. The thread was circulated and responded to many time, and many replies expressed gratitude that someone that acknowledge that their emotional labor is in fact labor. It is my hope that this field guide can initiate conversations and practices that seek to manage and reduce emotional labor. This field guide is a collection of tactics and observations draw from embodied experience, a tool of survival. Tactics are modes of resistance to a set of given norms. This field guide is an act of love.
Recognizing Emotional Labor
- Emotional labor and emotional support are different. To recognize support from labor, ask yourself how you feel before and after an engagement with the other person. Do you look forward to spending time with them? Is their level of contact with you overwhelming? Did they ask how you are? Do you feel valued or do you feel like you provided a service? Do their disclosures impact you long after the conversation? Friends are special and valued. Laborers are interchangeable and overworked.
- At first, it may feel good to provide emotional labor. Cutting the ties on the emotional labor relationship is more than logistically difficult, it is ridden with guilt and confusion. As earlier stated, one reason I stayed in so many emotional labor relationships was guilt. I said to myself, “How can you abandon someone who needs help? How will you live with yourself if something goes wrong?” One common fear is that a person in emotional distress may intentionally or unintentionally harm themselves.The emotional laborer is endowed with more responsibility than just caring for the other person, the person becomes responsible for another’s life. This is a major red flag to be aware of.
- Guilt is often a side effect of being consciously or unconsciously manipulated by interlocking systems of oppression that require us to be “productive” and “helpful” at all times. Do not fall for its toxicity. Let me say this again and again: Yes, you are still a good friend/person/advocate if you tell someone “no” or “I cannot.”
Managing Emotional Labor
- Emotional labor often thrives on consistency; the other person relies on you. Being “reliable” can translate into assumptions that you are available 24/7. Create a new, less constant and non-patterned rhythm of communication with the other person. Silence your phone, turn notifications “off,” or stop responding to texts and phone calls at a certain time. Your time is yours. Communication goes two ways, and you get to decide one of them. Give yourself “working hours” and make it known.
- Let’s say you no longer want to interact with the person individually but don’t know how to do this. If possible, aim for group settings and public spaces where is less likely they will confront you with emotional difficulties. Continue living your life. Nobody owns you.
- Emotional labor relationships are uneven and filled with guilt and disappointment, but the other person deserves honest communication, as do you. Tell them honestly, “I am not trained for this— I cannot help you the way that you are asking me to help you.” Even as I attest to the values and potential of the knowledge that comes from crip bodyminds, care should never come from a single source. Care is a network. Point the person toward resources that are designed to help them, within a given context. This shows that you are at your limits but that you still value them.
Preventing Emotional Labor
- Preventing emotional labor is all about setting limits. Set limits on time, means of contact, topics of discussion, actions, etc. To keep friends as friends and colleagues as colleagues, it is necessary that you say “no” or “I cannot” at times to all different types of labor requests, including emotional support. Internalized ableism and living in a capitalistic neoliberal society pressures us to be productive at all times. When people come to me with intense emotional concerns or questions outside of my knowledge base, I simply say, “I don’t think I am the right person for this.” or “How do you think I can help you?” Each is said in earnest because admitting “I cannot” has helped me to realize the limitations of what I can offer my friends and community.
- When you find yourself in the position of the emotional laborer, ask for help, early on if possible. Those are who are abused for emotional labor often end up exhausted, physically and mentally, which can lead to them expecting someone else to do emotional labor for them. Break the chain cycle of emotional labor. Create an accountability system with a friend who understands how you often overexert yourself. When they tell you that you’re doing too much for someone else, listen to them. Further, you might benefit from consulting with trained therapists, counselors, and peer mentors through free hotlines and local resources.
- To take charge of your capacity to be an emotional support resource, it is important to remember that we have limits and we too, need care. Assess your energy levels and then decide where and how you want to your energy is being utilized. Ask when you’re tired and why. What drags you down and what pick you up? Can you control any of these factors? What choices do you have on how you use your energy?
Lastly, and above all: assess your own value beyond the roles and expectations society sets for you. We must analyze when we are being valued as a person or valued as resource and recognize it’s not always either/or. Rejecting abusive emotional labor is a radical act. Breaking the cycle of emotional labor is not just about self-respect and self-care— it’s an act of dismantling ableism and capitalism.
Carter, Angela M. “Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy.” Disability Studies Quarterly 35.2 (2015). http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4652/3935
Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah. “A Modest Proposal For A Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy.” Bitch Media. N.p., 13 July 2017. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/modest-proposal-fair-trade-emotional-labor-economy/centered-disabled-femme-color-working
Amy Gaeta is an activist and Ph.D. candidate in the Literary Studies and Visual Cultures (doctoral minor) programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses on the collision of militarism, technology, and the category of the human in the 21st century. Amy arranges aspects of disability studies and feminist technoscience studies in her efforts to promote social justice and mend the gap between activism and academia.