There are a plethora of emotional and psychological layers in relationships. Some are closer to the surface, such as what's tangible and the more explicit attitudes, behaviors and actions while other layers are more submerged, which include deeper nuances like thoughts, beliefs, values and unconscious drives. It's no wonder misunderstandings and inaccurate assumptions can easily occur as a result of some of our underlying feelings and expectations.
Allow me to give you an example to better demonstrate the central focus of my point here. Let's say you're organising a birthday party for one of your family members. It could be that you're often the person who remembers details about people's lives and special occasions, frequently taking the initiative to plan or coordinate fun activities and get-togethers. You run around for days, agonising over all the details for this festivity, ordering just the right cake, decorations, food, music and deciding on the perfect guest list. By the time the party starts, you're exhausted and frazzled not only because of all the time and effort you invested on this project, but the sudden realisation that not only do most people not show much appreciation but they are largely oblivious to the delightful details that have contributed to the success of the event.
So there's the practical effort (manual labour) that needs to be considered and then there's the emotional labour, or as Judith Shulevitz calls it 'worry work', which is far more tiring, unpaid, often resulting in unrealistic expectations and is rarely rewarded or recognised. This is the psychological sweat that goes into what we do, which goes unnoticed because it's entirely an internal struggle.
Dr. Judith Mohring from the Priory Wellbeing Center explains, 'Emotional labour is what therapists would call "holding someone in mind." It's at it's most potent within the parental bond but it is thinking about other people and what their needs might be.'
Research has found that women are much more likely to suffer from this than men. Does that surprise you? Of course not. Most of my female friends are afflicted by this preoccupation with what they could have done better or what needs to be done for others. Mohring says one of the reasons for this may be that women are culturally expected to be the care providers and nurturers and therefore they're constantly thinking of ways to do so. The outcome may be that a handful of actions are implemented and even less number appreciated or reciprocated.
A significant concern associated with emotional or psychological labour is that we think more than we do, creating a feeling that we've actually done more for someone because of the cognitive preoccupation. This may result in unfair expectations and/or resentment since the other person isn't aware of all the underlying mental work that has been exerted.
Caring for others is a beautiful trait so we don't want to resign from the multitude of thoughtful acts we engage in but we don't want to feel overloaded and burnt-out by them either.
Here are a few strategies we could start using to try and better manage our emotional labour.
• The same kind of mental energy and exertion can't be used for lots of people so try and be more selective by choosing those who demonstrate a similar level of care and concern as well as actively recognise your efforts.
• Think about where this emotional labour has come from? Is it because you need to seek the approval of others or assume it's expected of you? Is it a parental or cultural expectation? Do you have an inability to say no? Are you modelling the behaviour of another because you admire or respect them? Does it bring more controllability and predictability into your life?
• Make a list of the most common acts of labour, such as regularly keeping in touch with family and friends around the world, being the one to buy flowers or chocolate when visiting people, sending thank you notes, choosing and buying souvenirs, planning meals at home, or selecting birthday gifts.
• Consider the ways each of these acts serve or enslave you. Do the costs outweigh the benefits? Could you cut any of them out? Could you delegate any to family? Do the receivers appreciate and reciprocate or is it just one way? Have you ever communicated your internal insights with them or are they clueless to it?
• Give a value from 1-5 to each of them. Retain what you value most, reduce or delegate the lower level practices.
In a few days, one of our good friends is coming to stay with us for a week. Instead of over planning every last detail in my head about the flower arrangement in her room, special sheets, customised grocery items and step by step itinerary of what to do and where to go, I decided to make a list of what I can do in laying the groundwork without it taking away from my other responsibilities, and let the rest of the preparations flow into place, as the week unfolds.
Easy enough, right? I'll let you know just as soon as I roll back and put away the red carpet.