Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using – and often draining – our emotional resources.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Asking friends for advice, reaching out to people in your line of work, and other actions I’m about to mention can be part of a healthy relationship. The issue arises when it’s not reciprocal.
Many marginalized people can tell you that people frequently make demands of them that cross the line from participation in a mutual relationship to work – and unpaid work, at that. Because we’re assumed to be naturally emotionally intelligent and nurturing, people don’t always understand that this is work for us. And because we’re expected to put others before ourselves, a lot of people don’t even care.
Here are just a few of the many ways that women and femmes, in particular, are expected to perform emotional labor without compensation or acknowledgement throughout their lives:
1. We are asked to watch, entertain, or help take care of younger siblings, cousins, and other children more than men because people automatically assume we must love kids and be naturally nurturing.
2. Friends offload their problems – sometimes serious problems that we’re not equipped to handle – onto us before we have agreed to talk about them, often expecting an immediate response.
3. Casual acquaintances and sometimes complete strangers do the same, often over the Internet and often sharing triggering details.
4. Street harassers and other people who make us uncomfortable guilt us if we don’t respond to them. If we don’t say no, we’re supposedly asking for it. And if we do respond, we’re not “polite enough.”
5. People who believe we can provide them with professional gain ask to “pick our brains” with no pay or reciprocation in the name of “networking.”
6. When we have relatives or friends with physical or mental illnesses, they and their loved ones are more likely to reach out to us than men to take care of them.
7. If we are in professions that involve interactions with people, those we serve expect us to act as their therapists.
8. We are judged more harshly for lacking social skills and criticized for not being sentimental or warm, so we go to great lengths to present ourselves in a desirable manner in social interactions.
9. We are more often criticized for swearing, talking about sex, and doing other “vulgar” things men get away with, so we go to great lengths to censor ourselves.
10. If we don’t take immediately to parenthood, want to put our kids above all else, want to be the primary caretaker, or want kids in the first place, we are made to feel like something’s wrong with us.
11. We have to justify the decisions we make about our bodies, including whether or not we wear makeup, shave our body hair, get surgery, eat salad, eat ice cream, and eat pretty much anything.
12. We have to justify decisions that are perceived as threats to our safety, such as drinking, walking alone at night, or being alone with men.
13. Others expect us to justify all of our sexual decisions, whether they’re deemed “slutty” or “prudish.”
14. We’re expected to take part in “heart to hearts,” “girls’ nights,” and other emotionally intensive occasions that we may or may not have the energy for or interest in.
15. We feel pressure to feign interest in “feminine” topics like beauty and fashion even if we have no interest in them whatsoever. (Masculine-presenting people experience this, too, just for other interests like sports and cars.)
16. Our coworkers expect us to mediate conflicts, brainstorm ways to improve company culture, and perform other roles typically assigned to human resources.
17. When men explain things to us that we know as much or more about, they expect us to listen as if they are educating us in order to stroke their egos.
18. If we are dating men, people advise us to play the exhausting game of “hard to get” in order to give them the “thrill of the chase.”
19. If we are in a male-dominated profession or academic field, we feel pressure to always be perfect, lest our colleagues take our imperfections as evidence that all people like us are flawed in the same way.
20. We are judged more harshly in the workplace and in social interactions if we don’t spend time polishing our appearances.
21. We feel pressure to avoid looking or acting too “feminine” out of fear that people will judge us negatively, not take us seriously, or make assumptions about us.
22. We feel pressure to avoid looking or acting too “masculine” out of fear that people will ridicule us, deem us undesirable, or distrust our gender identity.
23. We are judged more harshly if we don’t keep our living spaces neat, succeed at cooking and other forms of homemaking, and do a great job entertaining guests.
24. When we’re hosting people from out of town, we’re expected to not just give them a couch to crash on, but also keep the fridge and pantry stocked to their liking, show them around like tour guides, provide them with comfortable living spaces, and constantly be available to them.
25. We’re expected to constantly ask questions and make observations to keep conversations going, while men often get away with waiting for others to ask questions and giving one-word answers.
26. Our significant others expect us to initiate important conversations like defining the terms of the relationship, taking stock of how the relationship is going, and addressing conflicts.
27. When we decide not to enter into a relationship, we risk being guilted for failing to reward a “nice guy” who “deserves” our affections.
28. When we end a relationship, we’re often demonized and blamed for not doing enough to maintain it, even if we devoted extensive time and energy to discussing problems and trying to make the relationship work.
29. We’re expected to provide our children and other people under our care with the majority of the emotional support and caretaking that they need.
30. We’re expected to keep the peace with our cohabitants under all conditions, facilitate bonding between us and our roommates, put up with disruptive behavior, and, if we have male roommates, do the majority of the housework.
31. When we’re survivors of sexual misconduct, people sympathize with the perpetrator to the extent that we feel bad about “hurting their reputation” due to a “misunderstanding” or “ruining their lives” for reporting a crime.
32. We’re expected to grit our teeth and put up with disrespectful and objectifying behavior from men because “boys will be boys.”
33. In the workplace, we have to worry about presenting our ideas in a non-threatening manner so that we won’t be labeled “aggressive.”
34. But we also have to worry about being assertive, not apologizing too much, and avoiding other behaviors that will get us labeled as “feminine” and consequently ineffective leaders.
35. Those of us with uteruses are expected to make regular doctors’ appointments, do research on birth control methods, and potentially undergo physical pain or remember a pill every day in order to ensure that an unwanted pregnancy doesn’t occur.
36. In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, we risk being shamed for the decision we make about it.
37. If we have children, we’re shamed for everything from how we give birth to how we feed them.
38. We’re made to worry about what we wear because there’s a chance someone will label it “slutty,” “prudish,” “boyish,” “frumpy,” or some other derogatory term used about women’s clothing.
39. When we go out, we’re encouraged to be hyper-vigilant by keeping our eyes on our drinks, keeping track of our friends, and taking out our keys before we get home in case we’re attacked.
40. During sex, we feel pressure to make artificial faces and noises and fake orgasms in order to turn our partners on and make them feel good about their sexual prowess.
41. When we speak out about sexism, we have to deal with backlash and criticism for being “bitchy,” “too sensitive,” or “the PC police.”
42. If we get angry, we risk being labeled an “angry feminist.”
43. If we show any emotion, we risk being used as evidence that women are emotional.
44. If we cry, we risk someone assuming it’s because we’re on our periods.
45. If we actually are experiencing physical or emotional health issues related to our uteruses, we risk being used as evidence that women are irrational.
46. If we ask for what we want in relationships, we risk our partners labeling us as needy.
47. Men we date often expect our full attention while they keep their options open and only devote as much time to us as they want to.
48. People frequently tell us to smile and otherwise adjust our appearance and behavior to make ourselves more pleasing to other people.
49. Men hold us responsible for explaining these problems and other manifestations of sexism and doubt us if they don’t personally observe or experience them.
50. When men try to advocate for us, even if they fail miserably and even if they hurt us in the process by promoting benevolent sexism, we’re expected to pat them on the back for their efforts and be grateful our problems are getting any attention at all.
These are just fifty of the countless ways we’re expected to exert emotional energy on a regular basis. And when that much is demanded of you, it’s impossible for it not to compromise other areas of your life.
For this reason, the emotional labor demanded of us exacerbates other problems women and femmes already face in the workplace, politics, and other realms. We can’t fight for gender equality when we have no energy to devote to it.
So, if you’re someone who people don’t typically demand a ton of emotional labor from, take it upon yourself to lighten the load of marginalized people. If you’re a man who has kids with a woman, for example, offer to take on at least half the childcare responsibilities. If you’re a white man looking to gain a better understanding of intersectional feminism, Google it before asking your woman friends of color.
The ways we’re expected to perform emotional labor are not always obvious but can have a huge impact on our lives, and any work others can take on for us improves not only our own mental health but also feminism as a movement.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.
Search our 3000+ articles!
Our online racial justice training
Used by hundreds of universities, non-profits, and businesses.
Click to learn more