A few months ago, Seth Godin wrote the following:
That’s the labor most of us do now. The work of doing what we don’t necessarily feel like doing, the work of being a professional, the work of engaging with others in a way that leads to the best long-term outcome.
The emotional labor of listening when we’d rather yell.
The emotional labor of working with someone instead of firing them.
The emotional labor of seeking out facts and insights that we don’t (yet) agree with.
The emotional labor of being prepared.
Of course it’s difficult. That’s precisely why it’s valuable. Sometimes, knowing that it’s our job—the way we create value—helps us pause a second and decide to do the difficult work.
Almost no one gets hired to eat a slice of chocolate cake.”
The email of this blog post has been sitting in my inbox since May because I needed the reminder to understand this better, and to think back on it often. I am a task-driven person who thrives on getting things checked of the list. I often want to jump through the less than pleasant emotional work and get right to the thing that is going to show my progress.
But the most important work that I do can’t be managed that way, and that’s the work of enhancing meaningful relationships.
At my paying job, I oversee the day-to-day operations of a center that supports students engaged in completing a graduation requirement. Many people who I visit with either think they don’t need the extra life experience or they don’t know how to even consider what they might like to do. I coax and defend and guide students through the process so they may find value in their experience and become even more interesting as they are entering the work force or pursuing other life goals.
But beyond that is the task of raising my kids. That’s true emotional labor, to listen to one child who is struggling to completely understand his role in the world and how shirking responsibilities carries consequences beyond what I may put in place for him. It’s emotional labor to work with another child who sets goals and aspirations that are sky-high only to realize that if she is going to achieve what she wants to achieve, there are going to be long days and hard, emotional labor that she has to work through herself. I have another child who loves to be with people, loves to engage, and who thinks if I make her do something like clean her room instead of hang out with friends, I’m clearly casting a spell of gloom upon our whole household.
There is also the emotional work of supporting a husband who is chasing his own goals and dreams. In the last few weeks, we’ve launched a new business and he’s accepted a new job. He wasn’t really looking for a new job, just threw his hat into the ring to see what would happen, and then, together, we engaged in some serious emotional labor that included prayer and intimate discussion and meditation and broader conversations.
For me, though, the most difficult emotional labor I engage in is with myself. When my mental health isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be, it takes a serious amount of labor to resist calling in sick to work and just staying in bed. As I am pursuing publication, it takes all kinds of emotional labor to not call my agent, to plead for updates, to understand that that patience I have heard others recommend, that I have even encouraged others to practice a little better is something that I struggle with. And writing isn’t the first time that I’ve been faced with my insufficient patience.
The thing that I need to remember, and maybe you need to remember too, is that emotional labor isn’t something that produces a by-product for people to see. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, that it isn’t real work, or that mastery once will be adequate.
How do you prepare yourself to engage in emotional labor? What situations in your life tend to call for this kind of work the most? Do you have any role models who do this kind of work well?