A few stories from the last few weeks:
1.) A couple of weeks ago, I spent a couple of hours (dispersed over the course of the day) on the phone with my sister, discussing career options and weighing the pros and cons of each of them with her. Over the last half of the day, between calls, I came up with a solution for a situation within my own life and business and texted her asking if she could call when she had the time; I wanted to brainstorm the idea with her. She called and was somewhat dismissive; she was in a hurry and only had a minute. I felt myself increase my pace of talking, trying to cram my breakthrough into the sixty seconds allotted. I hung up feeling frustrated and devalued. Here I’d spent a good portion of my day working through her dilemma, and when I needed the favor returned, she just didn’t have the time (nor did she make the time: in the days and weeks that followed, she never called back—”Hey, sorry I was rushed the other day. Want to go over that idea some more?”).
2.) I was talking with my boyfriend over breakfast. I was preoccupied with a couple of big work projects on my plate and having trouble feeling distant and distracted. Still, he was struggling with his own dilemma with work, so I made a deliberate effort to stop and listen and offer some encouragement. Except as I began talking, I noticed he wasn’t even listening to the support I was offering—he was playing with the dog. So I stopped talking mid-sentence. What I said was incomplete. He didn’t notice.
3.) I spent eight hours writing an essay a few weeks ago. I poured over it. I revised it a hundred times (I know because I saw the revision counter). I published it, feeling happy having completed it, only to have someone spend thirty seconds working up a response to insult it and say how much better it could have been—if only.
After the exchange with my boyfriend, I felt a little disheartened. I went to take a shower. (Sometimes that’s all you need, a little space and perspective.)
While showering, the idea of emotional labor crossed my mind and how, whenever you exert emotional effort in any way, a lot of times, you end up taking a beating as a result of it—not just in the work itself, but also in its reception (or lack thereof).
I thought about how it empties you. Which made me think of something I read some time this last year about Jesus. (The story and image is helpful, no matter your religious or spiritual beliefs.) He poured himself out every day, over and over again. His emotional labor—I reckoned as I washed my hair—must have been far greater than any I’d ever exerted, and I imagined how depleted he must have felt. (And we all know his reception and how that story turned out.) How did he keep going? I wondered. How did he fill himself back up, so that tomorrow, he could go out and be emptied once again?
The kind of person I aspire to be is one who continues to create and to give—with no expectation of anything in return. That’s hard. That’s emotional labor.
I realized I’m entitled only to the work, not its reception. The trick is in figuring out how to continually fill myself up, day in and day out, so that I don’t stop.
Because when you feel (even temporarily) like no one cares, it can be so easy and tempting to stop. But that’s the last thing we need to do.
It’s not about them and what they do—it never is; it’s about what you do.