A house of cards of emotional labour

If you borrow from tomorrow, you’ll always be broke.

The quote doesn’t quite work for non-monetary concepts like emotional labour. But if you rephrase it just a little, it fits again:

If you always borrow from tomorrow, you’ll eventually break.

The original quote is about debt, and I don’t agree with the pro-capitalist subtext, but the new version still makes the point I want to get at.

I have done so much emotional labour recently. Not just recently, although it’s been particularly much the last few weeks. Ever since my severe depression receded and I got a grasp of my new emotional capacities and mental environment, I started to be there for people a lot more than ever before. Because I was able to. Because that’s what makes a good person, to use capacities you have for other people if they need it. Because that’s the person I want to be. Not coincidentally, I started to gather more and more people around me and built an actual social circle.

Emotional labour is a fundamental part of social relationships; having less friends when you’re extremely depressed doesn’t just have to come from being less social (or being socially inept like I was), it also comes from people needing to be able to depend on you, to be able to vent to you, and if you can’t do that, even if you don’t ask emotional labour of them either, that isn’t the best groundwork for any kind of emotionally relevant relationship. I don’t regret a single time I have done emotional labour for anyone; every single occasion happened through my own free will and conscious decision, I haven’t had a single actually suicidal breakdown since the recession of my severe depression at the start of 2018, and all of my most severe breakdowns came from outside factors or being retraumatized, not from overstraining myself with being there for others too much.

What does happen is that something happens to me, that I could use support, that I need support, and that I then don’t get it. And that fucking sucks. My brain often frames it as particularly awful because I was there so often for other people, but let’s face it, if that wasn’t the case, the framing would be one of “You don’t deserve it anyway” or “Well, what did you expect”, or any other shit like that, and the reason I don’t really get support from other people in 99% of cases isn’t that they don’t want to, it’s either that I don’t ask (or don’t ask in a way that communicates what I need well) in the first place, or that they’re not able to. Neither implies any guilt from anyone, and it’s noone’s responsibility period, so that framing is a lie.

That’s not a surprise. I am still depressed. I am still suffering from my traumata; a lot from some. And emotions are never to be read 100% factually anyway. They convey needs in ways like dreams handle topics currently on your mind: Diffusely, to some degree randomly. I don’t think there’s usually much use for dream analysis, but I believe that emotion analysis must be about the need behind it, and that you should always try to figure that part out and not just listen to what they say on the surface.

Anyway. The last few weeks, I have done a particularly high amount of emotional labour. And very, very few things happened that give back some of that. What I need, what’s actually emotionally positive for me in life, is closeness. Experiences, situations of closeness with other people. Verbal affection is cool and I appreciate a lot – it’s not closeness. Game nights are awesome, I love every single one of these people and want to have these nights far more often. Meeting people is awesome, I cherish every second of these evenings and would greatly profit from more of that in my life. And neither are _close_. They’re complex, exhausting, draining social situations, which give me a lot of extremely valuable things. Like verbal affection or other social events like going out, they don’t give me the affection that loads up my batteries. The experience of being appreciated. The conviction of being a priority in someone’s mind and world. Of being relevant.

One very close person went into stationary therapy; I recommended the clinic and tried to shape the living situation and our relationship in a way that enables them to go there and get what they need as much as possible. They lived with me since April, and now, for the first time since then, I’m on my own again here. That’s starting to show, emotionally. And when we’re together, there’s usually not much closeness in there for me in the first place.

That’s a not capable of situation. I do ask. It’s just not possible.

One other close person, with whom I have a lot of emotional history (in all directions), experienced and continues to experience a traumatizing abuse situation, which isn’t even a new trauma, but full of retraumatization from past experiences where similar things already happened. I tried to be and was there as much as I could; often not the way they needed, especially if they need to vent because cis men’s horribleness often gets the best of me which is never cool for the person trying to vent about one, but I was still present and, as per feedback, helpful. Closeness, due to our history and just how we both work, is extremely loaded with associations and issues, and that person’s life is so all over the place that there’s rarely time and space to even meet at all.

That’s a not possible situation.

Another very close person, who I even met in an emotionally intense space, has another all over the place life, another horrible history with people and abuse, extreme personal trouble with closeness, physical and emotional , and is on the edge themselves so much that they might need to go the way of the first person soon. We only got back into contact a few weeks ago, but since then, I’ve already tried to do as much emotional labour as possible, not just because I was able to and they needed it, but because I want to enable them to be able to trust me more. For my sake and theirs. That’s a slow process the speed of which noone decides on, and on top of that I’m never sure about their feelings for me anyway as their reassurances feel like stereotypical “girl-cliques” who talk about each other as “girlfriends” – which is a safety mechanism caused by struggling with getting closer emotionally because of trauma, and not helped by how verbal reassurances work for me (as mentioned above).

Me asking already conveys pressure, associations, possible retraumatization and asks for an amount of emotional labour for which I can never know they even have the capacity for, so asking doesn’t seem like it would help. Of course, my isolation trauma has a field day with that assumption (which is, by the way, a way this very often goes, not just with this person). I still try to be as realistic as possible about it, and fact is that the situation is extremely complicated, their life is all over the place and the relationship between us as communicated from them isn’t one that would entail this just like that, so that’s what I’m going with.

That’s a not asking for situation – after an event of me asking, which ended up being a not possible situation, during an event where I especially would have needed, more than in most situations in my life (top 5, if not 3). That hurt so much, especially with my history of having extreme trouble asking at all in the first place, that I’m particularly not taking any chances here. For my sake, and theirs.

A person I got closer to recently struggles a lot with letting people get close emotionally and physically. I did a lot of emotional labour there just in order to get closer at all, both emotionally and physically which, obviously, they did too for themselves, to enable themselves to be able to get closer. We spent a lot of virtual time together, a lot of which was about intense topics, and while there was no specific situation of crisis, the entire interaction is pretty intense, and every personal interaction, especially on a physical basis, requires so much labour that I’m very quickly drained and the interaction itself barely works as a recharge anymore. What’s left is a social interaction I highly value and an experience I cherish. And not a recharge.

That’s a not asking for situation, because it’s not possible.

A person I would like to get closer to since I think over a year, especially after we were able to meet one time, is so extremely busy with managing their own life, which only barely works in the first place, that not even virtual contact is possible there for the most part. If it happens, it’s affectionate as much as possible and entails reassurances and hopes for a quieter time. This is pretty much a blank slate for around 3-5 people in my life at any given time with different intensities from I hope we might get into a partnership one day over I think I might highly appreciate their company over I’d like to be closer but am not sure if enough compatibility is there to we haven’t had enough contact yet for me to have any reference point. Many might have an opening soon. Maybe, we’ll see. Until then, I continue to try to do as much emotional labour for them and be a counterweight to the awfulness their life gives them as I can and am allowed to, because I can, I care about them and they need it.

That’s a not possible situation. I know they want to, and I regularly ask, as much as I think I can without making them feel bad about having to say no, just so much, hopefully, that my interest and investment stays clear. It’s just not in the cards.

Just a few days ago, I spent several hours in a voice chat elaborating on non-monogamous relationship models and healthy emotional interactions to a couple where the cis dude suffers from extreme fear of loss and personal insecurities. At least half of that was spent on him explaining his history and emotional traumata to me without ever asking if that’s okey or there being any reason for me to know. I did that labour because in that moment I could, and I think the other part of that relationship could really use it. The context was an important one which I can’t in good faith just let happen without doing something about it. After that, I was done for the day. No recharge is to be expected from this.

That last part is just to give you an example that the emotional labour I do doesn’t just happen towards people I’m close to and care about. It’s just something that _I do_. Most of these instances I rarely if ever talk about, because why would I? The content is irrelevant for everyone else (and usually so personal that I can’t elaborate on any of it anyway) and it was work I did voluntarily. Mentioning it would only be to present myself as an good person. I try to be one, but that judgement is for other people to make. I don’t want to do things just to seem a better person, be it actions themselves or talking about them. And if anyone thinks of me as one, it should be because of what they see and experience from me. Not from what I do for and with other people. Right?

With all of these instances of emotional labour, I borrow the spoons for them from tomorrow. I do labour in hopes that a recharge will happen later, that I’ll get a return eventually. Not from the people, from the universe. I continue to spend the capacities I have from not being severely depressed anymore to help those who still are, or aren’t but still need it. Of course, I spend them to take care of myself too; I have good, functioning coping mechanisms for if I feel bad, else this couldn’t work. If I notice my energy is spent, I retreat. If I say I’m not capable of doing something, it’s the truth – because if I say that I am, that must always be the truth too. Either statement can only be trusted if the other is always correct, and I need people to trust my capacity for emotional reflection. For my sake, and theirs.

But my coping mechanisms are just to deal with negative phases. I’m capable of working it out if I feel awful, have a breakdown. I’m capable of preventing that from happening due to overstraining myself mentally. These methods don’t induce emotional positivity into my life. I have hobbies and things I do to feel good about myself; I love hiking, my photography, movies, games, my plants – those are mentally positive, if that distinguishment makes sense. These things and activities are things I enjoy doing, that give me a sense of self-worth through my skill-building, purpose even, and where I genuinely feel good about myself. They don’t positively influence me emotionally in the way that makes humans social creatures by nature, they can’t, and I don’t think anyone would say I should try to find something of these categories that does.

I do all this work, all this emotional labour, and build a house of cards with the spoons I borrow from tomorrow, in hopes that a recharge will happen later. Eventually, that house of cards must crumble, if there’s too little concrete in it. (The concrete is the stability I get from the social positivity, the closeness; I can’t find a better analogy, sorry.) Two days ago, it crumbled. Not just out of thin air, but surprisingly, still within a couple of hours – emotional overstrain usually shows over longer periods of time, which makes it harder to detect. (Maybe the fact that it didn’t here is a sign that I’m still emotionally capable enough to notice such things before it’s too late.)

I needed to log off, stop being available. I went on a hike, and put my phone in airplane mode so I don’t check anymore messages. When I came back, I didn’t turn it back on. I shut down my computer and force-rebooted my laptop just so I don’t see any messages waiting for me. The next day, I turned off the notification badge on Telegram and my Mail-app and removed them from my notification screen after I deliberately looked away from it to remove all notifications that were already there without seeing their content. I kept my phone in airplane mode while I was outside at my GP’s office to get a vaccine and then at an institution where I got the results of my STD-screening (all clear). I didn’t turn it back on when I was home – instead, I watched The Imitation Game and Arrival. I didn’t only cry at the end of the latter this time, but at the beginning too, just because I knew what was going to happen. Arrival’s main actress reminds me so much of my mother.

During that day, I felt worse and worse about not responding or even reading messages or Twitter. I beat myself up for not existing just for a day because I thought, I never do that, people are gonna get worried.

I wanted people to get worried.

And then felt bad for that. And beat myself up for being so selfish. Still, I didn’t look into any messages. I had an internal debate about wether I didn’t because I allowed myself to just be by myself for a day, or because I was in such a bad place emotionally that I wasn’t able to overcome my selfishness.

I began fantasising about people on Twitter asking around if anyone knows where I am because I never don’t tweet for a day. I remembered there was an almost-suicide case two days ago which bet someone up who’s also in my timeline. I felt horrible for possibly retraumatizing them and others and turned on Wifi for a second to tweet about seeing Arrival as a sign of life. In my head, people who were worried would see that and be relieved I’m not suicidal, but still know I’m in a bad place.

Turns out, I didn’t need to be that clever. No questions or concerns on Twitter. One concern on Telegram from the person who’s the most worried about doing anything wrong and being a bad person every second of their life, who would probably ask me if I’m alright if I just forget my phone at home. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate their concern. It’s just a bad reference point for what I should reasonably expect if I try to make sure to not worry people too much.

Only feeling able to communicate being in need of something by making people worried is such a horrible trope, and yet, here we are. That’s why I’m writing this – to contextualize and fill people in. I don’t know what consequences I should draw now. I don’t want to be less there for people. I care about people and want to help them be happy best I can. I would feel like a horrible person otherwise, like a horrible friend, and as I tried to point out many times, emotional labour is not a currency. This is not about any of these specific people, it’s not about an exchange of anything. It’s me struggling with the amount of labour I expect of myself and _want_ to give in relation to the positivity, the “returns”, the affection, the reassurance, the closeness that amount requries in order to be kept up.

Doing less emotional labour for other people, being there less for people I care about very much, being less of a good person- trying less to become a good person in my eyes; these things are not a solution. Therapy (which I’m trying to get into; pending) only helps me struggle with my own issues less and have even better and more effective coping mechanisms, it doesn’t help me need that positivity less, that closeness; I don’t think I’m a particularly clingy person. What is then?

2 thoughts on “A house of cards of emotional labour

  1. Here I am, reading this text (or rather having read it). I was looking for words of peace, comfort, emotional intelligence which i knew you are capable of. Me having some more or less unreasonable fears and a lot of stress at the moment.
    I am most probable not able to ever give you any kind of physical closeness (meanwhile this issue of yours might even have resolved itself), but i want to thank you for sharing your thoughts. I may not even able to help you here, but i had a slightly similar situation for the past few months – not with the lack of closeness (which i know can be extremely hard to deal with), rather with doing a lot of things for more people than usual and doing them without wanting anything in return. I felt sometimes that it was exhausting, so i saw a line that perfectly fit my situation (and maybe yours too, even though i think you already know this) “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”
    I don’t know if you should hope for the universe to give you something ‘in return’ or rather use some of your energy, simultaneously to doing the emotional labour you want to do, to create some /possible/ situations with other people and enjoy actually happening closeness. But what i mean is: don’t only offer your help and emotional labour to others but also use your time and energy to care for your own needs.

    I have someone close to me and can help others without wanting something from anyone, not even the universe, cuz i feel happy with what i have. Still it’s sometimes exhausting and i need to take more time off to relax and care for myself by maybe spending time with my family or doing sports. That way i can also reduce my fears, i know but there’s a big Schweinehund of lazyness here ;)


    1. “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” That’s fucking smart, thank you.


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