Emotional Labor, Entrepreneurship, and My Breakdown

My mom was a seamstress while I was growing up. She started working at her sewing machine in the wee hours of the morning, paused to help my brother and me get ready for school, and then welcomed a steady stream of customers into the house for fittings and pickups. She sewed for Harrisburg’s elite as one of the only games in our not-so-small town.

She was extremely skilled at all the usual tailoring and mending. And, when pressed, conjured her magic for more unusual requests, too. It should be said that my brother and I always had the most elaborate custom Halloween costumes in elementary school.

But my mom was also skilled at the task of making people feel comfortable and cared for. Clothing is so personal, and getting things tailored can lay your insecurities bare. She’d carefully explain the process and reassure people that they looked great. She’d accommodate their unusual requests and offer firm guidance when she felt they weren’t seeing things as she did. She listened when they needed someone to talk to. She often referred to it as her ministry—not proselytizing, just being there, listening, caring.

This article is also available as Episode 371 of What Works.
Click here to listen on your favorite podcast player.

Her manner kept customers coming back over and over again. It also made them send their friends her way. She never made much money—but business was always booming. She’d work 10-12 hours a day to keep up, bringing her hand-mending to my softball and basketball games in order to keep working while also offering her steady support.

She sewed for doctors, lawyers, and architects. She tailored the suits and skirts of business owners, therapists, and executive directors. The people she welcomed into the house had more education than she had, more money in their bank accounts, and more square feet in their houses. It would be easy to mistake their material abundance and credentials for being signs of higher skill, more talent, more value to society.

But my mom was indispensable to her customers. They might have a law degree or an MBA, she had the ability to navigate their insecurities while making sure they looked their best every time they went into a meeting. Her skill was sewing, but a big part of her labor was emotional.

There’s a giftedness in every occupation.

Krista Tippett, On Being

Some kinds of work pay better than others. But we can’t measure skill by someone’s wage. We can’t even measure value by someone’s wage. The value my mom provided to her customers was immense, even if her earnings were small. I heard Krista Tippett say once, “there’s a giftedness in every occupation.” And I wholeheartedly agree. Many of the gifts that are put to work the labor of people like my mom, like daughter’s middle school teachers, and the flight attendant who brings me ginger ale or a beer, are gifts that don’t traditionally pay well. We feel entitled to those gifts, rather than grateful for the care that goes into using them. When I say “we” here, I mean our culture—not you or me personally. These gifts? They can all fall into the category of emotional labor.

There is giftedness in every occupation—and one of the most in-demand gifts today is emotional management.

The ability to make someone feel at ease while they navigate medical bureaucracy. The skill of laughing off crude remarks while serving the happy hour crowd drinks. The gift of being able to mold your personality into exactly what a large audience of people want your personality to be. As more and more of the work available is located in the service and hospitality industry, the care industry, and the knowledge industry, the more emotional management is a non-negotiable skill of the 21st-century economy.

Emotional management is a non-negotiable skill of the 21st-century economy.

So today, I want to explore the question: What is emotional labor?

And what role does it play in the lives of entrepreneurs? And how do we build businesses that respect our individual skill and capacity for emotional labor?

“Emotional labor” is a term first used by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1983. Her book, The Managed Heart, defines it like this:

Emotional labor “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others—in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.”

Hochschild makes the important point that we all do emotional work on a daily basis, or at least any time we’re interacting with other people. We empathize, we match tone, we shift our own emotions around to be a good friend or conversation partner. It’s not inauthentic; it’s how we connect. Often, the only time we are present with our own emotional state is when we have the time, space, and safety to drop into it. Meditation. Journaling. Maybe therapy or when we call up a friend to vent. So yes, emotional work is part of daily human existence.

Hochschild says that emotional work becomes emotional labor when it’s a job requirement. In other words, things like “cheerful” customer service or “calm” presentation in heated situations are emotional labor when they’re an expectation of your job.

This essay is about my own personal experience of emotional labor & entrepreneurship as a white, straight, cis, autistic woman. For more on the subject from other points of view, check out these resources:

This is fine and good. No one wants to live in a world where no one is considering others’ feelings, where stepping into a store or office could be stepping into hostile territory. But what Hochschild noticed was that, while it was reasonable to perform emotional labor, the people performing that labor were not properly compensated for the toll that work would take on their mental health or sense of self. Further, they weren’t afforded the rest or care that they needed to recover from this extra layer of labor. And in the case of the flight attendants she studied, they were trained how to ignore hostility and abuse and put the needs of passengers above their own needs.

I’m no stranger to this kind of emotional labor.

Before starting a business, I was only ever employed in retail or coffee shops. Walking through the door of the store brought on a visceral shift in outward personality. I would instantly transform from sad, bored, or apathetic into focused, cheerful, and accommodating. I knew that it was my job to take on a hostile customer and save a team member from verbal abuse, doing my best to make the customer feel better. And then following up with the employee, hopefully, and making sure they were alright, too. It was my job to remember all of the regulars and their favorite latte recipe—and you might be surprised at the huffs and puffs you can receive if you misremember someone’s usual order.

While I was managing at the local Borders bookstore, the hour each week I most looked forward to was the managers’ meeting we had in the GM’s office. An office with a big heavy door. The three managers would go into that little, dark room, and let it all go. Yes, we got work done during that time, too. But it was an opportunity to lay down our emotional burdens and just focus on our own limited set of needs for a bit. I cried in that office more times than I’d like to admit.

I left that work when my daughter was born. And despite the sleepless nights and lack of confidence as a new mom, I don’t think I can overstate the bliss and calm I felt during the time when I only needed to think of her needs and my needs. Emotional work, yes—but far more manageable than the emotional labor of managing a team of 40, dealing with unpredictable customers, and navigating the pettiness of the corporate hierarchy.

Starting my business gave me a way to create some separation from others’ emotional states and my work.

And honestly, that’s a big part of why I love the internet so much, and why I was so attracted to earning a living online. Before there were Facebook Lives or Instagram Lives or LinkedIn Lives, there was the delightfully asynchronous world of blogging, online communities, and early social media. Emotional labor still existed—but the pace of it was much, much slower. I could express deep care for people and give myself the space and time needed to process how to do that. Since my earliest days on the internet, it’s given me a way to connect with people without the immediacy of trying to navigate a social situation.

I can’t tell you how freeing that’s been as an autistic person who takes longer to process social cues and experiences verbal processing delays. Because I’ve learned to be so cautious and intentional in any social interaction for fear of missing a cue, emotional work is with me any time I’m interacting with someone else—including my husband and my therapist. Over the summer, I told some friends that what many people don’t understand about how I interact with others is that there are only two kinds of people in my world: me and everyone else. If I’m interacting with anyone in that second group, it takes a considerable amount of effort.

Interacting with people puts me instantly on edge. Last week I stood in the express line at Whole Foods with a 6-pack of low-calorie IPA and two blocks of tofu. I waited in line anxiously trying to figure out if I was going to get the extremely lovely but very chatty cashier. It really looked like I was going to get off easy. “Okay, that cashier is wrapping up so the next person in the line will go there. Which means the person in front of me will go to the chatty one, and I’ll get the other cashier…” But my calculations were off. Mr. Chatty called me over. He was moving fast that day but still took a second to joke with me about not eating all my tofu at once. Truly, this man is lovely but he makes me so nervous. Will I hear him correctly? Will I be able to laugh properly when he makes a joke? Can I brighten his day a bit? And will it wreck me if I make the attempt?

Interacting with people puts me instantly on edge.

It’s not just relative strangers, not “simple” agoraphobia or social anxiety. My husband often asks me if he makes me nervous while we’re both in the kitchen. Yes, I say, you make me nervous. Crowds make me nervous and solo conversations and meetings and parties and group dinners. I’m on high alert—for what exactly? I’m not entirely sure. Autistic writer Katherine May explains it as electricity, like a prickly energy emanating from others. That’s as good a description as I can imagine.

And that brings me back to emotional labor and our businesses.

Running a business inevitably involves dealing with people.

And dealing with people inevitably requires some form of emotional management. Sometimes, that emotional management is just the basics of being a decent human being who cares about other human beings. For most people, that doesn’t take much work. But other times, that emotional management becomes emotional labor. Any education, coaching, or consulting work requires emotional labor. It’s part of the job description. Your job is to consider your customers’ experience, hold space for clients, or guide other entrepreneurs through tough situations. Maybe you knew this before you got into that line of work. But most people don’t. They enjoy teaching, coaching, or consulting—but they aren’t cognizant of the toll it might take on them over time.

We all have different capacities for emotional labor.

You might have the capacity to support 4 or 5 coaching clients during the day and then have energy to devote to your kids or partner in the evening. Or, you might know that you need regular time away from working with clients to recharge your emotional labor batteries. My capacity for emotional labor—or really, emotional work generally—is extremely low. While I certainly won’t speak for all autistic people, this is probably the place where my own set of autistic traits has the biggest negative impact on my life. My limited capacity puts real limits on the ways I can express my work in the world without draining myself dry.

As I mentioned, teaching, coaching, and consulting folks know their work requires emotional labor—even if they don’t call it that. They know what it’s like to shift gears before a session or read between the lines of an email. But what I’ve noticed recently is how much emotional labor has become required for marketing—content marketing, social media marketing, email marketing. Earlier, I mentioned that online marketing has become much more synchronous than it used to be. Today, the expectation is that we’re always accessible, always live or about to go live, or always replying to comments. And that expectation overwhelms many of us.

Today, the expectation is that we’re always accessible, always live or about to go live, or always replying to comments.

One business influencer who specializes in Instagram recently shared a tip for video: “Be bold and let your personality shine. Don’t forget: your authenticity is your superpower!” That is emotional labor. When you use a core piece of who you are—your personality, your emotions, your talent for showing people who you are (or who you hope to be)—you’re working. It might feel like an easier way to earn a living than working on power lines or mining coal. But over time, it takes a toll. Using your personality and emotions for commercial purposes is hard work—especially when you’re also thinking about the perfect message to hook the viewer or creating relatable & shareable content, all in less than 15 seconds—all things this influencer also recommended. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the sentiment to lean into your personality, but we can’t ignore the fact that using our personalities and quote-unquote authenticity for marketing purposes is a form of labor that few of us are suited to. It’s exhausting, and seeing your self—your identity—as leverage for financial gain will, over time, change the way you relate to yourself.

This article is also available as Episode 371 of What Works.
Click here to listen on your favorite podcast player.

I can remember the early days of social media when we were just so thrilled to be in the same digital room as people from all over the world. And I can remember just how optimistic most of us were about the opportunity to bring people together, to share our passions with them, to listen to what they needed and supply it. In many ways, I’m still optimistic about this—listen to my interview with Gina Bianchini from Mighty Networks for why. But I also think we’ve been naive about how this kind of work will impact us—our health, our relationships, and our families. Take this sentence from Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s book, Impact Equation:

“Once you see what emotion you are able to create and what emotion your audience tends to respond to, it’s time to create smart content around those feelings and wrap smart ideas around them.”

Now, back in 2012 when this book was published, I highlighted that sentence. And not ironically. I do still think that tapping into emotion is key in any kind of creative project—be it an Instagram post or a podcast episode or a painting. But today, I read this sentence as deeply troubling. Brogan and Smith were genuinely laying out what they’d learned about attracting an audience online and doing so in good faith. Yet it’s ideas like this one that have made our online interactions so fraught, even self-alienating. When we’re representing ourselves, our “personal brands,” with content designed for other people’s emotions, how could that be anything other than harmful to how we relate to ourselves?

When we’re representing ourselves, our “personal brands,” with content designed for other people’s emotions, how could that be anything other than harmful to how we relate to ourselves?

In fact, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan believed that any technological innovation or medium was an extension of ourselves. Meaning that we develop these tools as a way of making easier, faster, or better work of something we were already doing in the first place. For instance, you and I can have a conversation at a coffee shop somewhere. Or, we can have that conversation through letters. Or the phone. Or email. Or Zoom. We can also have a conversation via Instagram or LinkedIn. And now I’m not just talking to you, I’m talking to thousands of people all at once. Social media isn’t an extension of “the media” or broadcast technology—it’s an extension of you, your social self, out into the world. Anyone can talk back to you. Anyone can reach you at any time. Anyone can slide into your DMs to cheer you on, complain, or call you out. We create the message—and the medium recreates us.

If social media is part of your job, then using social media brings with it the potential for 24/7 emotional labor. You start to see the world as constantly needing you to feel something you might not be feeling, to present yourself in a way you don’t have the energy to present. Sometimes it feels easy and natural, sure. But other times, it’s just too much. Too easy to loose yourself in the medium.

When I started seeing my therapist last spring, I told her that I wanted to work on my sense of self. I had realized that I lacked an understanding of who I was. I knew myself by who had access to me and what I needed from me. My internal landscape lacked structure, texture, and color. Then, as my mental health took a nosedive, I got a frightening glimpse of this fuzziness in action. Sometime in early August, I sat in front of the computer waiting for a client to enter the Zoom room. I’d been in tears just moments before, feeling like I just couldn’t go on. When the client arrived, I let out my usual “Hey! How are you?!” I didn’t recognize the sound of my own voice. I didn’t feel like the person who looked like me on the Zoom screen was me. It was an acute experience of dissociation, almost an out-of-body experience. And it happened repeatedly through the end of 2021.

I knew that, clinically, one could call that an experience of depersonalization. But my lived experience of it was frightening and deeply confusing. I knew that I was at the end of the line and I needed to figure out what was really going on. A line from The Managed Heart helped me finally point words to this jarring experience. Hochschild writes:

“Beneath the difference between physical and emotional labor there lies a similarity in the possible cost of doing the work: the worker can become estranged or alienated from an aspect of self—either the body or the margins of the soul—that is used to do the work.”

Estranged or alienated from an aspect of self. Yes, that’s the nature of what my work had created in my mind. The feeling that the person in the webcam isn’t me. The sense that my own emotional state has receded so far back into the dark corners of my mind that it’s no longer accessible to my conscious.

To be clear, there wasn’t anyone asking for more than they should. The way I’d structured my business and relationships meant that I was on the hook for a lot of people’s questions and needs. The reasonable needs of my audience, customers, and team members had stretched my capacity for emotional labor so far that I broke. I cried a lot, or at least a lot for me. I ate the same thing for dinner every night because I didn’t have the capacity to make decisions. My throat would start to close up before meetings, and it physically hurt to talk. I googled, “What is a nervous breakdown?”

The reasonable needs of my audience, customers, and team members had stretched my capacity for emotional labor so far that I broke.

Of course, the demands for emotional labor on just about anyone providing support, services, or care of any kind dramatically increased with the onset of the pandemic.

We were all fragile, scared, and anxious about the future. Many of us still are. Business owners who didn’t have much responsibility for managing emotions before were suddenly thrown in the deep end, fielding worried emails or Zoom sessions with clients, while also worrying about their own businesses and families. To interact on social media, you needed to walk on eggshells. Every meeting started with small talk about the nature of time and a comparison of our various lockdown conditions. The already porous barrier between work time and home time disappeared completely.

Doing research for this piece, I came across an essay by a social work academic in Australia. While she’s not a business owner, her reflection felt familiar and instructive. Michelle Newcomb writes:

“I had intellectually anticipated emotions, disconnection and even death during the pandemic, but the lack of value prescribed to the emotional labour was unexpected. … My ability to separate; the academic, the mother; the wife; the daughter and the friend vanished. Instead I juggled my own and other’s feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, and frustration without the required physical, mental, and emotional space.”

One thing that many academics and entrepreneurs have in common is the amount of access that’s expected to them. Academics act as guides, mentors, and teachers. They step in when strained social service resources can’t cope (which is always). Part of Newcomb’s essay wrestled with how these expectations were put on her and others, as well as what her responsibilities to those expectations were. Should she be responsible for juggling homeschooling and virtual professorship? Should she be responsible for figuring out how to teach online? Should she have a responsibility to stuff down her own fear to allay the fears of her students and fellow faculty? And what added responsibilities does she have because she is a woman in these situations? Like most institutions, Newcomb’s didn’t provide much support for these extremely difficult questions even as they shoveled more expectations on the faculty.

As entrepreneurs, though, we do this to ourselves. We withhold resources. We cross our own boundaries. We overdeliver until we just can’t anymore. We set expectations for ourselves through sales copy, business structure, and marketing messages that we just can’t meet without depleting or alienating ourselves. We do it every time we read advice like what I quoted from Brogan and Smith. We do it every time we let someone whose full-time job is Instagram tell us that we really need to go live every day, answer every DM we receive, or let our personalities shine. We do it when we build offers that guarantee—or even imply—a certain level of access to us because we think that will make it sell better. We’re bargaining for our livelihoods with the sweat of our emotional labor and the essence of our identities.

Self-alienation is too high a price to pay for the relative privilege of working for yourself. Self-estrangement is too big a burden to carry on the journey toward a sustainable livelihood.

While all people do emotional work of one kind or another, women and marginalized people are held to higher standards and often assumed to better suited for the kinds of roles that require high levels of emotional labor. Of course, “better suited” here is doing a lot of work. What I mean is that racist, ableist, and misogynist systems relegate women and marginalized people to these roles. As Kate Manne puts it, women and marginalized people are expected to be the Human Givers, creating the conditions in which others can relax, have fun, focus on the “important stuff.”

Self-alienation is too high a price to pay for the relative privilege of working for yourself.

We certainly see this dynamic on social media and in marketing, as well. Women and marginalized people are expected to perform a certain kind of emotional labor through what they post. In general, men aren’t held to the same standard. Women are expected to be accessible, open to public criticism, willing to engage in hostile conversations. Men get let off the hook.

I believe it’s time to rethink our expectations for ourselves, the structure of the work we do, and the ways we generate revenue so that they reflect a more intentional approach to emotional labor. Our customers don’t demand too much from us. Social media hasn’t made it so that we have to be “always on.” People aren’t too needy. Are there real systemic issues at play? Absolutely. And we’ve built businesses in ways that require an unsustainable level of emotional labor. We’ve extended ourselves past what could ever be considered healthy. If it works for you, so be it. But if it’s not working, it’s time to make a change.

I made a big change at the end of 2021. I left The What Works Network in the capable hands of the team at Mighty Networks, who also gave Shannon a great new job. I had absolutely nothing left. I’ve been working in a new way for the last month. Writing about 6 hours a day and filling the rest of the time with work for our podcast production agency and reading. My throat doesn’t hurt anymore. I’m cooking again. I no longer feel anxious when I hear Sean walking toward me. I’m able to do housework and carry on a conversation. Even two months ago, those things were impossible for me.

The Network is full of incredible people who had no idea I was suffering under extremely reasonable expectations. The problem wasn’t them or my team. The problem wasn’t me either—it was that I had used technology and media to extend myself in a way that I can’t stretch. I kept trying, though. I thought that with enough practice, enough medication, enough new scripts, enough therapy, enough immersion in community-building and social movement strategy that I could overcome my deficits in this area.

But I had to realize that this is a hard limit for me. It’s always been a hard limit for me. As I looked back over my cycles of burnout throughout my life, it always came down to being overextended on emotional labor. I wasn’t a problem to be fixed—I had a limit to honor.

Emotional labor is not sustainable for me so I need to avoid creating situations in which my financial well-being is contingent on that type of work. For me, writing and podcasting, and yes even making content for Instagram or Twitter, helps me feel more myself. It gives me a way of externalizing a core part of my identity. Emptying my thoughts onto the page or into a microphone actually fills me up, makes me feel more solid and real. I know it’s not that way for everyone and so what I’ve chosen is just an example, not a prescription.

I wasn’t a problem to be fixed—I had a limit to honor.

Amy Darigol is always quick to remind me of my own internalized ableism. And I’m so grateful for that. I thought I could heal myself into the emotional labor of community-building because it’s work I really believe in. But this isn’t a limit that’s going to be overcome. However, it’s a limit that can be honored every time I choose the work that energizes me. Choosing to write and podcast for a living is a life-affirming, health-affirming decision for me.

Last week, Gina from Mighty Networks talked about how the content creation treadmill makes so many people miserable. And that is completely true! I’ve witnessed it over and over again for other business owners. But to me, it’s not a treadmill, it’s like a long hike through the mountains of Montana. It can be hard work, for sure—but it’s also immensely satisfying and beautiful. Yesterday, I wrote all day long and had to pull myself away from work at the end of the day. I’m finally starting to feel like myself again—a very fragile self, but myself nonetheless.

As I start to wrap things up here, I don’t want this essay to just be about my own story, or my research, or a 5000-word “yeah, but” to tack on to last week’s conversation with Gina. I want this to be useful to you as you consider the role of emotional labor in your own work—and the ways your business is structured.

First, the goal is not to eliminate emotional labor from our lives or work but to understand its costs and how it should be compensated.

Hochschild writes, “It is not emotional labor itself, therefore, but the underlying system of recompense that raises the question of what the cost of it is.” Emotional labor can’t be a bonus that you tack on to make a product more enticing or an unspoken expectation of the service you deliver. It needs to be stated clearly and built into your scope of work, as well as the price you charge. What is the emotional labor that you do in your business costing you? A happier family life? A true vacation? The ability to use social media without fear or anxiety? How are you compensating yourself for that? Factoring emotional labor into your pricing? Creating guardrails for your work communication or marketing practices? Taking extra time off after labor-intensive work? Ensuring you have quality time with your family or friends without the veil of exhaustion from emotional labor?

Second, consider whether the structure of your business makes sense for your particular capacity for emotional labor.

I was running a community-based business—it was completely out of line with my capacity for emotional labor even it if was totally in line with my values. If you’re running any kind of service business, you probably know by this point in the episode that you’re doing some emotional labor. Is it aligned with your capacity? If you’re running an online course business, are you factoring in the emotional labor that customer service, answering questions, and dealing with student expectations require? And again, do the prices you’re charging reflect the gifts you’re bringing to the table in this realm?

Finally, examine anything in your business that is causing you to feel resentful, fake, or taken advantage of. Because those things are likely signals that emotional labor is happening unconsciously and without proper compensation. They might even be signals that self-alienation is starting to happen. Even if you love to go the extra mile, consider why that last mile has to be extra and not part of the package. What have you chosen in terms of your offers, marketing, or operations that requires more emotional labor than you realized? And what can you choose instead?

This article is also available as Episode 371 of What Works.
Click here to listen on your favorite podcast player.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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