How to Let Go of Unpaid Emotional Labor in the Workplace

I recently had lunch with a dear friend of mine at a lovely little restaurant in the Mission District. I was enjoying my salmon salad (I seriously could eat that every day) and will be writing a blog in the near future about why falling in love with food is essential to good mental health.

He asked me a really important question that I struggled to answer for a moment. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I have it figured out yet.

What he asked me was some version of the following:

“How do you deal with people putting their s*** on you and having you deal with it?

Now, this can happen in all kinds of ways. People can unload about their personal life or complain about work. This version was focused on one type of unloading that people of color and women of color and LGBTQ folks of color tend to experience in a disproportionate way, although it could impact others as well.

I’m talking in a more powerful position at work unloading their grief about the goings on of the world. Whether this be racism, misogyny, or heterosexism, people from marginalized backgrounds, who often suffer from trauma and despair (which often gets diagnosed as depression or anger difficulties) are often called to witness the unloading of the guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear, and emotional pain of others.

You know this feels terrible. You know this  pisses you off. We now know that not only can hearing about racism and people’s exposure to it create PTSD symptoms, but can lead people of color to engage in potentially risky behaviors to soothe themselves and cope, such as abusing drugs and binge eating.

So, what do you do when workplace talk becomes an informal therapy session and you have been unwittingly volunteered to be the therapist?

1.)    Get straight about your job duties

Sometimes reminding ourselves of what we come in to work to do can give us the boost we need to make empowering choices for ourselves when we are able to. If you have a job description available, review it, preferably with a trusted coworker who knows what you are going through. If you’re one of the few folks who belongs to a labor union, seek out resources from your shop steward. Sometimes just reminding ourselves that we go to work to get paid to do something our boss thought we were qualified and talented enough to do, and to not fulfill the emotional needs of our coworkers can be an important small step to help us get grounded and in touch with our confidence.

2.)Take breaks away from your desk…if you can

If you are in a workplace or have a workload that allows it, take breaks away from your desk. I get it, I struggle with this one too. However, sometimes taking some physical space for ourselves, stretching our legs, and really focusing on our bodies can ground us and center us. Maybe we will discover that we are hungrier or thirstier than we thought we were. Maybe we will discover that that extra glass of wine really was too much, remain curious about it, but eventually learn to remain compassionate and kind to ourselves while we are making changes. Maybe in the space we give our minds, we can come up with a few bars for a song we want to write or figure out the solution to a problem at work that has been dogging us. Taking time is a really simple solution, but very challenging to put into practice. It all starts with one step away from the work that can wait.

2.)    Label our emotions

Letting our emotions tell their story is a very important life skill. If we don’t know that we are feeling sad or anger or afraid or resentful, we may act in ways that are out of line with who we are in reaction to those emotions. If we don’t notice when we feel joy, the moment may pass too soon for us to appreciate it.

3.)    Name the problem.

Name the problem out loud. Or to yourself. Or type it out. Write it in a journal. Express what it is (i..e, racism, sexism, microaggressions at work, feeling dumped upon) and listen to your voice as you name it. Meditate on it. Check how you feel, and validate that your are having your emotions in response to the problem for good reason.

4.)    If it feels safe enough to do so, talk to your coworkers to create some space for yourself.

If it feels safe, let them know that your experiences of the events of the world are not the same as theirs and that you just can’t hear about it right now. There are some risks involved in this approach, especially if the person who is unloading onto you is in a position of authority. So trust your gut, and decide wisely.

5.)    Use your supports

Don’t deal with this alone, and along with social media, talk to your people in person or over the phone. Set up a Skype date if they live far away.

We all need somebody and they say it takes a village to raise a child for a reason. It takes a village to support us as adults as well, and it’s important to turn to those who have experienced trauma caused by racism for mutual support.

Remember that this is your life and like most of us in professional fields, we have worked very hard to get to where we are and we get to decide what’s right for us.