Undoing Unnecessary Emotional Labor: Are You Overworking In Your Relationships?

By Nkechi Deanna Njaka, Msc. Photography by Deun Ivory.

According to Everyday Feminism, emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using – and often draining – our emotional resources. This is common among women and femmes, especially those of color.

When emotional labor occurs in a relationship that is unbalanced and one that lacks reciprocity, this pattern quickly becomes unsustainable. Unhealthy. Toxic. Draining. Utterly unnecessary.

A relationship doesn’t have to be romantic to fall into the “unnecessary emotional labor” category. Many familial, sibling to sibling, parent-child, housemates, friendships, boss-employee qualify. If someone is bringing you down consistently, chances are that your relationship with them is toxic.

It is quite possible that the relationship began with a sentiment of "You complete me" and has slowly turned into a "You deplete me" situation. For some, this may not be obvious. There may be something you get out of the relationship as it is. There may be ways in which you benefit from the relationship that you cannot reconcile giving up just yet.

Consider this:

  • Is the relationship life-giving or is it life-draining?
  • Do you have energy after you spend time together?
  • Do you feel inspired or discouraged after you spend time together?
  • Do you feel sorry for this person in any way? Is guilt or obligation a ruling emotion?
  • Is there equity in the relationship?
  • Are you continually disappointed in this relationship?
  • Are you hurt by their comments and behavior?
  • Do you even like this person?
"If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive."  ― Audre Lorde

Part of why this is such a painful dynamic is because those of us doing the emotional labor are not and cannot be seen by the person we are being emotionally supportive to. At the core of our very basic human desire is authentic connection — being seen, known and heard. This is impossible when we are performing a role for another person that solely meets their expectations and fulfill their needs.

Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them- we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Brene Brown

In practice/ Undoing. We must learn boundaries and take care of what they protect. We also must find a way to complete ourselves. This is an act of self-love.

Checking in with the self is always a useful and effective way to practice self-compassion. Inquire a bit more to understand yourself and your pattern. What are you looking for in the relationship? What hole are you trying to fill? Where can YOU "complete you"? Ask yourself this often. When you nurture love for yourself, you develop the skill to seek it in others in a way that is more life-giving and sustainable.

My favorite practices for wholeness:

  • Surround yourself with positive, loving people
  • Practice yoga and meditation
  • Practice self-compassion
  • Eat nourishing foods
  • Get enough sleep
  • Dance often
  • Sing often
  • Speak to yourself as lovingly as possible
  • Take a walk in nature
  • Take a relaxing bath
  • Write a gratitude list
  • Check in with yourself often
  • Only say yes to things that give energy
  • Be kind and loving to yourself
"'No' is a complete sentence." ―  Anne Lamott

All of the above require a certain amount of discipline. It is also important for you to be aware that by saying yes to yourself, you are saying no to someone/ something else. And that is OK. While love is a practice and being loving is a work of art, there is no need to over work in your relationships.

Nkechi Njaka is the founder of NDN Lifestyle Studio  where she curates lifestyle and wellness content for brands and individuals. She is also the co-founder of Sitting Matters, a mindful lifestyle brand. She is a woman of color, deeply concerned about personal and global well-being. Nkechi holistically approaches her wellness with mindfulness, movement, nutrition and style. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she majored in neuroscience and dance and went on to complete an MSc. in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. She attended the Institute of Integrated Nutrition and holds a certification in Holistic Health and Nutritional Counseling. When not involved in NDN projects, you can find Nkechi teaching Mindful Movement or Mindful Style classes + workshops, taking a yoga or modern dance class or choreographing independent work. She creates, curates, coaches and collaborates in San Francisco, California. Follow Nkechi on Instagram @Ndnlifestylist and Twitter @NkechiNjaka.