Emotional Labor: the Key to Emotional Regulation
Emotional labor is part of learning to regulate and handle your emotions – things that many autistic adults struggle with. It’s learning to name your feelings and deal with them instead of bottling them up or letting them explode all over anyone who happens to be nearby. Emotional labor is how you work through the alexithymia that makes feelings such a mystery for so many of us; it’s how you learn to identify and tolerate the feelings that you want to get away from because they’re overwhelming or they just feel so bad. It’s also how you learn and maintain your boundaries and take responsibility for your own emotions. If you haven’t arrived at adulthood with all the emotional skills you need, this is how you learn emotional maturity.
Here’s what I can tell you from my own experience:
Emotional labor sucks.
You have to sit with the bad feelings long enough to identify and name all of them (they tend to travel in packs) and then to work out WHY you feel that way. And doing all of that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll feel better.
And it’s necessary.
For an example, let’s look at something that happened to me a few weeks ago:
During a text conversation, my friend said something that triggered my anxiety. They didn’t know it, they didn’t mean to do it, and I knew all of that. I wanted to ignore it because they were drunk and that’s never the best time to call anything out; I wanted to wait until the next day when it could be talked out with us both sober and calm. But I got so triggered – that is to say, my anxiety got so bad – that I couldn’t continue the conversation without telling my friend “for future reference, that’s a really hard subject for me because I used to get threatened with that”.
I assured my friend that I wasn’t angry with them, because I truly wasn’t, I just needed to say that. In fact, just saying it via text did ease my anxiety somewhat. However, my friend then got hyper-apologetic, and my first instinct was to apologize for upsetting them. My next instinct was to try to take it all back, to make my boundaries and my comfort negotiable so that the other person wouldn’t be mad at me. I’ve been conditioned into this response over years of bad relationships, romantic and otherwise, and I’ve been trying to break this programming for the last year or two. So when I realized that I was considering compromising my boundaries to make someone else happy, I was ashamed.
For the next two hours, I sat, paralyzed – not moving, not eating, not speaking – I didn’t even have the TV or music or a podcast on, and I NEVER allow silence in my home. I was paralyzed by that weird mix of anxiety and shame until I just sat with it and asked myself what I was feeling and went through our conversation and assigned the name of a feeling to each line.
After two hours, I ended up knowing that
- I was ashamed of how I had handled the whole thing
- I was ashamed that I couldn’t hold it together until the next day – until a better, “more convenient” time for my feelings (that’s a whole different issue I’m still working on)
- I was terrified that I had handled it badly and/or said the wrong thing
- I was terrified that my friend was angry with me or worse, they’d just never speak to me again
And by that point, it was after midnight, so nothing more could be done.
The anxiety didn’t go away. The shame didn’t stop burning in my gut. And I cried more over those two hours than I had in months. It hurt like hell and I didn’t feel any better afterwards.
But I could breathe easily again once I talked myself through it all. I could move again – I got up and got a snack, then turned on the TV and went on with my night. I was no longer stuck in that quagmire of overwhelming emotions, because I had worked my way through them, named them, and understood why they were there.
Emotional labor sucks. It’s hard and it hurts and you don’t necessarily feel any better when you’re done. The bad feelings don’t go away just because you name them – but knowing their true names does give you more power and it makes them a bit less scary. Once you learn to identify a bad feeling in one scenario, it becomes easier to identify that feeling in other situations. Being able to identify and name your feelings is the first step to being able to process them in a mature way.
Only eight months before this happened to me, I would have ignored my boundaries and my comfort just to keep someone from being angry with me. This time I saw that urge and stopped it because I knew it wasn’t healthy. That’s progress. And it came from emotional labor that hurt like hell. Even making the choice not to compromise myself was painful, because it went against a lifetime of programming. But I knew it was the right thing to do. That’s progress, too.
Emotional labor isn’t something you do once and then you’re done. It has to be done over and over, working on all kinds of different feelings – usually none of them pleasant. And if you’ve been through a rough childhood or some messy relationships, as so many of us autistic adults have, there will be layers to peel back and more labor to do just when you think you’re done. But taking ownership of your feelings will help you to process and control them, instead of them controlling you.
I’d like to leave you with this thought:
Emotional maturity – that is, the ability to handle your own emotions without being abusive, blaming others, or flipping out on everyone in a fifty-foot radius – is something that everyone, NT or autistic, has to learn. There are lots of NTs who don’t learn this skill until their 30s or later, and plenty who never learn it at all. Being autistic may give us a few spectrum-specific challenges in this regard, but we’re not really behind.
Emotional labor is like working out – it hurts now but makes you stronger with time and practice. So I’m going to keep at it, and I hope you do, too. And just like there’s no shame in getting a trainer to make sure you’re working out correctly, getting a good therapist to help you through your emotional labor can be a great investment!