Women and Emotional Labor: Putting Down the Weight

The Sacred Art of Self Love by Katherine Skaggs

I’m increasingly convinced that the world will be healed by women’s ability to feel the full scope of OUR OWN feelings. 

The paradox is that feeling the truth of our own feelings involves refusing to feel the feelings of others for them. In other words, it involves refraining from over-functioning and taking responsibility for those who are unwilling to do their own inner work.

It’s up to us to see the ways that we emotionally over-function and refrain from doing so.

Traditionally, women’s work has not only been the cooking, cleaning and caring for children. Traditional women’s work has also involved bearing the emotional labor of relationships; cleaning up emotional messes, starting the uncomfortable conversations, feeling the burden of silences, living with things unsaid, burying unspoken needs, being the projection screen of disowned pain, wading through passive-aggressive slights silently, etc. The problem is that men have been traditionally taught to devalue and see emotional labor as purely women’s work, when in reality emotional intelligence and communication skills are things that both partners must shoulder equal responsibility for.

Women have historically been the “cleaning ladies” of the culture, the proverbial of trash bin of unwanted emotions: expected to feel them for others and then blamed for expressing the very emotions that others refuse to feel. It’s time to put down this role. We are clogging ourselves with material that blocks us from our own power and clarity. And we are protecting people from their own painful truths; the very truths that will free them.

Eyes of Blues by Pegi Smith

I recently came across this powerful article that defines the concept of Emotional Labor and the ways it impacts women’s lives. I’ve also re-visited Audre Lorde’s powerful essay “The Erotic as Power” which explores how women are “psychically milked” in this culture, because our capacity for feeling is used in ways that benefit those in power (usually men) but denigrated when we own it for ourselves. (I highly recommend checking these out.)

It’s time to dismantle the false ethics of patriarchy that keeps women stuck in the role of emotional laborers.

For women, patriarchy conflates emotional labor with a false sense of ethics. It’s this false ethics that causes us to perpetuate our own internalized oppression. We are taught in various ways that emotional labor is an innate skill of women and if we don’t do it, the implication is that we’re not a “good person” or a “proper woman.” This leads us to feeling suspicious of ourselves if we feel fed up with it. There is a tendency to feel shame when we approach our thresholds for carrying the emotional weight for others.

Painting the Tao- Paradoxical Unity by Kay Kemp

You’re not being a “bad person” when you refuse to carry the emotional weight for others.

We’ve been taught to pride ourselves on the levels of our endurance to bear the responsibility for the emotional aspects of our relationships.  The willingness to put up with it is rooted in a sense of scarcity; the notion that the crumbs we’re receiving are the best we can get. In many ways healing the mother wound is about the fundamental movement from scarcity to abundance.

Often our most potent resistance is to dropping the emotional labor we do for our mothers. 

One of the most heartbreaking conversations I frequently have is when women tell me that they’re completely exhausted by feeling responsible for their mothers’ happiness. And when they consider ceasing to play that role, they question their value as a person, they feel “bad” for even acknowledging their exhaustion from it. Playing this role grinds you down to the core. (Nothing you do for your mother will be enough because what she is seeking is impossible to get from anywhere except from within herself. It’s a dead end.) Refuse to absorb the guilt. Your impulse to throw off this weight is a trustworthy impulse. The weight was never yours to carry in the first place.

We are usually trained for emotional labor by our mothers. Usually either through cleaning up our mother’s emotional messes or through observing her carry out emotional labor for others.

A starry night sky. (Ali Jardine/Caters News)

A starry night sky. (Ali Jardine/Caters News)

Recently I was speaking to a client and she summed up her relationship with her mother this way: “I protect her from herself and I end up paying the biggest price.” I hear variations from this theme all the time. For those of us who had mothers who were emotionally absent, many of us have swung the other way, becoming emotional caretakers, giving to others what we desperately needed from our own mothers.

Examples of ways we may protect our mothers from themselves:

  • Showing her a mask; displaying only the emotions she would prefer
  • Not confronting her when her behavior is insulting, demeaning or manipulative
  • Allowing her to use you as a dumping ground for toxic negativity
  • Absorbing her projections without speaking out (walking on eggshells)
  • Molding yourself to cater to her insecurities and appear non-threatening
  • Not setting boundaries with “mother tantrums” that arise when you express your individuality

Ways this harms us:

  • Reinforces the idea that our rightful place is one of emotional dumping ground
  • Fosters feelings of shame for our own separate, legitimate opinions, thoughts, observations
  • Keeps our inner child stuck in unconscious patterns that reflect childhood fears and beliefs
  • How we attenuate ourselves around our mothers will also show up in other contexts and relationships

Healing the mother wound is essential to detoxing from the role of emotional laborer. It dissolves the dysfunctional enmeshment with our mothers and creates the necessary emotional separation for us to feel our power as individuals. This emotional separation comes in the form of setting healthy boundaries that honor our personal sovereignty.

Blue Throat by Alessia Ianetti

The women of the future will not do the “feeling” function for others.

When we hand back our mothers their responsibility to process their own pain, it creates the space for us to take responsibility for our own. The two go together. Carrying your mother’s pain and taking responsibility for her happiness may appear kind and altruistic on the surface, but we must see it for what it really is: Avoidance of our own power.

Know that whatever you deprive yourself of in the name of your mother is a “check” that you will present to someone else to pay back to you in the future, whether it be your partner, your child or female friends. That imbalance will seek to right itself eventually. Don’t perpetuate the debt in your mother line to the next generation. Claim your own life now! Free yourself and the generations to come.

No relationship is worth losing yourself for, including the relationship with our mothers. If your mother (or anyone else) refuses to interact with you unless you play the role of “emotional caretaker” or “emotional dumping ground”, you are not being loved; you are being used. Facing this can be really hard, but face it we must if we want to truly claim our lives as our own.

Solace by Veronique Oodian

It’s possible to love and be loved from a place of fullness, not deprivation.

As we learn to mother ourselves, over time, we become our own primary source of love. As we do this, our outer relationships begin to reflect the inner safety we’ve already created in ourselves. It has to happen on this inside first, then it happens on the outside.

There is nothing like being loved by someone who is already “full from within,” who has no agenda and nothing to extract from you to “feed” themselves.

This is the kind of love that, ideally, children would receive from their mothers so that they can develop a strong sense of self and belonging in their bodies and in the world. But our world hasn’t yet permitted women to develop that kind of self-love. This permission will never be granted. It’s something we must claim as our own now.

My World by Artisalma

There comes a point on that healing journey when the love of our “adult self” exceeds the needs of our “child self.” Our romantic relationships then take on a new tone of maturity and freedom. We become capable of loving and being loved without need. Of course, we will experience grief if the relationship dissolves but the dissolution of any relationship no longer mirrors that original loss of mother. You’ve created an unshakeable core of love that no relationship can disturb. You feel all your feelings fully without fear of loss.

I think the following quote sums it up perfectly…

“As long as we are looking to our partners to fulfill those functions that were not offered to us as young children, it will be difficult to come into a fulfilling, loving relationship that is not riddled by the pain of projection. Your partner is there to help you, to support you, but not to take care of or parent you. They were not put on this planet to do your work for you, but to skillfully support you as you turn toward, meet, and metabolize what has been knocking at the door of your heart for so long.” ~ Matt Licata

True Beauty comes from Inside by Artisalma

In addition to speaking out in ways that we’ve been silent, we also have to remain silent now in ways where we’ve spoken that gave our power away. We have to be able to endure that silence and hold our tongues where we used to fill the empty space for others who refuse to do their own work, speak their own voices and process their own pain.

This is some of the greatest service we can offer to others in our lives, even if their personalities rail against it.

When we refuse to toil emotionally for others and when we cease to ask others to emotionally labor for us, we are correcting an ancient imbalance.  This imbalance is responsible for so much human suffering.

I invite you to courageously see yourself as a pioneer in righting an imbalance that women have been living with for centuries. Take the long-term view and honor yourself as a powerful piece in the collective puzzle of a new era of women’s empowerment.  You are helping to build a new “mother line” not just for your lineage, but for all women. Don’t underestimate how small actions you take every day to honor yourself contribute to opening up new ways of being for all.

The Passage I by Sandra Bierman

Bethany Webster  © 2015

Art credits in order of appearance: The Sacred Art of Self-Love by Katherine Skaggs, “Eyes of Blue” by Pegi Smith, “Painting the Tao Paradoxical Unity” by Kay Kemp, “Starry Night” by Ali Jardine, “Blue Throat” by Alessia Ianetti, “Solace” by Veronique Oodian, “My World” by Artisalma, “True Beauty Comes From Inside” by Artisalma, “The Passage” by Sandra Bierman

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If you’d like to receive my personal support in moving beyond the mother wound and into your full potential and success, please click here to sign up for a free, 30-minute Clarity session where I can help you get clear on how the mother wound is impacting you and create a roadmap to get you to the other side. I look forward to connecting with you!  ~Bethany

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38 thoughts on “Women and Emotional Labor: Putting Down the Weight

  1. Another amazingly clear, educative and distinguishing article Bethany. You give enormous insight and relief into knowing what is really going on underneath.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Heart Shaped Eyes and commented:
    Such a brilliant article!

    I was just in the process of journaling to get a crystal clear summation of the many experiences and lessons I’ve been graced with since Saturn went into Scorpio in 2012. This article from Womb Of Light confirms and ties together so nicely with one major aspect of my own realization during this time. So interesting that I should come across it on today’s Sun Saturn square!

    As I pass forward this love, I hope that it gracefully reaches any sistars out there who may be attracting it! Cheers to healing the mother wound! Blessed be.

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  3. It is simply incredible how you manage to succinctly articulate such complex truths in a way that keeps me saying “Yes!” again and again. You are performing an invaluable service, and I thank you for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Bethany for another amazing article. .”cleaning up emotional messes, starting the uncomfortable conversations, feeling the burden of silences, living with things unsaid, burying unspoken needs, being the projection screen of disowned pain, wading through passive-aggressive slights silently”. Did this sentence strike a chord with me! For many years I’ve been the “fixer” or the “bridge builder”. It seems to have been expected of me to keep everything together at the expense of my own emotional wellbeing. Well today is a new day and I won’t be doing that anymore. ❤

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  5. Pingback: Women and Emotional Labor: Putting Down the Weight | Hummingbird

  6. Thanks for another great article, Bethany. Your writing really helps me to clarify how I can step into my power and own my voice.

    You talk here of refusing to feel others’ feelings for them – that’s something I’ve struggled with over the years, since I was small. It took me a long time to realise I was an empath – that I was picking up others’ feelings without being aware of it. Much of the time I didn’t even know I was expressing somebody else’s feelings. It’s taken years to recognise the pattern and learn to discern between my feelings and those of other people. Quite an obstacle course! There’s a lot of unlived and unexpressed emotion out there!

    As the expression goes: “not my circus, not my monkeys!”

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  7. I enjoyed the topic of this article, however, i have concern for the inclusion of “our mother’s” as a primary target of focus. We share, with our mother’s most especially, this gift/burden of deep feeling. The experience of true compassion for ourselves naturally leads to compassion for the other person, even it that other person is our mother. The topic too quickly turned on itself. Part of me thinks that it is very difficult for a daughter to see mother as person, and much room and space and time is needed for that to truly manifest, and it be an inclusive relationship, especially with a woman who is also your mother. This is such a worthy topic, overfeeling versus the development of our intuition and the wisdom to use it properly. We both need each other to use the tools of communication and sharing.

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  8. As I step on a new path and journey for myself, I am grateful for your writings affirming the enormous task of completion for me. Now I step into the fullness of All that I Am and All I as my WoMen AM Purposed to be. Thank you for expressing your gifts and talents so that I can express mind. In Service With and For The All One Consciousness. Dreamwalker ( Sach Prem Kaur ) Embodied with Truth and Wisdom for this Aqurian Age as Greatcosmicmother . Sat Nam

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  9. You have explained this phenomena of emotional labor so well. Thank you. i recognized myself, of course — always toting that emotional barge, lifting that emotional bale, and feeling for those who don’t do it for themselves. I spent years in this cycle.

    But more recently, I’ve worked — passionately & with much joy — at turning it around, mothering myself, refusing to carry the emotions for others (my husband, in particular). It is so damn freeing. I’m not 100 percent there yet, but I check in regularly, I breathe, I ask myself all the time what is true for me, I journal, and I discover my own power in new ways. It leaves me in awe. This is the most exciting journey I’ve been on in nearly 60 years on this planet!

    I have a teenaged daughter. She’s watching me. We’re close. I do not want her carrying my baggage the way I did for my late mother (who i love dearly). I know my healing journey will help my daughter, but it is first and foremost MY healing. And just maybe, it will be my best gift to her besides my unconditional love…thanks again for writing this, and thanks to the Universe for leading me here to see it! I am ever so grateful, Bethany…:-)

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  10. Wow, all those things you said in the list that we do to protect our mothers, I now do in my romantic relationship. And I try so desperately to give him all the kind of love I wish I’d received from my mother, in the name of wanting to se myself as capable of giving “unconditional love”. And the relationship is hanging by a thread because of it – he can FEEL my neediness. It’s a mess. I know I need to love and fulfill myself first, but how to do that eludes me.

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    • Michelle, that’s really interesting. I can definitely relate to that. We need to stop the cycle. Self care is definitely the start. We need to give the love we are giving others to ourselves first and foremost.

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  11. This was beautifully and powerfully presented and it touched a deep place. I’ve healed much of this, yet this article crystallized the whole complex dance and took me in even deeper. I am sharing this with some of my conscious men friends and colleagues because I’m curious as to what this would elicit from them. I know men who do/have done this with mothers and partners. There is also the whole thing about the mystical power women have that drives men to need them. And then resent that need. I would love to hear insights on this, because I feel that those of us who are delving deeply into the masculine/feminine dynamic, both for our
    selves, and as practitioners are doing deep healing for this ancient wound. It is the cutting edge now of awakening consciousness.

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  12. Wow…I only read about halfway through this and had to stop…kind of like when my therapist got me to speak out loud the very core of my biggest challenge, and I never went back! This is almost too brilliant and maybe the answer is in the second half of the article…but I know the only time I am really able to stop being a vessel for others’ emotions, both with my family of origin and my husband, is when i am ALONE. Perhaps that is why my secret fantasy is to be single and live deep in the woods, unseen. I’ve done a monumental amount of work on myself but still shrink from confrontation and conflict.
    I will probably have more to say when I read the other half of this article but already, thank you, thank you, thank you. And the artwork is amazing.

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    • Wow Felicity, are you me?! So true Bethany, this article touches something deep. I was told years ago by an astrologer that I have clair – everything. He stressed the need to work on knowing what is my stuff and what belongs to others as it will all feel as though it’s mine unless I do the work needed. It’s a wonderful gift to be sensitive but that enmeshment of constantly being aware of other peoples emotions can be draining. Of course, he noted that certain emotions will resonate more loudly due to my own stuff. And so I feel this need to ‘fix’ everyone so I can feel better! Like you Felicity, I seek space and solitude as a reprieve but I have found that it is not the answer in the long run. Also like you, conflict and confrontation are so difficult for me but I have found that my self worth takes a beating when I run instead of stand up for myself. We have to remember that we deserve a place in this world too… being exactly who we are – not pretzling ourselves into what we ‘should’ look like. That’s what I find is the hard part – shedding the mask and truly being me even though I might look different from the norm. Really, I’m sure nobody cares! But having learned to hide as a coping skill makes it seem like a scary venture.
      Have fun with the second half of the article Felicity.
      It’s so good Bethany!

      Like

  13. To find a life long learning safe place outside the family with others who no longer want to blame and live in resentment but instead begin learning to take responsibility for the consequences of trying to control what has never been ours to control…I see this as all our work to do. These patterns and roles we have played take time and patience to unwind from…and I believe that when each of us is ready, the laboratory of learning will appear.

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    • That is a great response Kate! I knew for a long time that I had to “escape” my tribe and find my own way. There has been feelings of loss entwined with feelings of courage and determination to find a place where there is no shame and great expectations from family members. One step at a time towards my goal.

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      • I can relate to your response Kate and Sue, I too had to run away from my ‘tribe’ not only for safety but to also find myself. That has been a life changing and life enriching journey. When I became a mother myself the intensity and need for self healing multiplied greatly as I saw family patterns flow through me effortlessly and unconscously, some of the less extreme things I said I would never do, I found falling out of me without my conscious approval. It has been a journey of learning to love self and have compassion for myself because I was always making excuses for my family but I was not able to make them for myself. I was my own worst critic. Further along in my healing when I feel I have developed more self love and compassion I feel the gap of not having my tribe, I feel the consequences of running away, even though I needed to. Now I feel like my journey is about returning to tribe and the benefits that brings to us ALL.

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      • That’s interesting Ruth about you wanting to return to your tribe and the benefits that your journey has brought you. That is seeing yourself in a stronger position than when you “left”. I tried this once but realised that I was the only one who had changed, the only one who had grown. Whilst I still love them, my journey has to be on my own. Perhaps one day they will all catch up to me but I doubt that very much. I don’t hold this against them in any way…I had to do this for myself. Good luck.

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  16. In many ways my mother tried to over do the emotional care taking of me, her mother was the one who did not give her what she needed and has instead expected her to be there for her too. Over my 20s as my mother stopped doing my emotional care taking i got more angry with her and sometimes i resent her for not giving me enough space to learn to carry my own at a young age while she was still there at the same time. Its like i reached an age where she was ot able to do it anymore and i think she is only just beginning to think about her. Im not doing hers though, i refuse and have instead looked around to try and find people to pick up mine so i can do other things and not be held back by emotions. But it looks like one has to go through all their emotions and past baggage first then they can choose to do other things. I do resent that role of emotional care taking for others and have done my best to reject it, and have envied the way men get it done and never have to care about it. As result of this men remain less aware of emotions and what its like to feel distress. In this society though if anyone feels emotional distress they get branded as mentally unwell, more so women and this is one reason women do buffer each other so none of them have to show those signs of weakness that comes from the distress of facing ones own emotions. They can all appear strong if they keep passing the parcel as everyones working on someone else and not their own so they feel it in a less direct way.

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  17. Pingback: Putting down the weight | Niru's Blog

  18. This is the thing I was looking for all of these years! This is a revolutionary step in understanding woman, their emotions and heritage! I can express with the words how grateful I am for your work ! And my daughter will be grateful too ! Love from Serbia.

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