Cripping Emotional Labor: A Field Guide

By Amy Gaeta: For More Info, Go Here…

During my first of graduate school, without ever applying or asking, I was given an unpaid job: campus disability consultant and consoler. My graduate colleagues started coming to me for advice about their mental health. More than just advice, they implicitly asked for validation of their feelings and used me as a receptacle for all their deepest insecurities, frustrations, and disclosures. At first, I was proud to “help out” because I am a strong advocate for mental health awareness as part of a larger platform for disability rights. Furthermore, part of me was touched to think that others could trust me with such sensitive information. Soon “advice about mental health” amid the grind of grad school turned into 3 am text messages, pages-long emails, and in-person monologues filled with disclosures and questions such as, “How do I process my past trauma?” These other students did not know me very well and I did not know them too well either but they reached out to me because I was a known disabled person on campus. While shared bodymind experiences can indeed create certain intimacies among people, I later realized this was not the case. Due to my interest in feminist, queer, and disability studies and status as a proud crip myself, these new “friends” were “sent” to me by my colleagues, supervisors, and faculty. In a shocking twist on the concept of “graduate student solidarity,” people had made me a de facto mental health support worker without my consent.

Looking back, it is clear to me that that I was forced into performing what is called emotional labor. Generally defined, emotional labor is managing another person’s emotions and social expectations. It’s about keeping someone else’s emotional experiences and wellness in check, which typically results in the  laborer’s own emotional experience being disregarded and thwarted by this lack of respect and consideration. There is no salary involved or compensation and acknowledgment, and more often than not emotional labor occurs between friends, family, colleagues, or partners. Even as emotional labor may seem like just “being a good listener,” it is work.  Emotional labor is gendered, considered ‘women’s work’ and part of an ongoing history of care-taking labor where certain groups of people (e.g., women, femmes) are expected to give their energy, time, and emotional capacity to serve others.

At first, emotional laboring felt good. Never before in my life had my lived experience as a queer crip woman was the reason people wanted to talk to me rather than avoid me or look down upon me. So many asked, “But how did you get through it, and how can I get through it?” “It” being my life, one they thought was only filled with trauma and oppression that has given me magical wisdom that they desperately wanted for themselves..  I don’t have any special wisdom or advice, they just expected it due to my identities and lived experiences. Emotional labor is more than knowledge-sharing, it’s a performance and expectation of care that occurs asymmetrically. It is a reduces me to my perceived identities and drains my bodymind.

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