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When “being polite” takes a toll on your mental health

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We all go through what's called "emotional labor," and too much of it negatively affects our jobs and our lives.

I’m a natural extrovert (shocker, I know). I always have been. I’m drawn to people and thrive on social interaction because it gives me energy and makes me happy. That extroversion is part of what made the early years of motherhood so difficult for me; caring for babies and toddlers is decidedly different than social interaction. Most days I felt overwhelmed, even suffocated, by trying to meet my kids’ constant needs and desires, yet on the rare occasions when I hid in the bathroom with the door locked to get just one moment alone I would immediately get hit with a crippling wave of loneliness. The isolation of having few friends and no real social outlet was unbearable, but I had no choice. I bore it as best I could while reading stories, making sandwiches, brushing teeth, cleaning messes, and doing all the other zillion daily tasks our household needed.

Granted, the “best I could” was far from great. I was often cranky and short-tempered, no matter how desperately I tried to be gentle and patient. It was just flat-out hard to cheerfully play “Itsy Bitsy Spider” for the 43rd time when I secretly longed to run out the front door and strike up a conversation with the nearest adult — stranger or no.

For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was missing an essential motherhood chip or something, but I know now that’s not the case. The truth is that I’m an extrovert, and the daily grind of stay-at-home-momming was creating a significant amount of stress. It wasn’t just the stress of many small children, though … the real stress came from what the Harvard Business Review calls “emotional labor.”

Emotional labor is a near universal part of every job, and of life; often it’s just called being polite. However, the extent to which one acts makes a meaningful difference. A person can “deep act” in a way that is still connected with his or her core values and beliefs at work (“Yes, the customer is being patronizing, but I empathize with her and care about solving her problem”) or “surface act” (“I’ll be nice here, but deep down I’m really spitting nails”).

Research shows that the tendency to engage in this latter aspect of emotional labor — surface acting, in which there is a high level of incongruity between what people feel and what they show, either through faking or suppressing their emotions — comes with real costs to the person and the organization. When people habitually evoke the stress of surface acting, they’ll be more prone to depression and anxiety, decreased job performance, and burnout. This has an effect on others, too: Leaders who surface act at work are more likely to be abusive to their employees, by belittling them and invading their privacy, for example. And job stress can spill over into home life. In one study of hotel employees who did a lot of surface acting on the job (“Yes, ma’am, I’d be delighted to bring you a fluffier robe!”) their spouses were more likely to see their partners’ work as a source of conflict and to wish they would find another job, in the hopes that their relationship would be less strained.

Now, the great thing about the emotional stress caused by mothering children is that it’s not too hard to deep act. It’s actually pretty dang easy — even if you would rather take a flying leap out of the window than play one more round of Shopkins, all you have to do is take one look into your kids’ innocent, eager eyes and you’re suddenly okay with it.

It’s harder to deep act when it comes to, say, scrubbing the toilet or the grout. You know it has to be done, but you also know that literally no one else in your house will either notice or appreciate the sparkle and shine. And they definitely won’t try and maintain it. I always got snappish when I was scrubbing the floor for that exact reason — it’s harder to maintain surface acting, and it increases the stress load of emotional labor.

When my kids got older and we moved to a family-friendly neighborhood, it gradually became less stressful to be home with the kids. I had friends I could see just by walking out my front door or around the block. I had a conversation with an adult every single stinking day, sometimes even multiple times a day! And when it was just me and the kids at home, being patient and gentle no longer required a herculean effort. In fact, it didn’t require much of an effort at all — because I was not desperate for social interaction, I was able to truly enjoy my time at home with my kids (if not the scrubbing of floors).

So if you find yourself doing a lot of emotional labor and “faking it till you make it,” try and figure out what you need that your job or situation in life isn’t providing. It may be social interaction, but it may also be solitude and contemplation. Whatever it is, make finding a way to get it a priority. It will make every other aspect of your life — including the emotional labor we all must bear — infinitely easier, less stressful, and more enjoyable.

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