Compassion and Self-Care: Considering Friendship as Emotional Labour

When Melissa A. Fabello’s Twitter thread went viral, I understood the criticism. Fabello’s Tweets suggested that you should ask friends if they have the capacity to support you in times of emotional difficulty and provided a script for those who didn’t. The proposed response lacked empathy and sounded particularly clinical. However, the sentiment behind the message resonated with me. Although there is an essential level of effort involved in maintaining friendships, everyone has a limit of how much they can handle. Ultimately when you reach capacity, emotional support becomes performative and damaging to your own self-care.

What is emotional labour? Fabello defines it as suppressing your feelings when helping a friend. Sometimes that means listening to a friend vent about a difficult housemate or going to their birthday party despite being exhausted from work. It also means supporting our friends when they’re at their most vulnerable.

If I think of all the times where a friend desperately needed to vent to me, responding with Fabello’s “out-of-office reply” would have felt like a slap in the face. Friendships are difficult, but they’re not supposed to feel like work or labour. A friend seeking advice and support requires love and kindness. If supporting a friend begins to feel like a chore or hard work, that friendship isn’t healthy.

It’s interesting how Fabello’s idea of emotional labour relates to the original concept coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, where people feel the need to supress their emotions in the workplace. Hochschild’s concept is also applicable to the domestic setting, such as the emotional impact of regular household labour. In both of these scenarios, emotional labour derives from a power imbalance, between employee and worker or men and women, which is dominated by the privilege of being able to deny emotional capability.

This isn’t the same as friendship; we choose to show emotional capability because we care about our friends. People need an outlet for the messy, difficult things that happen in life and it can feel wonderful when a friend acknowledges and validates our emotions. Helping those close to us with their problems can also feel rewarding, as it provides an opportunity to really help someone when they have reached the end of their tether.

However, Fabello does have a point. Supporting our friends always comes at the cost of monitoring our own feelings in order to offer a sense of objectivity. As a result, we can become emotional caretakers who end up feeling weighed down or burnt out whilst trying to be a good friend. It’s always important to remember that we all have limits, no matter how many times we try to act beyond them. If we tried to offer objective support to friends 24/7, it would be impossible to not develop a level of emotional attachment that would eventually lead to distress. Asking someone for their permission to vent, before seeking emotional support, is good practice towards maintaining healthy friendships. Not only does it act as a trigger warning, but it allows the person to engage with self-preservation whilst offering support.

Fabello’s Twitter thread is significant to our wider understanding of wellness and self-care – significantly the liberation of women from the expectations of caregiving. However, it does bring into question the way in which we see ourselves as a resource and our relationships as transactions. Although self-care is necessary, it is an individualistic concept, and Fabello’s emphasis on this idea disregards the reasons why a friend might call to vent in the first place.

It also ignores the apprehensions and anxieties that people have when going to a friend for support. For example, many women of colour often feel pressure to suppress their true feelings, for fear of being perceived and labelled as the “angry black woman” stereotype. Additionally, LGBTQ+ people may often conceal their emotions to prevent being outed or unaccepted. Men also have difficulty speaking about their emotions because of society’s damaging idealisation of traditional masculinity. This difficulty is both reflected in and helps to explain the fact that, in the UK, men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women.

Like most people, I’ve been on both sides of Fabello’s scenario. I know what it’s like to be desperate for a friend’s advice and support, and I also haven’t been able to help a friend because I’ve been in a position where taking on extra emotional weight could be extremely damaging for my own mental health. As a result, I think there is a place for an upfront conversation that eliminates ambiguity in friendships. In an exhausted, burnt-out society, this change could ensure that no one ever maxes out their capacity whilst trying to maintain a healthy relationship.

Any conservation about having respect for another’s boundaries and needs is always welcome. However, it also remains important to recognise the power of showing compassion by listening to someone’s problems.

– Jaimie Hampton 


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