Emotional Labor I Am No Longer Doing

I often say and write things that stir up big emotions in people. It’s usually the very point of my work - to disrupt someone’s comfort and ask them to consider a different perspective. What’s challenging about that is folks often don’t know what to do with those big emotions. I wish they would do some self-reflection. I wish they would seek out additional resources and do some learning. I wish they would ask themselves why they feel upset by what I said. I wish they would take a period of time - several hours, days, weeks, months - to allow their emotions to settle so they can more rationally think about what I’ve asked them to wrestle with. I wish they would find someone they trust and have a conversation with them about it. Yet, instead of doing any of that, many people word-vomit all over me, make me the target of their feelings, and then expect me to comfort them or help them sort it out. They send me e-mails, they tag me in comments across social media, they force themselves into my life. Unfortunately for them, I have learned that it is not my responsibility to help anyone sort out their emotional baggage or their ties to systems of oppression. That is their work to do. It's only my responsibility to ask them to do the work and maybe give them some resources for doing it.

A few months ago an older white man asked me for a book recommendation on the topic of racial justice. From what little I knew about him, I thought he could first really benefit from reading and wrestling with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Unlike many people I make reading recommendations to, he actually read the book. He reached out to me when he finished it and asked if I would be willing to sit down and unpack it with him (i.e. listen to him explain all the ways he was not fragile and not privileged and validate him so that he could feel better about himself). I told him that I would prefer he find a (white) friend he could work through it with. I explained that I have my own close relationships where I am helping folks unpack things and that I just couldn’t give him the time, energy, and emotion I thought it really needed. A few days later, I ran into him at an event and he cornered me. He asked me again if I would listen to his thoughts about the book. I again told him explicitly that it wasn’t my responsibility to help him unpack his ties to white supremacy culture. He proceeded to sit down next to me and unload. I listened for as long as I could take it and then I interrupted him. I said “I’ve told you twice very explicitly that I do not want to do this work with you. It’s clear that you do not understand what you are asking me to do, that you do not value the concept of consent, and that you do not respect me”. And then I walked off. Honestly, I could tell you dozens of stories like this - folks who want me to do emotional labor that is not mine to do. Folks who think they have a right to my time and energy because they know I am passionate about particular topics and know I have spent some time unpacking my own ties to systems of oppression. Folks who want me to make them feel better by taking back what I said. Folks want a shortcut for the years I’ve spent doing this work and think I am somehow going to be a fast pass to understanding. The only way to get to where I am, still an imperfect work in progress but slightly farther along than many folks who carry a lot of privilege, is to just do the work.

If I helped every person that reached out to me asking to pick my brain. If I spent time with every person who has been disrupted by what I asked them to consider. If I helped every person who is obviously wrestling with their own shame and their own emotional baggage. If I did all of those things, I would be drained and exhausted and broke because it would be a more than full-time job that requires almost everything from me and pays me zero dollars. It is something I am willing to do with the people I love because I do feel like that’s my responsibility and privilege, but it’s not something I am willing to do with strangers or acquaintances or toxic people. What a privileged and audacious thing to ask someone you do not know to help you sort through your mess or help you to understand. And yet, we do it all the time without a second thought, particularly to people with marginalized identities.

In doing this work of unpacking our ties to systems of oppression, we have to both be mindful of who we ask to help us sort through things AND be careful who we commit to doing that work with. It is unfair to ask a person with a marginalized identity to do that work with you (unless you already have a close personal relationship with them and they are a consenting/enthusiastic participant who can bail at any time). Even then, I’d encourage you to seek alternative opportunities for self-reflection and unpacking before asking them to do that emotional labor. It is also unfair to ask a stranger or acquaintance to do that work with you. In doing so, you are asking that they give you their most precious commodities - time and mental/emotional energy. Those are not yours to demand or request or expect and personally, I am no longer freely giving my time and energy to people who have not earned the right to it.

Let me be clear - I am not saying that we should disengage from helping people unpack their ties to systems of oppression or sort through their emotional baggage. What I am saying is that we have to be careful who we do this work with. I am one person with a finite amount of time and energy. I can spend that energy fighting with a stranger on the internet who has no interest in learning OR I can spend it at a coffee shop with a close friend who is ready to unpack some stuff together. One of those is a more effective use of my time and energy than the other and that’s why I want to be more intentional.

It is okay to set boundaries. It is okay to ask people to find other more appropriate ways to do this work. It is okay to reserve your time and energy for the folks who deserve them most. If you needed permission to set those boundaries, consider this your permission.

Image from @theconsciouskid on Instagram

Image from @theconsciouskid on Instagram

A Case for Putting Down Your Pitchfork: Curiosity as a Tool for Calling People In

Humans are innately meaning makers. Meaning gives us order and order gives us comfort. We are forever sorting people and attempting to make sense of them, the things that happen to us, and the world. We do that through our interactions and unfortunately mostly based on assumptions. All day, every single day, we make assumptions about people based on their words and actions. We make assumptions about their intentions, values, and character - among other things. As Brene Brown says, we make up stories about people. Sometimes these stories are true and sometimes they are reflections of own insecurities, fears, distastes, experiences, etc.

We are often quick to get defensive and grab our pitchforks based on assumptions without extending to other people/organizations the same things we want for ourselves. I am a flawed and broken human who often gets it wrong. When I misstep, I hope that other people 1. assume I had good intentions and 2. give me an opportunity to explain myself. If that’s what I want for myself, shouldn’t I grant other people the same courtesy? The simplest way to find out if your assumptions about a person or organization are correct is to ask.

As Brene models for us, when I find myself frustrated with someone or even an organization, I try to pause to reflect on what is fact versus what is the story I made up about them. This exercise is so telling. Nine times out of ten, my frustration or distaste comes from my assumptions rather than reality. People are nuanced and far more complicated than we give them credit for and sometimes we over-complicate things that actually have a very simple explanation.

Let me give you an example. I recently sent a draft of an essay to an editor. She sent back some notes and edits. I revised and resent it and then I waited. And I waited. And I waited. After a few weeks I started making up a story about what was going on. She hated my revisions. She was going to pull the essay. I was a terrible writer. The piece was bad. You know what was really happening? She was busy. She had taken on some new assignments and was adjusting to a new routine. She also had a sick kid and a trip that pulled her away from work for a few days. What was going on had very little to do with me or my essay, but I had convinced myself otherwise. I should have stopped and sorted out the truth from the story I was making up. My assumptions were wrong and had led me down a rabbit hole of shame and insecurity.

I’ve found this process useful not just in my personal relationships, but also in social justice and advocacy work. I catch flack sometimes from fellow advocates and social justice minded folks for making too much space for dialogue. They think I am negotiating with terrorists. What I am actually doing is trying to meet someone where they are and move them to a more progressive stance. I’m probably not going to convince someone to do a 180 on an issue in a single conversation, but if I can help them move 5 degrees, that’s something. I am often doing elaborate mental gymnastics to help people unpack their problematic views and recognize within themselves that what they believe is problematic. You know the best person to convince someone that they are wrong? Themselves. Dialogue, questions, and curiosity open us up for unpacking things while pitchforks often shut people down and push us farther into our respective camps.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to police emotions or invalidate disruption and pitchforks as effective tools for change. They absolutely have a role in creating effective and lasting social change. Sometimes dialogue is impossible. Having the time and space to put down your pitchfork comes from holding privilege. Change can be incremental when your life or livelihood don’t depend on it. Sometimes we don’t have the time to wait for incremental change that dialogue brings. Sometimes we don’t have the energy for it. In those cases, have the pitchforks ready.

What I am saying is that curiosity is sometimes the most powerful tool in our toolkit when we have the time and space to strategically create change. Perhaps before we act, before we rally the troops, before we sharpen our pitchforks, maybe we take a deep breath and try to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Maybe we take a beat to strategize about how we can be most effective. Maybe we consider whether this is an opportunity to call people in instead of calling them out. Both approaches have value and sometimes the most effective thing to do is grab the pitchfork, but sometimes we miss opportunities to create lasting change because we are reacting out of emotion and based on faulty assumptions.

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Vulnerability is My Superpower: My Life on the Internet

Sometimes people ask me why I share so much of my life on the internet. Can’t you just share pictures of your kid and funny memes? If I am being honest, sometimes I wonder why I do it too. It is incredibly difficult work. I regularly find myself sitting behind a screen pouring out some of my deepest secrets, publicly wrestling with my mess. This work often leaves me emotionally spent, opens me up to lots of criticism, and for what? Rarely is there a clear and definitive benefit. Is anyone reading? Is anyone growing? Does it even matter? What do I hope people get from engaging with my work? Those questions feel impossible to answer at times.

Then, inevitably just at the moment that I think “maybe this is all a waste”, someone reaches out and says “me too”. Sharing my own mess and publicly wrestling with my emotional baggage opens the door for others to wrestle with theirs. It lets them know that they are not alone. It affirms their feelings. It shamelessly invites them in. To the core of my being, I believe that the best thing we can do is learn to be honest first with ourselves and then with others. There is freedom in owning your truth. I believe that a lot of conflict happens because we fail to recognize that we are all doing our best to navigate murky waters, waters that perhaps we could help each other navigate if we’d allow people in. I think lots of us miss out on truly experiencing unconditional love because we won’t let people see our chaos and love us in it. Vulnerability is my superpower, it is the gateway into every single good thing in my life. And that is why I share. I have found a sense of freedom in being unapologetically myself, in doing the hard work of self-reflection. I want you to know the freedom of laying down your facade, letting go of other people’s expectations, and leaning into self-awareness so that you can build the life that you want. It seems counter-intuitive at first, that there is freedom in owning your mess, but there is only one way to let go of the weight of something and that is to learn to accept it.

Thank you for bravely and generously trusting me with your stories. Thank you for engaging with my work. That you for wrestling and for watching the mess of my own wrestling. I hope we all are better for it.

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