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Lithium Empathy isn’t toxic: the problem with emotional labor discourse

Oct. 6, 2021
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In late 2019 this infamous tweet—pretending to respond to a venting friend—emerged: “Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity/helping someone else who’s in crisis/dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you.” 

People were quick to ruthlessly make fun of the absurd, dental receptionist-esque response to a friend seeking someone to lean on, and for good reason. This just happens to be an extreme example in a greater discourse of similar sentiments: friends should only vent with the explicit consent of the other party. 

What has been coined as “emotional labor” by so-called self-care subcultures online has loosely come to refer to any type of human exchange that requires emotional investment. Anything that might cross the arbitrary line of oversharing may fall under its vague umbrella. 

The real definition of emotional labor has nothing to do with taking on the self-proclaimed role of a “therapist” for your friend. It was originally intended to describe the expectation that predominantly female workers manipulate or conceal their emotions in the workplace to bring an air of “pleasantness” or seem wholly “unbothered.”  

Now, Self-Care Twitter has tainted its original intent to encompass actions as basic as allowing a friend to vent to you over the phone. What used to be known as basic human decency is now a quantifiable act to be reciprocated as soon as possible. 

The most common alternative to seeking friends for their “emotional labor” is to instead bring your troubles to a therapist’s office. Of course, it would be ideal to lean on a weekly session in the armchair, where you can spill all of your life’s problems without feeling like a burden to the listening party. This assumption, however, is full of ignorance. 

For a lot of people, therapy simply isn’t within reach. Period. Even in Canada, where we pride ourselves on having a universal healthcare system, therapy doesn’t fall under our not-so-universal umbrella. Mental health is regarded as secondary to physical; it is, quite literally, a luxury for those who have the insurance or can foot a bill that averages between $100 and upwards of $200 per session. Those less fortunate must sit on a months-long or even years-long waitlist—sometimes for just an assessment. 

As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to be afforded just under a dozen therapy sessions a year by virtue of my parents’ insurance. As a college student, I’m granted slightly under that amount. I have little doubt that this number will likely fall to zero when I graduate into an era of precarity and job shortages. 

Still, I know the value of being able to attend therapy. I continue to use many of the coping strategies that were shared with me in my sessions from when I was 15 to deal with outbursts of anxiety that emerge throughout my life. At the same time, I know it’s incredibly naive to assume that getting therapy is as easy as booking a session with no strings attached when the mental health sector is deeply overworkedunderfunded, and inaccessible

I’ve seen some of the most heart-wrenching effects of this play out on campus. While suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., it’s the second-highest among post-secondary students—and sadly, the rates are growing rather than shrinking. Many college students also grapple with the first onset of substance abuse, mental health, or for some, the exacerbation of existing struggles. 

I’ve watched friends get rejected from receiving mental health counseling on campus because our university had reached resource capacity. I’ve heard subsequent advice being passed around from student to student, suggesting that they should exaggerate the seriousness of their circumstances to increase the likelihood of securing a follow-up session. It’s incredibly dismal, but one does what they must do to get help. 

Therapy is a luxury. It shouldn’t be, but it is. 

In a time when face-to-face interaction with others is scarce, texting, video-chatting, and phone calls are sometimes the only avenues to vent. As more people enter economic precarity, it’s likely that access to therapy and other mental health resources will dwindle. For this reason, our close friends—if we’re lucky enough to have maintained connections throughout the pandemic—are often the key figures that we lean on in times of hardship

Aside from asserting a false utopia where everyone somehow has access to therapy, the talk about “emotional labor” renders some of the most important pillars of close friendship—self-disclosure, empathy, vulnerability, and patience—transactions. Through the lens of self-care gurus, the friend who shares intimate details about themself without the arbitrary consent of the listening party is deemed “toxic.” If they don’t repay the favor immediately with a similar act, they’re accused of exploiting one’s emotional labor. What’s truly “toxic,” though, is equating being there for a friend with a shift at a service job. 

Perhaps the worst part of all is the willful exclusion of people who live with mental illness. Treating friendship as a series of emotional transactions necessarily excludes people who are not always able to reciprocate in the same capacity, whose struggles may be difficult to hear or who may need an extra hour or two on the phone. Are we to wholly abandon our friends going through hardships simply because it infringes on our optimism? For all the attempts to destigmatize mental health at a societal level, forcing our loved ones to walk on eggshells to decide what they can open up about is a tremendous step backward. People who live with mental health issues are just as worthy of friends as anyone else—but through this lens, we are rendered as draining. 

There are also vast issues with dogmatically suggesting that therapy is the holy grail of well-being and self-improvement. To assert that mental health and well-being exist outside the sphere of friendships and close connections is an assumption that reeks of individualism. As cliché as it is, we do, in fact, live in a society. Those least likely to have the resources available to go to therapy tend to face structural circumstances that negatively impact mental health. 

When we treat our relationships as a transactional collection of emotional exchanges, we risk compromising their true value. Reciprocity—different from transactionality—is the fruit of relationships. It accounts for the myriad of subjectivities that make up human connection, understanding that being there for one another doesn’t always have to fit a rigid framework. Friendships are not a zero-sum game; the so-called “labor” of being there for someone does not result in a loss. 

Boundaries are the backbone of healthy relationships—but trust, disclosure, and mutual regard for one another are the lifeblood. Relationships are not mathematical equations or quantifiable exchanges, but deeply subjective, complex systems of relating to one another. To render them transactional is not only to do a deep disservice to the meaning of human connection, but to ensure your relationships will be extremely shallow. 

Caring about others is not a transaction. A labor of love is not meant to be quantified.