Getting better at emotional labor in friend/family relationships
November 10, 2017 9:46 AM   Subscribe

MetaFilter, did you use to be a person who was bad at being thoughtful, proactive, and supportive in friendships, and now you are better at it? Tell me how you did it! Nota bene: I'm female and this is not a question about gendered labor.

I have trouble making connections with people and I think a big part of the reason is explained by the "emotional labor" concept. Here are some things I've noticed other people in my life doing that I can't figure out how to do:

1) Remembering past conversations and contextual info so I can say things like "How was your trip to Paris?" or "I saw on Facebook that you lost your grandfather. I'm so sorry. How are you doing?" or, for a negative example, so I don't try to explain a basic economics concept to someone with a master's in econ...
2) Sending a text or email when something I see makes me think of them
3) Keeping up an ongoing text or email conversation instead of letting it drop when I don't have an immediate reply to whatever they've said
4) Keeping an eye out for events to invite people to, or hosting things myself
5) Stopping by to chat with coworkers who I get along well with and would like to see more often (yes, friendships between coworkers are normal in my workplace)
6) Writing cards for people to thank them for going the extra mile in a way that helped me and/or give condolences and support if they're going through a hard time

I could give you concrete examples of how all of these things lost me potential connections with people. I don't want that to happen anymore! Semi-facetiously: is there an app for this? Do people have systems to "train" themselves to get better?

One area I don't have problems with is that I don't expect other people to run my life (chores, health, money...) or do emotional labor for me. I'm very, fiercely independent. In fact, I would say my problem is more that I find it hard to be vulnerable with others and share my emotions.

I also made an appointment with my doctor to talk about my social issues and figure out a treatment plan, so hopefully I'll also be able to address this from a medical front as well. But until then, would love everyone's feedback.
posted by robot cat to Human Relations (12 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
I find it hard to be vulnerable with others

Your list of failed tasks are the symptoms. Taking the risk of feeling vulnerable is the task you need to master. It might just be a matter of practice and seeing that there are rarely any bad consequences.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:18 AM on November 10 [3 favorites]


Here’s a suggestion that works for me when I do it - set aside a small amount of time each day devoted to the clerical / correspondence related items. Use that time to write the thank you emails, follow ups to digital conversations, etc. This doesn’t tackle everything in your question but can help make some of the more routine things fall into place. Good luck!
posted by machinecraig at 10:30 AM on November 10 [16 favorites]


Hi. This was me. For a variety of reasons, I put close enough to no work in maintaining relationships outside of work contexts for a long time. I took great pride in being independent. I didn't send cards because I didn't want to receive them because then I would have to send them.

I went through some rough patches, some in part a result of that pattern, and really the only thing that got me over the hump was having more visceral fear of being untethered again in the way I was immediately after my divorce, than of someone being shitty in response to a gesture from me that didn't tick every unrealistic box on some checklist I made up in my head when I was 12. The consequences of systematically not trying to connect and maintain connection are scarier than the consequences of the failures of individual attempts, in other words.

It's still hard. I'm still bad at it. But there is a gut level understanding that if I don't put in the work I will die, as surely as if I stop putting in work to shelter or feed myself. Once I had that, it was not hard to go, "OK, birthday wishes on a Facebook wall aren't what I want to do but I can use the Facebook notification as a reminder I'm going to send a text. OK this person wants to spend time with me but I am not in good headspace and I'm embarrassed about that but if I just say that and they're shitty about it, I'm no worse off than if I ignore them and then I'm not being shitty and unresponsive. OK I can't come up with an expression of gratitude that lines up with my strength of feeling but a cliche is better than silence."

I do not offer this necessarily as a model to emulate. But at least in my case, I had to internalize connectivity as a core, root, basic need before I could start doing the things I was vaguely aware that one did towards such end and be willing to be bad at them with the goal of getting better instead of just not doing them.
posted by PMdixon at 10:34 AM on November 10 [10 favorites]


When you come into the office in the morning go around and say hi to everyone.
posted by raccoon409 at 10:35 AM on November 10 [2 favorites]


You could set reminders on your calendar to call friends.
Think about who you want to connect with better, and then put those people in your diary as „call Sylvia“ or „Email Brutus“.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:59 AM on November 10 [1 favorite]


One area I don't have problems with is that I don't expect other people to run my life (chores, health, money...) or do emotional labor for me. I'm very, fiercely independent. In fact, I would say my problem is more that I find it hard to be vulnerable with others and share my emotions.

Your whole question is something I've been wrestling with since the emotional labour thread and this part in particular chimed a bell with me. I think part of it is that I'm naturally somewhat insular* and introverted and while I've become much more sociable and outgoing (people are often very startled to hear me categorise myself as an introvert) there is still an insular core there. I like it and am touched when people reach out to me but it doesn't tend to occur to me to do the same things. I'm also quite happy to think fondly of old friends but don't really have a need to turn that into contacting them. I'm pleased to hear from them if they contact me but I hardly ever initiate. Over the years this leads to a lot of friendships falling by the wayside...

Given all this I'm probably not the best person to answer this question but some of the things I've been trying is to actively notice when other people carry out these types of emotional labour and (at least) return it when possible. Studying this has I think helped me get a bit better at recognising spontaneous opportunities myself, although I'm still struggling with follow through on that element.

*My parents have stories from when I was as young as four about knowing there was something worrying me but being unable to work out what it was and I can certainly remember hurting myself in the school playground and hiding so that no-one (including the supervisors) would see me cry. As a teenager I noticed that I didn't really confide in people and made an effort to learn that, so I'm better on that score but it didn't come naturally.
posted by *becca* at 11:07 AM on November 10 [6 favorites]


1) Remembering past conversations and contextual info so I can say things like "How was your trip to Paris?" or "I saw on Facebook that you lost your grandfather. I'm so sorry. How are you doing?" or, for a negative example, so I don't try to explain a basic economics concept to someone with a master's in econ...

This is a HUGE benefit of social media for those of us who aren't natural connectors. I don't have time to keep up with Facebook in general, but if I'm going to hang out with a less-close friend or relative, I give their Facebook a quick look before I get there. Even if they haven't posted anything noteworthy like a death or new job or whatever, it reminds me what they're up to in general. (And sometimes reminds me of critical background like that master's in econ, ha.)

Past convos are harder unless you're often chatting on text or messenger. But if you are, use it! Scroll back through to see if there's anything you want to follow up on.

3) Keeping up an ongoing text or email conversation instead of letting it drop when I don't have an immediate reply to whatever they've said

Mark the message or the email unread, so the notification hangs around and catches your eye.

6) Writing cards for people to thank them for going the extra mile in a way that helped me and/or give condolences and support if they're going through a hard time

Find a card designer you like (I like Emily McDowell, especially her Empathy Cards) and order a bunch for different situations. Having the card already in your drawer, ready to go, makes it easier to get around to sending it.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:10 AM on November 10 [2 favorites]


Don’t assume people are naturally good at remembering stuff to connect over. One of my colleagues keeps a spreadsheet with his contacts and pertinent details about them such as trips, kids, their ages or whatever it may be. He checks that before he picks up the phone to talk to somebody.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:35 PM on November 10 [3 favorites]


Since you find remembering so overwhelming, try not to focus on doing everything for everyone—speak to each person in their own "love language." The concept's from relationships, but I think it applies to friendships too. Or, at least, four of the five: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service.

How it works—notice what people seem to do for you, and do it back to them. People tend to want to receive love in the ways they express love; what they act like highlights what they value. So if you have a friend who likes to do useful favours for other people but doesn't make the "how was your day" kind of small talk, do favours for them and let the small talk slide. If you notice a friend is really good at keeping in touch over text or email, maybe prioritize that, but don't worry about it with everyone, necessarily. Some people (many introverts! me, for instance!) care more about that one really good late-night conversation, but don't have the bandwidth for texting all the time.

2) Sending a text or email when something I see makes me think of them

I have a specific bookmarks folder in Instapaper where I save articles I want to share with other people. Then I go through it every week, and send them off. For non-Internet things—maybe keep a short list or note in your phone? I'm more likely to follow through if I can do it in batches, rather than interrupt my day constantly, so this works better for me.

3) Keeping up an ongoing text or email conversation instead of letting it drop when I don't have an immediate reply to whatever they've said

For emails, I star/flag these and weed through all my starred emails every once in a while.

Anyway—I think it's great that you're working on this! It used to be a thing for me too. More than anything, it just takes practice to become an ingrained habit.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 1:35 PM on November 10 [2 favorites]


Totally agree that these are the symptoms of not being vulnerable.

It feels counter intuitive because asking more of people feels like just asking them to do more emotional labor. But I’ve been in therapy for a while, and once you feel comfortable not having to always make sure you’ve taken care of everything opens up space that you can notice other people.

This isn’t just throwing yourself at the universe and expecting it to catch you. I pay someone a fair amount to take care of me and help me figure out my emotional shit. which is really really really hard for someone who has always felt the need to be independent.
posted by politikitty at 2:30 PM on November 10 [3 favorites]


A lot of this is just sort of, routine maintenance tasks - like, how do you remember to shower? How do you remember to take your allergy meds?

And the answer is, sometimes I forget and then I have a sniffly day and later go remember, oops, forgot my allergy medicine today. And sometimes I'm in a conversation with someone and they mention something about a friend and I go, oh yeah! I knew that! I totally forgot! And I try to make a point of thinking about it in a few different ways so that I remember it better.

And calendar reminders for birthdays, and going back through my email now and again to find anything I haven't replied to, and things like that. It's all just part of a system for helping you remember things that are easier for other people, same as a system for finding your keys or remembering the grocery list if *that* is what you're bad at.
posted by Lady Li at 10:01 PM on November 10 [1 favorite]


This sounds like me. The general advice several people have touched upon about turning it into routine maintenance tasks is what I have found useful in getting better at this this stuff. e.g. birthday phone reminders = timely texts!, setting aside a regular "correspondence" block of time in my week like it's an appointment, having a box on my desk for things To-Do that include not just bills to be paid but a funny postcard from the store that made me think of a friend that I need to send off.

I really like the spreadsheet idea with basic details about people, and the tip about reviewing someone's social media page before meeting up is a great one.

One more idea:

The act of writing stuff down by hand helps me remember things. I journal almost daily and have made a point of jotting down highlights of conversations w/ people I care about if I've had them. Getting into the habit of mentally reviewing my day, who I've talked to, and what we talked about (and did I learn something new or did something strike me about them that seems like it could be significant) has really helped me in this regard long term.

It's not at all intense or systematic, but just deliberately doing this on a regular basis will make it come more naturally to you.
posted by phonebia at 9:12 AM on November 11 [1 favorite]


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