Emotional labor, internalized femmephobia, and this meme

[image description: an image of a baby seal with text over it that reads, “Have you ever considered getting a therapist instead of relying solely on the free emotional labor of your femme friends???” It’s attributed to @scariest_bug_ever.]
Hi, can we talk about this meme? Specifically, can we talk about the ways it resonates with me but mostly just hurts and isolates me, and also what you get from it if it resonates positively with you? Let’s also talk about better ways to navigate exchange of emotional labor.

I’ve been explicitly relying on community support instead of therapy for at least a couple years now. I don’t trust psychiatry. I don’t trust strangers. Mostly I trust my friends, and mostly I can vet my friends in a thousand ways most people don’t even understand are ways you’d need to vet a therapist. I don’t expect therapists to understand how deeply intra-bi-community misogyny and ableism hurt me, for example. I don’t expect online reviews about “gay-friendliness” or strangers from my local queer exchange group to be able to give me that kind of in-depth information.

My close, trusted (mostly femme) friends are close and trusted because we’ve had lots of personal and political talks that have established that they can validate, respect, and support me on really nuanced issues. There’s a reason I prefer them to a therapist, and that’s not to mention every other financial and bureaucratic access issue with getting and seeing a therapist.

I’m tired of being exploited for emotional labor. There are people I want to scream the text of this meme at because of the specific dynamics of our relationships. But this feels like poisonous internalized femmephobia when directed at everyone without more context about the politics of exploitation. When my femme friends share this meme, it makes me feel shut down, like there can’t even be a conversation between us about equitable exchanges and I’m wrong for just existing and wanting emotional labor from my friends (on terms that are good for us both. Look at me qualifying this. I should not have to qualify this. Thanks, meme OP).

Maybe I’m supposed to look at this meme and just go, “Yes, I have considered that, and there are reasons why until I recently got pretty desperate I had decided that a therapist wasn’t the thing for me” and shrug the whole thing off. But that’s not how it feels to me, and I think a lot of vulnerable femmes who need a lot of emotional labor feel similarly to me about it. UGH.

am working on getting a therapist now, actually, for these reasons: 1) I’m the kind of desperate that’s making me look for radically new strategies, 2) my friends are often burnt out and tired from all the labor they do for themselves and others, and they can’t always help even when they want to, and 3) a friend who shares some key identities with me personally recommended a therapist and could vouch for some of the nuanced stuff I worry about. Even if I get this therapist, it will be through my friend’s emotional labor. I wrote that as “friend’s,” singular, there, but actually, it’s “friends’,” plural. Another friend supported me and was physically present while I checked voicemail from the therapist-to-be, and I’m trying to help hir with hir own process of getting a therapist.

Getting a therapist is one potential, risky, sometimes inaccessible strategy for managing emotional labor needs. It’s valid, but not something anyone owes to their friends, and I don’t think it’s a surefire way to reduce the emotional labor you seek from your friends. A bad therapist, a helpful one with some frustrating aspects, or even an all-around great one could create new emotional labor needs, just like any other person in your life.

Let’s get out of the framework that accepting free labor is bad, and talk instead about unreciprocated or exploited labor.

As some alternative ways to work on balancing emotional labor, here are some ideas I have about how to do better, based on strategies I use in my own life:

– Educate yourself about emotional labor, especially the more privileges you have that allow you to opt out 0f emotional labor (including self-education) easily.

– Check in explicitly with people in your life about how you want to interact, what feels good, what feels bad, what’s off-limits. Have broad conversations about consent and boundaries.

– Consider balances of emotional and other labor throughout your groups and communities and with each of your friends. Examine what you do for people without them having to ask, what you do when asked, what they do for you without asking, what they do for you when you ask. consider how this relates to multiple axes of privilege without turning it into the oppression Olympics. Talk openly about this.

– Remember that equal isn’t necessarily equitable. Talk about it. Some people need more emotional labor, and some can give more of it more easily or at less personal expense. (But to be fair some people also refuse to develop the skills that would make it easier for them, which is part of the problem.)

How do you work to make emotional labor exchanges in your life equitable?

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