Surface acting is a prime example of “emotional labor,” a concept that the writer Jess Zimmerman made familiar in a 2015 essay for The Toast. The essay sparked a massive thread on MetaFilter, with hundreds of women speaking up about their own experience with emotional labor: the duties that are expected of you, but go unnoticed.
These invisible duties become apparent only when you don’t do them. I’m reminded of the time I went on an emotional labor strike. I asked my husband to manage an event we were both invited to, and when we showed up two hours late, per his mistake, all eyes were on me. “We expected you much sooner,” the host said — only to me.
Emotional labor has mental and physical consequences
Like domestic labor, emotional labor is generally dismissed and not labeled work, but research shows it can be just as exhausting as paid work. Emotional labor can lead to insomnia and family conflict, according to a study published in Personnel Psychology. Sure, circumstantial stress, like losing a job, may lead to these same issues, but emotional labor is not circumstantial. It’s an enduring responsibility based on the socialized gender role of women.
Like Ms. Li, many women try to manage the added stressors to reach what Dr. Joyce said was an unattainable ideal. “Some professional women aspire to do it all: reach the top of the corporate ladder and fly like supermom,” she said.
When women don’t reach this ideal, they feel guilty and even more stressed. After her own bout with this, Ms. Li took a step back to regroup, then used her experience to build Sanity & Self, a self-care app and platform for overworked women. “The realizations I had in that process helped me gain insights and ultimately got me ready to incorporate self-care into my daily life,” she said.
The stress problem extends beyond mental health when you consider the link between chronic stress, anxiety and heart health. Worse, most of what we know about heart disease — the leading cause of death in both men and women — comes from studies involving men, but “there are many reasons to think that it’s different in women,” Harvard Medical School reported.
For example, women are more likely to experience disturbed sleep, anxiety and unusual fatigue before a heart attack. Stress is so normalized, it is easy for women to shrug off those symptoms as simply the consequences of stress. Many women also do not experience chest pain before a heart attack the way men do, which leads to fewer women discovering problematic heart issues.