Emotional work (work, work, work, work, work)
Hey all! It’s been a bit since I last posted – I moved back in to start my second year at college two weeks ago and it’s been pretty whirlwind, emotionally speaking. I finally found a sweet spot where I have both the energy and time to write up a post, though… a crisp autumn breeze is chilling the tea-colored light pooled on my windowsill, and I’m cozy in bed. I say let’s get started. (Yay for fall, btw!) 🙂
While I was settling in these past two weeks, I hit quiiite a few emotional snags along the way. College is great, but it’s been exhausting. I’m tuckered out to the point of tears every morning and night, and I thought there might be an official word to explain it. So I went Interwebs foraging on a hunch.
Here are the two words I stumbled across… emotional work.
My goal for this post is to touch on a few ways that Christianity forces believers into ridiculous emotional work – but overall, I wanna give you an FYI on emotional work. Those 2 words are a great tool to recognize how “everyday life” tires us out! Without more ado…
What do the following situations have in common? On a bumpy flight, a flight attendant comforts freaked out passengers even though she herself is pretty damn worried. A waitress chirps out hello (and all today’s specials) to the new customers even though she craves a nap. A woman thanks attendees at her dad’s funeral without a chance to cry.
In all these situations, people are acting counter to their feelings in order to help other people. That’s called emotional work. In society, we do emotional work all the time: as part of our jobs (especially service-with-a-smile professions) and as part of daily life. The concept was first defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, but it’s recently become well-known among feminists to explain how women are often expected to do a ton of day-to-day emotional labor on behalf of men.
In this post, however, I’m not so much interested in the emotional work that people do as women or as workers. What about the emotional work we do as Christians… and as sufferers of mental illness?
Christians (/religious people): the real MPVs of emotional work.
As too many of the followers of this blog know… take any crappy situation and throw Jesus in the mix, and you’ve got insta-shit. The same is true with emotional work. The kind that’d make Rihanna sing.
We also know that Christianity spews a whole lotta “Jesus is the only thing in the universe that will give you contentment!! Everything else is completely meaningless!!” to sell itself. (I actually heard that today during church service. Almost verbatim.) Unfortunately, that belief has huge emotional costs, work-wise. Lemme rattle off just a few.
1. Deep acting: You should be happy. Constantly. Don’t worry. Don’t be sad for too long. And definitely don’t be mentally ill.
Because if Jesus is the One who gives you deep and everlasting happiness, and everything else is Bleak Suckiness like Christianity insists, then in theory, you should be pretty damn happy with Christianity. This is why Christians like Francis Chan preach that worry and anxiety are sins, or that depression is ungratefulness. If you’re still mopey after you get saved, that threatens the very heart of your religion.
So Christians tend to do a lot of deep acting. Deep acting is a kind of emotional work where you actually change your emotions for the sake of your situation. For example, you convince yourself that you’re happy or repress negative feelings because Christians are supposed to have “god-given joy” (aka, that divine happiness that comes from surrendering your entire being forever to God, which is so radiant that it brings non-believers to Christ. Or something.)
The problem with deep acting (and emotional work in general?) It’s fuckin exhausting. I mean, convincing yourself that you’re happy because your entire basis for understanding the world collapses otherwise… is some meta shit. Constant emotional work can make you physically tired, give you migraines and muscle aches, lose appetite, etc. It can also worsen mental illnesses you might have… and hence, a deadly cycle.
2. Self-sacrifice, Jesus/Others/You style: You volunteer to help others without taking care of yourself.
This belief deeefinitely does not make Christian emotional work any easier. Before all things, you’re expected to honor Jesus. Everything good you do is due to him, and you ought to vocally give him that credit on a regular basis. If you feel Jesus is calling you to do something for him (or your pastor keeps dropping hints), you put his desire above other people’s and your own.
Next, you’re supposed to look after others. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, if you don’t like them, whatever – just as Jesus served everyone, so you should too. On a practical level that can get exhausting, because making sacrifices to help others, even if it’s not even necessary, becomes a cultural norm and a lifestyle. You might volunteer for church cleanup even if you’re exhausted. Or… to the relief of church staff everywhere… to chip in way more to the collection plate than your bank account suggests you should. The Parable of the Widow’s Two Mites, anyone?
And, of course, you always wave away people’s concerns, saying that doing this work for the Lord gives you the energy you need. This emotional work translates into physical labor too, roping you into more and more commitments, which makes it doubly exhausting.
Bah. And people wonder why pastors burn out.
3. You’re always putting yourself down to make God happy, because it’s all about God.
The heart of Christianity is self-denial. Sin is anything that makes God unhappy; people are inherently sinful. Awfully convenient, huh? In one respect, Christianity is BUILT on the idea that we should ALWAYS be doing emotional (and physical/financial) work to make God happy. If you don’t, you literally go to hell. Ya know.
What this means on a practical level is that you are always striving to make God happy no matter and very often DESPITE your own unhappiness. Time and again, Christians are told that God’s plans for their life come first, period. They’re guilted for wanting careers, lifestyles, hobbies, etc. that don’t fall in line with God’s will. Church communities make it a norm for people to put themselves down (“I am so wretched,” “I never learn,” “I can’t do anything without God,” etc.) – it’s in the lyrics of their songs, it’s in the testimonies they give, it’s in their prayers and conversations.
On top of convincing yourself that you’re happy and feeling bad when you aren’t… on top of throwing yourself into serving others and thanking Jesus… you’re expected to self-deprecate for failing to put God’s happiness first. It’s tiring shit, man!
If you’re ex-Christian (or ex-religious, since after talking with exes from multiple religions I’m sure we ALL have our own versions of this)… I hope you’re finding ways to recover from the chronic exhaustion that builds up from years of living like this. I hope you find “emotional labor” a useful concept for your own life. And I hope you find ways to rest up and shift some of the burden off yourself if you can!
If you related to anything in this post, feel free to comment below or share it around! I’d love to hear from ya. 🙂