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The Emotional Labor of Invisible Disability

There’s a lot of talk about emotional labor in romantic relationships and friendships these days. Wikipedia defines emotional labor in terms of the workplace:  “Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors.”

The concept came about when women began to push back against the expectation of doing most of the emotional labor in the workplace. It caught on rapidly and was applied to non-work relationships. If you’re the one in your group of friends who initiates all the activities and coordinates everyone, you’re doing the emotional labor for your group. If you’re the one in a marriage who buys gifts and sends cards to all the relatives on both sides, you’re doing the bulk of that emotional labor in your marriage. Those are broad-brush examples, and emotional labor can extend to things like dealing with a loved one’s addiction, or it can be as simple as choosing a gift for someone, or researching a joint purchase.

Yesterday I responded to a party invitation for this Friday. I’ve had it on my calendar for weeks and I’ve been looking forward to going. I have a potential deal breaker, though. Two and half weeks ago, I fell down the stairs in my tiny house. It was a stupid accident—I was sweeping the steps after a friend and I had put up blinds together on the high clerestory window. I was cleaning up the sawdust from the holes we drilled for the bracket screws. I was tired and not paying attention, and as I stepped backward down another step, I led with the wrong foot on the angled cutaway step and fell through thin air. I don’t remember exactly how I fell, but my back bears the mark of a stair edge, and I have 3 other significant bruises.

I had to wait for the bruising to fade before I could get a massage to deal with the shoulder I wrenched when I clung to the rail as my body turned 180 degrees in midair. By the time I made to the massage therapist, my upper back, shoulders and neck were in terrible shape (she described the knot in my neck as “like a crumpled ball of packing tape”). Sometimes, when I’ve been extra tight, the loosening of those knots will trigger a migraine or attacks of vertigo. This time I got the vertigo, and it’s been going on for 2 days.

I don’t know if I’m going to be recovered enough to go to the party on Friday. I’m definitely not going in costume as requested—the party is for a cosplay group I belong to, in which we dress as Victorian-era madams to celebrate the brothel history of our town. I do not have it in me to wear a petticoat and bustle, tight lace bodice, and (shudder) women’s shoes.

I sat there looking at the Evite and felt exhausted by having to explain yet again, another complex situation that has to do with my fussy post-crash body, and the words in my head were, “this is way too much emotional labor.” I responded with, “I’m having some vertigo after a medical procedure, but I hope to be up for it.”

The explanations for missing work or social events (that others like to call “excuses”), the explaining of our food choices that no one should ever have to do (because commenting on other people’s plates is rude), the begging out early, the noncommital acceptance of invitations, the self-advocacy with insurance and care providers, the bargaining for time off work to get medical care, the hoops you have to jump through to fill your pain prescriptions—this is the emotional labor of hidden disability, and it’s exhausting.

I was sitting in traffic this afternoon, thinking about writing this post, and I wondered what life would be like if I never had to explain a thing, if I didn’t have to fight with insurance to get my care covered, if I could respond to an invitation with “yeah, I’ll be there if I can,” with nothing added. It would feel light, right—normal. I thought about the choices I’ve made in my life simply to reduce the amount of emotional labor I have to do, like when I qualified for food assistance but chose not to renew it because the process was so onerous. In a great stroke of luck, I got a freelance writing gig that pays more than I used to get in benefits, to fill in the income gap.

Emotional labor is a hot topic now, discussed mainly in the context of heterosexual romantic relationships, in which women tend to do the emotional heavy lifting. Emotional labor applies to us in the world of hidden disabilities too.

What emotional labor do you have to do now? How do you feel about that?

The Emotional Labor of Invisible Disability

Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.

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APA Reference
, . (2019). The Emotional Labor of Invisible Disability. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Dec 2019
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