Every workplace requires employees to engage in emotional labor — the act of responding with a smile instead of a slap across the face or keeping an upbeat attitude when tears are about to leap from your eyes. This labor takes effort, sometimes significant, anxiety-producing effort. And it can be costly to a person’s mental and emotional well-being.
When I was 17 years old, I joined the United States Army. Growing up as the step-daughter of a Naval Officer meant that I was familiar with military life. But after being sent to my first duty station in Fort Carson, Colorado, something less familiar started — sexist, sometimes openly hostile, comments about women’s value and trustworthiness. Such as:
“Women don’t work as hard as men.”
“Women can’t be trusted.”
“How can you trust something that bleeds seven days a month and doesn’t die?”
At 17 years old, my response was to adopt what I unconsciously believed to be a “masculine” trait: toughness. I worked hard to appear emotionally unfazed by anything, unreadable, and slightly angry. I was suppressing and hiding what I felt from everyone, including myself. The immediate and long-lasting result was a constant feeling of distance from other people and a pervasive loneliness.
When I hear stories of women “acting like men” in leadership positions, I empathize because I know that for women who aren’t naturally “masculine,” it’s a lot of work and perpetuates a feeling of isolation. What I lost touch with when I started building that wall around myself was my own authenticity. The inner truth of what I felt, needed, and wanted was hard for me to articulate, even to myself.
Male-dominated fields, like technology and engineering, often require a higher level of emotional labor for women than men. Women are likely to come under such challenges as Stereotype Threat and the Double Bind. There is an added layer of emotional labor for women of color who face both sexism and racism.
There are two ways of managing emotional labor. The first is Surface Acting, which is pretending to feel a certain way while feeling the opposite emotion. For example, attempting to exhibit confidence when about to speak in front of a group but actually feeling so nervous you’re about to throw up. The second is Deep Acting, which shifts the meaning of the circumstances while allowing you to stay connected to your values and beliefs. Such as, when I get nervous before speaking, I consciously focus on my desire to serve that audience with my knowledge, experience and presence. Serving others is one of my core values and speaking is one expression of that value.
Faking it ‘till you make it is surface acting. It requires the suppression of emotions, leads to strained interpersonal dynamics, creates a nagging sense of personal incongruity, and is a survival level skill.
Deep Acting is the deliberate choice to empathize with another person’s experience, shift away from a zero sum game mentality, and can be a source of intentional gratitude. It is a thriving level skill.
Learning to reframe the meaning of a situation can change a seemingly impossible situation into a set of possibilities stitched together by the strength of your personal power.
Original story appeared here