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Breaking Free From Emotional Labor to Find Authenticity

Facing yourself can be a remedy for burnout.

Key points

  • Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.
  • Regularly acting in ways inconsistent with how you feel can negatively impact your mental health.
  • Finding a way to experience one’s true feelings, such as video journaling, is essential to prevent burnout.
Sydney Sims / Unsplash
Source: Sydney Sims / Unsplash

Most people hate being told to smile. Yet traditionally, many jobs expect one to maintain a cheery persona full of pep and enthusiasm, especially jobs requiring interaction with the public.

However, recent changes in the nature of service jobs and workers’ reprioritization of values have made these jobs less desirable, if not unbearable. Most employees have experienced the familiar strain of acting in a way that’s not even remotely authentic to how they are actually feeling.

In 1983, sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term "emotional labor" in her book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, which focused on emotional labor in the workplace, particularly in service industries. Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.

Employers expect employees to regulate their emotions in specific ways during interactions with customers, co-workers, and managers. This includes expressing emotions you don’t feel, like enthusiasm when hearing about a new project you have been assigned or regretting when a customer complains about something that was not your fault.

Emotional labor also involves suppressing your true feelings, like anger when a customer insults you or glee when a dishonest co-worker gets caught. This is all done, consciously and strategically, to create positive feelings in customers or clients so that the business can succeed–and so you can keep your job!

We often define jobs involving emotional labor as those requiring face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with the public and the expectation that the worker produces an emotional state in another person, such as a happy, satisfied customer.

You can perform emotional labor in two ways: surface acting and deep acting.

Surface acting is when employees display the emotions required for a job without changing how they actually feel. For instance, a service person might not be thrilled to recite the house salad's ingredients all night long but smiles to make their customers feel welcome and cared for.

Deep acting is a more effortful process in which employees change their internal feelings to align with organizational expectations, producing more natural and genuine emotional displays. For instance, you may feel distressed if you are going through a difficult personal challenge. Instead, you can take a few minutes to put your personal feelings aside and remember the purpose of your job, why you like it, what your responsibilities entail, and how you contribute positively to the lives of others. Then you act from that place inside you.

Both surface and deep acting are designed to reach the same end: happy customers and positive bottom-line outcomes. However, research has shown that surface acting is more harmful to employee health (Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011). Regularly acting in ways inconsistent with how you actually feel can negatively impact your physical and mental health. So what can you do instead?

First, pick a job that you enjoy that is consistent with your values. If that is not possible, try some deep acting in the mirror. Breathe, ground into your body, and use self-talk to create a set of affirmations to remind you of your greater purpose. Also, make sure you have a healthy outlet for your true feelings. In my new book, Mirror Meditation, I explain how to use the mirror to face yourself and work with difficult emotions, including those related to emotional labor.

For example, Clara worked in the service industry. She needed the job to cover college expenses. Clara hated it but knew it wouldn’t last forever. She was starting to feel numb and irritable. Clara came for mirror meditation instruction to get some support. I suggested she explore her true feelings through video journaling before she dove into deep acting.

Every night after her work shift ended, I suggested that she make a 10-minute video just expressing anything on her mind or in her heart. This turned out to be a very powerful exercise for her. She did not realize how deeply some of her customers’ comments were affecting her–or much of a strain it was to smile all night long.

At the end of the night, her cheeks hurt from smiling. Clare hadn’t even noticed it before. She often talked for longer than 10 minutes–sometimes just ranting to release all the pent-up emotions she’d be suppressing all night. By watching her videos later from a calm, centered place, Clara felt compassion for herself and appreciation for how hard she was trying to do a good job.

Her videos gave her a broader perspective. Eventually, she even found humor in some of her kooky customer interactions. She learned to take it all a bit more lightly.

Copyright 2022 Tara Well, Ph.D.


Arlie Russell Hochschild. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University Of California Press; 2012. doi:10.1525/9780520951853

Hülsheger, U. R., & Schewe, A. F. (2011). On the costs and benefits of emotional labor: A meta-analysis of three decades of research. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16(3), 361–389.

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