‘Tis the season! It’s that time of year when I take creative liberties with traditional Christmas carols. Such as this little ditty on the topics of narcissism, professional martyrs, emotional labor and Christmas:
A martyr forevermore.
But the craziest sight to see is all the blame that’s gonna be
Laid at your own front door.
‘Tis also the season when the emotionally well-adjusted continue to be emotionally well-adjusted. And, people with episodic depression, unresolved family trauma and/or a personality disorder will typically experience a more extreme spike in their respective issues. For example, narcissism, professional martyrs, emotional labor and Christmas.
What do the phenomena of narcissism, professional martyrs, emotional labor and Christmas have in common? Well, nothing if one applies the originally intended application of the term emotional labor. In 2017, a few intrepid gender studies instructors and bloggers co-opted the term emotional labor.
In their inscrutable wisdom, they decided emotional labor means something it doesn’t mean. Basically, the term has become yet another way for a subset of privileged women with, shall we say, certain characterological issues to claim “oppression” at the hands of their ungrateful husbands and equally ungrateful children.
Gemma, Gemma, Gemma . . .
Remember her? Sheeeeeee’s baaaaaack!!!!!! For those of you you who don’t remember Gemma, allow me to reacquaint you. Gemma Hartley is the blogger/author who misappropriated the term emotional labor (2017) from sociologist, Arlie Hothschild (1983), with the help of two Gender Studies instructors from third tier colleges and then got herself a book deal from it.
Per its originally intended meaning, emotional labor is the act of managing one’s emotions in the workplace. “More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. This includes analysis and decision making in terms of the expression of emotion, whether actually felt or not, as well as its opposite: the suppression of emotions that are felt but not expressed” (Wikipedia).
Who hasn’t done hard emotional labor at some point or another if you’ve ever had a crappy boss and/or entitled customers? You put on a congenial face while thinking GFY thoughts.
Since Gemma’s groundbreaking 2017 diary of an oppressed stay-at-home blogger, Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up: Emotional Labor is the Unpaid Job Men Still Don’t Understand, other similarly-afflicted women have glommed onto her viral misappropriation. Lo and behold, an alternate usage section was added to the Wiki page in 2020. Thus, “legitimizing” Gemma’s misuse of the term after the fact. Ta-da!
In case it isn’t obvious, this kind of not a trained psychologist blogger blogging anecdotal, non-expert “expertise” is a personal pet peeve. I’m not a trained pilot, but I’ve been a passenger on commercial airplanes since the age of 7. Anyone have a problem with me piloting their Delta flight from Boston to Atlanta? What do you mean you have a problem?! I said I’ve been flying since the second grade!
Narcissism, Professional Martyrs, Emotional Labor and Christmas
In my opinion, Gemma does appear to be suffering from a condition. But I don’t think it is what she thinks it is. Gemma isn’t unhappy because she struggles with emotional labor. She struggles with self-inflicted professional martyrdom. At least, that’s my take after reading her highly detailed and lengthy martyr manifestos.
As noted, Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays often trigger individuals who have narcissist, borderline and histrionic traits, individuals with family trauma and non-disorder related emotional and psychological immaturity. I’ve discussed the many reasons for this here, here and here. Now, I’d like to discuss a particular type of Crazy that escalates during the holidays — the professional martyr.
- Attention seeker.
- Control freak.
- Celebrity lifestyle guru wannabe (e.g., Martha Stewart or Gwyneth Paltrow)
- Instagram or other social media “Look at my perfect life!” keeping up with/outdoing others who are similarly image-obsessed.
- Professional martyr and/or professional victim manipulators.
- Unrealistic relationship and life expectations.
- Minimal or utterly absent personal accountability.
Add it all up and what do you get?
This (Hartley, 2020):
I have yet to send out my Christmas cards this year, but the various steps necessary to complete this task have been weaving through my mind for months. So, I booked a session with a photographer at the end of August. I picked out and shopped for outfits for the entire family in October. In November, the actual photo shoot took place, but not before a flurry of back-and-forth emails deciding on time and place while factoring in the weather.
The photos will be in soon. Perhaps there will be a clear winner, but the most likely scenario is that I will spend hours deciding which child’s “weird face” picture is the most palatable to send to grandparents. They can never just smile, no matter how much coaxing and bribing is involved. Then I will spend time carefully picking out the right photo card and figuring out just the right holiday message before ordering. I’ll have to check my address book, contact a handful of people for updates, decide who is getting a card, order stamps, hand-write addresses until I have carpal tunnel and lick envelopes until my tongue is swollen.”
What the what?
The Hartley quote, in my opinion, is an example of narcissism, professional martyrs, emotional labor and Christmas all wrapped up in a whiny bow. Gemma seems like she has a pretty privileged life. Seriously, feeling emotionally burdened by “agonizing” over scheduling a professional photo shoot for a non-celebrity family? Rearranging schedules around ideal weather conditions? Angst over her kids’ “weird” faces that might “ruin” the holiday family portrait?
Oh, the humanity.
First, what the ever happened to Olan Mills or department store Santa? Keep it simple. People who love your kids will love their “weird” faces. This kind of behavior is analogous to women who go into debt to throw elaborate weddings for themselves. I repeat, they do this for themselves and their vanity, not their families and friends. It’s about their EGO, not disappointing their family and friends.
Second, if you’re spending “hours” analyzing photos for weird facial expressions, you’ve too much time on your hands. You’re not Richard Avedon and your family Christmas Card isn’t a Vogue cover. Third, some parents find their kids funny faces adorable, not a source of irritation. Their imperfect expressions caught on camera can make the photos far more endearing and charming than the “picture perfect” pose.
Hopefully, frontline medical workers can accommodate Gemma’s elephantiasis of the tongue and carpal tunnel at the Covid-flooded ER this holiday season.
Toward the end of the article, Gemma claims she doesn’t struggle with perfectionism. She may not believe she must be “perfect.” However, she sure does seem to expect her husband and kids to be perfect. She’d probably inflict less stress to herself and family if she’d reconsider her expectations. In other words, accept and appreciate her husband and kids as they are.
“Emotional Labor” is inaccurate rebranding.
“Emotional labor” (as it’s been redefined) is just a rebranding of an old problem. The martyr complex or victim syndrome has been studied and written about by psychologists for decades. The earliest references I can find are from 1943 and 1945. However, Gemma and the other “emotional laborers” have it backwards.
What Gemma calls emotional labor is actually the pathological psychology of individuals who see themselves as martyrs and wield interpersonal power via their self-proclaimed martyrdom. They’re not victims of their ungrateful spouses, children, friends, etc. They’re passive-aggressive aggressors who relate to others in a toxic, dysfunctional way. It’s analogous to how borderline personality disordered individuals claim to be “empaths.”
In both cases, the aggressors have created pseudo-psychological terms and conditions to blame their targets for their interpersonal aggression. I find this maddening. And, I suspect many of you reading this who’ve been told, “It’s your fault I act this way!!!” by a narcissistic/borderline partner or parent find it maddening as well. That’s because it is, in fact, a gigantic mindf*ck.
If you’re the adult child of a narcissist or borderline, do Gemma’s attitudes and complaints strike a nerve? Are they reminiscent of the mother or father who would only descend their proverbial cross long enough to guilt bludgeon you with it?
Over the years, the professional victim has been a regular topic in my work. As I’ve already alluded to, professional martyrs are similar to professional victims. Similarly annoying, similarly toxic, similarly pains in the ass. There are subtle differences, though.
Professional victims are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They play the victim when, in fact, they’re the aggressor in most conflicts (i.e., DARVO). Typically, professional victims feel victimized by accountability, consequences and exposure for their manipulative, exploitative, aggressive and/or predatory behavior.
Professional martyrs also see themselves as victims. However, they feel victimized when their “good deeds” and “sacrifices” aren’t recognized, appreciated and revered to the lofty heights they feel they’re owed. Obligation and guilt, by the way, are their stock and trade.
Other characteristics of professional martyrs include:
1. Shameless self-promotion of their goodness, sacrifice and hardship.
If they’ve gone out of their way to help you or do a favor (whether you want them to or not), you will recognize it. And so will every one else. Everyone will know how much they do for others. Ad nauseum. This behavior is greatly amplified and self-reinforcing in the age of social media.
Professional martyrs cultivate the persona of the big-hearted do-gooder or selfless hero/heroine. An example of the former is the animal rescue nut. The one whose kids go without necessities, so mama angel horse rescue can house and feed yet another animal she can ill afford. An example of the latter can be seen in the social media posts of single “warrior” moms of special needs kids who, in vampiric fashion, attention seek via their kids’ issues.
2. If they can’t complain about how difficult and exhausting something is, then it’s not worth doing.
Professional martyrs can’t just throw a simple birthday party for their kids with pizza, cake and ice cream. There must be a theme. Gift bags for the attendees. Games. Costumes. Etsy-esque Pinterest-worthy party favors. In order to achieve this, the other family members will be in turmoil as martyr mom death marches everyone like Napoleon’s troops on the Russian front to party picture day. They will be grateful for everything she does even if it means everyone’s miserable.
Guests will marvel in awe at the Herculean effort that went into a party for a bunch of 3-year olds who’ll soon forget the event with the natural passage of time.
That is, unless you’re the child of a professional martyr. In which case, you’ll be reminded of your mother’s efforts for the next 50 years or more until she draws her final breath. Along with how many hours she spent in labor, how many sleepless nights spent sewing Halloween costumes and all the many things she suffered for your sake, you ungrateful child.
3. You can never be appreciative enough.
The narcissism of professional martyrs requires regular recognition and appreciation. They’re ravenous for it. And, if they don’t get it as often as they think they should, there will be consequences. For example, whining, sulking, pouting and passive-aggressive or outright aggressive guilt trips and/or rages.
Furthermore, it isn’t enough to offer a single heartfelt thank you shortly after receiving their help or over the top displays of “selflessness.” You’re expected to offer gratitude for the rest of your life. This is regardless of whether or not you asked for their help.
In fact, professional martyrs become even whinier and more aggrieved when you’re not profusely grateful for gestures you a) didn’t ask for, b) didn’t want and c) impose upon you in some way. After all, they were just trying to be helpful!!!! Sheesh!
4. You can never reciprocate enough.
Narcissists don’t give without expecting to get something in return. And neither do professional martyrs. Not only do they expect to be repaid, their “acts of kindness” come with loan shark level interest rates. Even then, your debt will never be expunged.
They keep a list of every “nice” thing they’ve ever done for anybody. Then, they hold it over your head. In perpetuity. Unlike professional victims, who excel at grievance gathering, professional martyrs obligation gather. They don’t selflessly do for others. They selfishly do for others because they want you to owe them. Obligation and guilt are how they manipulate, exploit and control others.
People who care for others out of a genuine joy of giving and doing, don’t require recognition and admiration. In fact, people who are authentically generous and big-hearted tend to shy away from the spotlight. They don’t do it to feed their egos. They’re helpful to others because it feels good, instead of causing anger and resentment.
5. Logic and accountability elicit martyr rage.
Should you try to set boundaries with a professional martyr, be prepared for the mother of all teary-eyed and/or rage-filled guilt trips. You mistakenly think telling the martyr that they don’t have to exhaust themselves by excessively decking the halls will help.
In other words, you encourage the martyr to stop taking on so much and overdoing . . . everything. The rationale being they might feel less anger and resentment if they didn’t cause themselves so much unnecessary stress. Typically, doing so has the opposite effect. Not only will encouraging them to do less be unhelpful, they will guilt trip you and victim play harder.
You’ll be accused of being ungrateful, not caring, selfishness, blah, blah, blah. But who’s really being selfish? The professional martyr.
To summarize, it isn’t emotional labor if your family isn’t overcome with appreciation for your 4-day arts and crafts project of a perfectly iced, three-story, permafrost gingerbread beachfront eco-house with a gingerbread free range hen coop. Especially if you’re stresses and angry with them because they didn’t do household chores to your liking as you obsessed over an Instagram vanity project that’ll be in the trash can shortly. That’s not “emotional labor” either. It’s professional martyrdom.
To clarify, not everyone who engages in these behaviors has some kind of character disorder. It could be non-pathological immaturity. Or, an attempt to compensate for not having “perfect” family holidays as a child. It could also be a symptom of an unhealthy dependence on social media for validation and worth.
If it’s not a personality disorder, you should eventually be able to reason with and appeal to your spouse’s empathy. The non-disordered actually care if their behavior is hurtful to their loved ones. Also, they’re more likely to agree to seek help if necessary. If the professional martyr behavior stems from narcissistic or borderline psychopathology, the prognosis is probably poor. So, good luck with that and Merry Christmas!
In all seriousness, if this resembles your relationship with a partner or parent, it’s unhealthy. If the other party can’t or won’t recognize how destructive their behavior is, you have choices. You don’t owe it to them to continue to suffer their abuse. You make not like your choices, none of them are easy, but you do have choices.