Narcissism and emotional labor at Christmas — ’tis the season! ‘Tis also the season when the emotionally well-adjusted continue to be emotionally well-adjusted. People with episodic depression, unresolved family trauma and/or personality disorders will typically experience a higher spike in their respective issues. For example, narcissism and emotional labor at Christmas.
What do narcissism, emotional labor and Christmas have to do with each other?
Well, nothing if one uses the originally intended application of the term emotional labor. However, in 2017, a few intrepid gender studies instructors and bloggers co-opted the term emotional labor to mean something it wasn’t intended to mean. They rebranded being a professional martyr with suffering from emotional labor. 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 Hartley, take two.
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 original 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 happy face while thinking GFY thoughts.
Since Gemma’s groundbreaking 2017 diary of an oppressed, middle-class, white, stay-at-home homemaker/mommy 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 latched 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!
I’d also like to point out that Gemma is neither a trained psychologist nor a sociologist. Yet, she’s puffed herself up as an expert with a made-up malady that, of course, is everyone else’s fault but her own.
Narcissism and emotional labor at Christmas.
In my opinion, Gemma does appear to be suffering from a condition. But it isn’t what she thinks it is. Gemma isn’t unhappy because she struggles with emotional labor. She struggles with self-inflicted martyrdom. At least, that’s my take after reading her highly detailed and lengthy martyr manifestos. Furthermore, emotional labor involves the regulation of one’s negative emotions. Gemma isn’t regulating her negative emotions, she dumps them onto her husband and kids based upon her oeuvre.
As noted above, 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 and/or outdoing others who are similarly image-obsessed.
- Emotionally manipulative people.
- Unrealistic relationship and life expectations.
- Minimal or zero 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.”
Vanity, privilege and out of whack priorities.
The Hartley quote, in my opinion, is an example of professional martyrdom all wrapped up in a great, big, whiny Christmas 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?
To quote Snoop Dogg, “Bitch, please.”
First, what ever happened to Olan Mills or department store Santa? Keep it simple. People who love your kids will love their “weird” faces. Furthermore, do you really think other people (aside from immediate family, that is) are all that interested in you and your kids? They’re not. This is likely especially true if Gemma’s friends are as self-absorbed and professional victim-y and martyr-y as she is.
Women like this “agonize” over such banalities for themselves, their vanity and their Instagram narratives — not their families and friends. To be clear, it’s about their egos, not disappointing their family and friends.
Second, if you’re spending “hours” analyzing photos for weird facial expressions, you’ve got 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, front line medical workers can accommodate Gemma’s elephantiasis of the tongue and carpal tunnel at the ER this holiday season.
Instaworthy family photos don’t equal healthy, happy families.
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 onto herself and her family if she’d reevaluate her expectations. In other words, accept and appreciate her husband and kids as they are.
In 20 years, her kids won’t remember how Instaworthy their Christmas family photo was or wasn’t. My decades of clinical work with adult children of narcissists, borderlines and other personalities tell me it’s more likely her kids will remember what a controlling, perfectionist, martyr, nitpicking [choose your favorite expletive] she was when they were kids and how bad it made them feel.
Misapplication of emotional labor is the rebranding of being a professional martyr.
Rather like “ethical non-monogamy” is cheating with better branding, or “my truth” is bullshit with better branding. Similarly, “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 and dysfunctional ways.
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.
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 stressed out, angry and blame shifting onto 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.