On personality, emotional labor, and surviving the holidays.

On personality, emotional labor, and surviving the holidays.

I just finished listening to an old podcast where Dan Pink interviews Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

I’ve read (and loved) Quiet before, but here on the cusp of the holiday season—for my own survival’s sake—I’m making myself revisit a concept I learned of from Cain: emotional labor.

In the podcast, Cain explains that introverts can be extremely, genuinely social—even for long periods of time—and enjoy being so. But for true introverts, putting on this extroverted front over a period of days or weeks is exhausting.

This phenomenon has a name: it’s called “emotional labor,” and it’s what you experience any time you project (or, to put it not-so-nicely, fake) an emotion or attitude that doesn’t come easily.

In Quiet, Cain describes emotional labor as “the effort we make to control and change our own emotions,” and says it’s “associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease.”

That doesn’t sound good, but it nevertheless rings true: I’m no stranger to the peculiar introvert exhaustion she describes. And while I hate the idea that I work to project emotions I don’t really feel, I have to admit I do this all the time—especially as an introvert.

There are many, many times every day when I make myself get interested in my kid’s art project instead of heading out for a walk by myself, or tell my kids they can dance to the Laurie Berkner Christmas album for the third time in a row when I would prefer the quiet.

These issues are top of mind right now because the holidays are especially taxing for introverts. It’s taken me years to realize that as much as I enjoy the holiday festivities, they’re incredibly draining.

Seeing old friends, visiting family, packing and traveling, and the kids’ contagious excitement are all good things, but they take their toll. I still need need to remind myself to plan accordingly: to take that walk by myself, go to bed early, or curl up for an hour with a movie or a good book.

Do you relate to this experience of emotional labor? How do you manage it during the holidays?

P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

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70 comments

  1. Rebecca says:

    We’ve traveled 15+ hours the past several years so that both sides of the family could see the only grandkids. Because of funds we had to stay with family and I have never coped well with that. This year I proclaimed, back in January, that we weren’t traveling and anyone who wanted to see us could travel instead (although they’re still trying to get us to travel a short distance because another relative is nearby. I said no, because boundaries, 15+ drives with infants, it’s so your turn😉).

  2. Michelle says:

    Yes! I’ll also add that if we have introverted young kids (I’ve got one introvert and two extroverts!), we should also be aware of their needs this holiday season. I try very hard to read my son’s cues and get him away from the action and into a quiet place if I see he needs it as he’s too young to recognize his limits. Being aware of both of our needs makes our travels and holiday season go more smoothly!

  3. Kerri says:

    Thank you for this reminder! It always helps to hear it from someone else. Recently when my boyfriend and I were making plans for our vacation, (we’re both teachers so have a good break at Christmas), he said, “let’s make sure you have lots of staring-at-the-wall time.” I was so grateful that he thought to work that into our plans, because he knows how necessary it is for me!

  4. Denise says:

    I think I’ve pretty much decided to forgo family Christmas this year. It’s been absolutely horrible for me for the past few years and no one seems to understand my need to just chill out for a few hours.

    It’s just too stressful of a time for me. I’ve decided to take the time for me, to recharge and reflect, on all the things I’ve learned about myself this past year (especially after reading Quiet..). I’m 43 years old, I have no children. So I’m gifting myself peace and quiet this year. 🙂 Thanks for the blog!

  5. Abigail says:

    I can totally relate to this. I just recently moved out from my parents but still live in the area. My mom wanted me to stay at their house with all six other guests coming to visit for Christmas. I was able to tell her I need some alone time in the morning to be able to handle large group time the rest of the day, so will start out the day at my place and join them at lunch. I feel like I am definitely growing in knowing how (and that I need) to plan for introvert time, thanks in part to this blog and how intentional you try to be about talking about subjects like emotional recharging. It sure does make it hard when over half of my family is wired the complete opposite and wants to spend ALL the time ALL together, not even in the smaller sized groups I’d prefer at times.

  6. Jenni says:

    God bless you for coming up the the phrase ’emotional labor’ which I had previously thought of as “it’s so much work to be nice for this many hours.” Emotional labor is a much kinder to myself way to put it! It’s just SO hard. This explains why I always feel so drained and tired. Thank you, Anne!

  7. Leigh Kramer says:

    I have always loved Christmas and all of our family traditions so I was shocked to see how drained I became the first Christmas after moving to Nashville. Instead of going to family celebrations and then going home to my own place as I had since grad school, I was staying with my parents. And I was also trying to catch up with all of my friends and family in only a few days. Now when I go home, I make sure to build in introvert time. It’s a much better balance and I don’t leave feeling completely wiped out.

  8. Becky says:

    Wow. It is nice to know I’m not the only one who feels this way and to have a name for it! I never really pinpointed the certain draining feeling I associate with family vacations–but now I realize that it is because it is very hard to get alone when we’re all sharing one hotel room. I’ve always felt guilty for not wanting to spend 100% of the time with relatives when visiting them (especially because we only get to see them every two years or so.) This has been very eye opening–Thank you.

  9. I never considered the holidays in this way before, but it’s so true! Especially right now that I’m pregnant, just getting through dinnertime with my exuberant children has been hard because I feel like my emotional reserves are maxed out by that point. The touching/laughing/constant demands is so hard when I feel so drained!

  10. I so hear this, and it’s tough with all the extra pressure and activity of the holidays. My husband and I always stay in a hotel when we visit my in-laws – it’s easier for a multitude of reasons – but it becomes more challenging to find time for ourselves when we’re with my family. Thanks for the reminder to build in that introvert time, Anne.

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