The emotional labor that goes into building a business or developing an art or writing career is enormous. It’s why I have a job as a coach. If it were simply a matter of executing tasks, any monkey could create. It’s the emotional labor that separates those who can succeed and those who give up on their creative dreams.
So what is this emotional labor? Because emotions aren’t visible, and because we’re often besieged by several unpleasant ones at once, we often don’t recognize the work we’re putting in.
Doing my own emotional labor and facilitating that work for my clients, I’ve gained a sense of what it takes emotionally. When my clients learn to acknowledge and value their emotional efforts, they’re empowered. They know they can overcome fear and resistance. They know that they will be able to manage future conflicts more easily.
Kinds of emotional labor
The following list contains qualities, rather than emotions. Being able to feel, practice and live these qualities is good, hard emotional labor.
1. Cluelessness. It’s very uncomfortable to feel clueless. Most of us get very impatient when we don’t know what’s going to happen.
But creating is nothing if not a fool’s journey into the unknown. Will they like your work? Will they pay for it? Will you be able to focus enough to complete things?
It can be very stressful. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on worst-case scenarios. If you’re in the unknown zone, use your imagination to envision the best-case scenario instead of the worst. What’s the greatest thing that could happen?
You never know what’s coming. It could be really good. When I started my business in 1999, I had NO idea that the internet would become what it is today. What a gift for a creative entrepreneur!
2. Financial indifference. You never know what will take off and bring you money. I don’t expect to rake in the dough for my novel. If I do, that will be a bonus. I do have other expectations for it, about what it will teach me and how staying with it through publication will impact my life. I count on psychic payouts rather than financial reward.
Many of my clients are professional writers. Writing their personal work without a paycheck at the end is big labor. They have trained themselves to start writing without guarantee of a financial reward.
3. Rejection resiliency. No one likes to be rejected. Fear of being rejected is why we don’t start creating in the first place.
But Nos are inherent to the territory of creating anything. Take rejection as a necessary pain and keep going. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell, but I’ve written about this elsewhere.
4. Self-esteem reflected by your choices. This is serious emotional labor, especially for those of us who are accustomed to putting everyone else’s needs first. You need to esteem yourself and your time enough to make and keep appointments to work on your projects.
You have to be willing to commit to yourself. You have to show up for it, despite guilt or feelings of selfishness.
5. Tenacity. Illness, the need to care for a parent or child, and unexpected emergencies can waylay our best efforts.
Ironically, I’ve seen these major obstacles show up in my clients’ lives just as they commit to do their work. I call it the Test. Major hurdles seem to test our commitment.
My clients learn practices to help them return more easily to their creative work after being derailed. How tenacious are you?
6. Humility. There’s nothing so humbling as creating art or a business. You can’t know everything about how to write a novel, how to get published, or how to incorporate your business. Being a novice doesn’t mean being a dunce; it just means you get to be an ongoing beginner.
Enjoy beginner status and shed the need to look good all the time. I promise you will enjoy the process a lot more.
7. Devotion to your art. You have to love your craft enough to set aside your ego when you realize your efforts aren’t good enough.
It’s humbling to attempt to master something.
Every draft of Chasing Sylvia Beach – I’m on number 15 now – has deepened my humility and my commitment to crafting a really good novel. It hasn’t been easy to accept that my writing isn’t up to snuff and that I need to apply myself more.
But I’m devoted to the project as much as I am devoted to improving my writing. I’ll never master the craft of writing. But I’ll die devoted to language and story.
8. Fumble gracefully. Reaching, striving, and failing is the only way to realize our fullest potential. “If you’re not failing, you’re not reaching far enough.”
We all know that mistakes are an inevitable part of learning. But to actually bear the consequences and sting of your mistakes with grace? Developing grace in fumbling is truly an art to be studied.
9. Honesty. This can be tough. We want to believe, so we delude ourselves. We insist our efforts are our best, we avoid financial realities and we prefer to use our vivid imagination to make everything okay.
I may need to accept that my novel will never be good enough for the market. That would be tough for me. But I’d have to face it. I’d have to move on.
Until that moment of truth, I’ll keep working the emotional labor of revision.
How do you fare with these types of emotional labor? Chances are you’re stronger with some than others. There’s no denying that it’s hard work to produce something that will sustain you creatively and financially.
But preparing yourself for the work will help. Struggling against it and moaning about how hard it is won’t make it easier. Knowing that we’re all doing our emotional labor can relieve some of the burden.
Honor and reward your emotional labor
Go back through each of these qualities. List at least one time you exhibited these traits. Give yourself credit for all the emotional labor you’ve done to date.
Then go celebrate your emotional labor. Use my article on celebration in the last issue of Impulses to guide your partying down.