Emotional labor, anxiety and mental health: Learning my personal boundaries
As I came across this quote on Instagram today, I began to reflect on 2018 and remind myself just how far I’ve come. In the past, I’ve performed tremendous emotional labor in order to help my significant other. Now, let me start off by saying that my exes weren’t consciously trying to burden me with all of their negative emotion; instead, I was the one who constantly put myself in this position with men who I knew couldn’t reciprocate.
When I first began taking an interest in guys, in high school, I found myself attracted to the ones with problems. Not the ones who ditched class all the time or were getting high behind the bleachers. But the ones who had sadness in their eyes behind every joke they cracked or insecurity they tried to cover with their self-deprecating humor. I liked prying them open like clam shells, looking for that precious pearl - their internal conflicts, past traumas, family life - whatever made them the way they were. I prided myself on being able to get them to open up, to let me in. I wanted to help them.
And this was something I took into adulthood.
I was reading tons of self-help books and finding mindful ways to deal with my own anxiety. And these readings greatly helped my emotional health. Even with all of my readings, I still couldn’t recognize my biggest fault - what was making me feel empty inside when I didn’t have it - the validation from men. Not for my looks or how many likes I got on Instagram, but for how I made them feel.
Music to my ears were the words “I’ve learned so much from you” or “You’ve taught me so much about myself.” I thought I was a fucking healer, curing men of emotional ailments one by one.
I was 20 years old when I began my first serious relationship. It was also the first time I began experiencing episodes of depression, a symptom of my anxiety. Great move, right? Well at the time, I didn’t care. My ex was a few years older than me, living on his own - renting a room from a friend; his family went back to Mexico after he had graduated high school. He was alone, with no family and was particular about his friend group; he didn’t have very many. With his family gone, there was a huge void to fill. And I, naively, thought that I could fill it. I made sure to be there for him, whatever he needed. I’d drop what I was doing and come to his aid. Who else is going to take care of him? I’d think to myself. I carried this huge weight on my shoulders knowing that he had no one else around. I wouldn’t talk about my own problems because his troubles would always sound worse. I mean, his family was in another country for fuck’s sake. Not being able to communicate my feelings and emotions put me in an even unhealthier state of mind. The relationship ended after a year, and again I felt that emptiness creep back inside.
In comes my next serious relationship, and not very long after. We were together for about a year and a half. He also had parental problems. His father was out of the picture, and his absent mother had just come back into to his life at 24 years old. On top of all of that, he was coming to terms with the recent death of his brother. On paper, he was a well-rounded person - had a steady job, lots of friends and was very likable. But he had a temper, and it came out at times when he was drunk or felt challenged by someone. His anger was never targeted towards me, nor did I ever feel like I was in any danger. But, I saw how this anger affected him, and I wanted to help! I gave him self-help books to read, constantly recited lines and challenged him to do some internal reflection whenever he couldn’t figure out his emotions. When we broke up, he said he was grateful for how much he’d learned from me and how I taught him to be in touch with himself.
Relationship after relationship, I kept asking myself why it didn’t work out? After some serious internal reflection, it hit me: they “didn’t grow fast enough.” I expected them to have the same self-awareness I had. But I didn’t realize how long it had taken me to get where I was and am today and how much actual work I put into myself. I thought that with my help, we could speed up their process. But it doesn’t really work like that, and knowing what I know now, I realize that these relationships never would have worked out in the first place.
While taking care of someone made me feel validated, it only did so because of the narratives I’d learned as a child. That as women we’re supposed to be inherently nurturing and caregivers. But I did not have to be anyone’s “savior" at 20 years old, and I still don’t need to be.
For the future, I will set my boundaries in terms of what I expect from a partner and what they can, or can’t expect of me. I know now what I can and can’t handle, and I’m not afraid to voice it. I will no longer accept assumptions made of myself and will not make them of others.
Raylene Paris is a writer and editor who completed her BA in English in December 2018. She is a creative soul and hopes to become a published author. She’s a longtime Long Beach rep and loves her sunny California. You can follow her on the ‘gram @parissita_