executive function and emotional labour

I have been having a really hard time lately managing the often perceived to be small things of a normal life. Cleaning, shopping, planning meals, answering emails. I’d been reading on the topic of executive function on Cynthia’s website “Musings of an Aspie”. Cynthia has the best series I know of on the topic of executive function, and while my experiences are not exactly the same as hers I recognise myself in many of her descriptions. Please visit https://musingsofanaspie.com/executive-function-series/ and have a look to really understand what I mean when I talk about executive function (EF).

I’ve visited Cynthia’s website regularly over the last few years as I’ve tried to muddle through this process of understanding myself, and over time I’ve realised that my EF is impaired in different ways at different times. Some days I have little trouble getting through the things I need and want to do, other days I have trouble getting anything started, and other days can be anything in between. I have had no success, however, in reliably identifying what the trigger for increased impairment in my EF is.

Things that I have identified as having an impact on my EF include: sustained loud noise, unexpected short loud noise, bright light, flashing light, being touched a lot within a period of time, size of a task, tiredness, illness, unusually busy days and weeks, unexpected change, changes that cause me to alter my routines, anticipation of change, being in a large group of people, needing to process a large amount of communication done by speaking and listening, text walls, and more.

But while I realise that all of the above can be things that affect my EF, I also know that when these things affect me more than usual it is a sign my EF is already impaired. I cannot satisfactorily say these things are a cause of EF impairment when they are also something I recognise as being more of a problem when my EF is already impaired. Or, to say it “academically”, I am not confident that these things are purely causational because I see evidence of a correlational relationship. Because of this I have still been looking for a root cause of my EF impairments.

Then I read this on the Autistic Academic website:


and it filled in a lot of blanks for me. Things I couldn’t articulate, even to myself, have become clearer as a result of reading Dani’s words. Please read the article before you read further here (clicking the link will open a new window), or you may have trouble understanding some of what I am going to try to explain.

As I was first reading I felt that the idea of emotional labour was new to me. But over the last week I’ve realised that I knew about it, I just didn’t know that I knew it. You see, for a very long time I have understood about myself that being around people drains to me to the point of needing time doing literally nothing, even though I want company and connection. I just hadn’t realised it was the emotional, empathic part of me that was being drained rather than the physical energy part of me I had assumed was being tired out. It is the part of me that cares about everyone else that gets overwhelmed, not my physical body.

Another realisation that has changed the way I understand myself, silly as it may sound to some of you, is that there are those of you out there who can talk to people and listen to their stories, experiences, worries, angers and fears without feeling them and processing them as your own. I can’t do that. When people tell me their stuff, I feel it as if it was my own stuff. I can’t not do it. I can’t stop my mind from dwelling on it. If I am told something upsetting I will feel that upset, sometimes for days. It consumes and overwhelms me. It disables me.

So, the understanding that emotional labour disables me dawned. And I have been stuck here since. I don’t know how to proceed. I cannot just stop caring for people. I am unwilling to stop connecting with people. I need connection. I crave it.

In my periods of self imposed isolation as part of my self care strategy to avoid or recover from overwhelm, I always feel intensely lonely and broken. I recognise I need to change that strategy, but have not come up with a replacement to try yet.

I lament the loss of past relationships as a result of my withdrawal due to what I now recognise as emotional overwhelm, but the fact is- I simply cannot keep up with you.

Ironically, I have been told I am intense. I never thought intense was bad…. but I am told I am too intense, so it has become a point of insecurity for me. If I approach new friendships without tempering myself I worry I will drown others with my friendship and remain lonely. Yet, I do not want others to withdraw from me.

Online typed communication has been a revelation for me. It removes the need to process conversations through spoken language and listening, and offers me opportunities for connection that I didn’t have before. It protects me somewhat from overwhelm, as I can choose when I will engage and avoid it when I need to. Somehow it is more socially acceptable to have long breaks for processing between comments in online communication than in face to face. It also protects others from me. If I am too much then they can ignore me until they are ready without feeling so awkward about doing it to my face. To be clear, that was not an self depreciating statement- it is an acknowledgement that worrying about how others see me and experience me is another kind of emotional labour that I do.

As it becomes more obvious to me that some days I am quite disabled by the emotional labour I do, I have to find the strength to do the emotional labour for myself that is required to see myself that way. Admitting to yourself that some days you will forget to get dressed, eat before becoming faint, use the bathroom before it is urgent, or remember to check if there is food for your family’s dinner is not easy. Especially when you’ve been raised in and by a society that values action and uses it as a measure of worth. Reminding myself that I am enough, that I have value- even though disabled- is necessary, but is also emotional labour. And so I feel trapped in a cycle of overwhelm and impairment right now. It is not a comfortable place to be.

Realising that part of my struggles toward self acceptance is because of gender stereotypes and the fact that my disability is not and will not be accepted by many as being legitimate is also something that forces me to do emotional labour. On my behalf and that of others. Another tiring cycle to process my way through.

The unfairness of it feels heavy to me right now. I see its impacts in all corners of my life. My friendships, work life, marriage and relationship with my children. As Dani says,

“Emotional labor is the work done to organize, remember, prioritize, sort, and structure daily lives and relationships.  In short, it’s the effort put into giving a fuck about other people’s thoughts, needs, and desires.  There’s an excellent introduction to emotional labor and the ways it manifests (as well as ways to do it) at Brute Reason here.

The problem with emotional labor, of course, is that generally speaking it is not considered “work” at all.  Rather, women in particular are expected to provide it “out of the goodness of our hearts.”  Emotional labor is actively cast as not-work by being cast instead as a natural urge women simply have – as if, rather than calling on women to generate effort, we’re actually doing them a favor by foisting the world’s give-a-fuck duties onto them.”

When something that is work for me, and debilitating work at times, is seen by others as something I should do without question, there is a real problem.

The problem is not that I don’t care (something I have been accused of in the past), it is that I do care and the cost to me is enormous, impacting not only on my thoughts and feelings but my ability to physically get things done as well. I don’t yet know what to do with that information.


This post is part of my emerging autistic identity series- read them all by clicking here (clicking link will open a new window, posts are in reverse chronological order- first at the bottom) 

7 thoughts on “executive function and emotional labour

  1. Great post! I’ve got the similar “problem” (sometimes it’s a problem, sometimes an opportunity). There’s so much to be said for caring so much about other people, but it can be the care that paralyzes. I end up saving up my concerns for when there’s a real crisis and then my Autistic problem-solving powers can activate, but mundane concerns just aren’t worth the exhaustion. I remember talking about teen drama in a mediation class and the teacher mentioned that such drama was important TO THEM (and I get that, I do), but that type of drama, that isn’t looking for a real solution when the struggle is bleakest isn’t worth sapping me. How great that you’re able to articulate this struggle so well so that we don’t feel alone in this!

    1. The struggle I have is that I can tell when a drama probably isn’t worth spending my time on, but even if I decide to ignore it, it is only my conscious mind that will try- my subconscious mind still works on it, and it actually takes me longer to process and move past that way. For me, making time to sit with the feelings does help get them dealt with sooner- it’s just super taxing!

      1. You know, I think that IS why it takes so long. A nt person might let it go and mean it, but we keep picking at it after we might have said we’re over it. It’s hard to be in a culture that doesn’t give everyone the time necessary to process, I guess.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. Though I feel stuck these days, reading you helps me better understand why and where I am stuck, and that we share similar “stuck-ness” is validating to a point I can’t express.
    I’ve often reflected on the intersections of feminism and autism, expectations placed on autistic women and the impossibilities that come with implicit social demands. I tried to write about it, and explored some, with an article in French titled something like ‘I’ll never be nice’. It touches on these points, the fact that ‘being nice’ as expected by society’s normative standards for women is something I can’t do, though engagement and the willingness to be kind are all there.
    And after reading both your and Dani’s articles today, lamp posts are lighting up along the way and it feels like I’m a bit less lost.
    Much solidarity.

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