10 Signs it’s Time to Stop Investing the Emotional Labor

A repost of an article originally posted May 1, 2023.

Oh hi, hello there, I’m that girl. I’m the one who thinks it’s my personal responsibility to fix every broken person on this godforsaken planet. I seem to love having hard conversations with emotionally stunted people who don’t want to change, heal, or grow. So, if you’re at all like me, here are ten signs that you shouldn’t invest the emotional labor in that beautifully tragic person you’re thinking about fixing:

1. They believe that their life is the exception.

Don’t invest your time and energy in people who sincerely believe that their life is the exception — the one outlier in a world of people living common experiences. If they refuse to see how their patterns of behavior harm others, or alternatively, if they believe that their pain and wounds are worse than everyone else’s, that’s probably not a person to keep investing your labor into.

2. They love to talk about “gray areas”.

Of course, plenty of things in life aren’t black or white. Nuance is everywhere. But there are some things that are objectively good or bad, right or wrong. If someone insists that their harmful choices fall into a gray area, it’s time to walk away. It took them a lot of mental gymnastics to convince themselves that their behavior is gray and not just plain old wrong. Your emotional labor will do nothing to change that.

3. They are always the hero or the victim, never the villain.

They see themselves as the hero when they are engaging in destructive behavior “for a good purpose,” like having an affair with a married person because that person is trapped in a loveless marriage. They see themselves as the victim when their destructive choices come back to harm them, caring more about the pain they’re in than the pain they’ve caused. It is impossible for them to imagine that, perhaps, they are the villain in their own story. Even if you try to put it delicately, they will never listen.

4. Their story changes as you back them into the corner.

The moment you think you’ve got them pinned to the mat, so to speak, they change the story. They begin to backtrack on details they gave earlier, suddenly providing a “new recollection” they had, or “some missing context”. By changing the story, they knock you off your footing. Rather than being able to move forward with an honest conversation about their behavior, you have to go back and start from the beginning based on this “new” information.

5. They attempt to put themselves on the moral high ground.

They see themselves as the arbiters of everything good and moral. Quite possibly, they don’t actually believe they are better than everyone else, but it’s more useful to them if they can convince you that they are.

6. They point out your shortcomings.

They attempt to invalidate your valid concerns about their choices by pointing out the times you have made bad choices. Their goal is to make you seem like a hypocrite, someone who is not qualified to criticize them. Your emotional labor becomes all about defending yourself instead of holding them accountable.

7. They cycle between tears and tantrums.

Occasionally, they will cry, making you think they’ve had a breakthrough. They’ll tell you that you’re right, and that they’ll change. This is a tactic to try to end the conversation. If you continue, they will quickly turn angry and will lash out. You realize they never thought you were right — they just hoped you would stop talking if they said you were.

8. They are full of contradictions that only benefit themselves.

They can set boundaries and it’s healthy, but if you set them, you’re abusive. They can be emotionally dysregulated and that’s human, but if you are, you’re unsafe. They can talk to their friends and family about you and it’s processing or letting off steam, but if you do it, you’re trying to destroy their reputation. They build a dynamic of one-way streets that leave you unable to do anything right.

9. They have a persecution complex.

If someone seems constantly preoccupied with talking about how you and others have let them down, or it seems like no matter how much has been done for them it’s never enough, it’s possible that they have a persecution complex. For whatever reason (and some of them are valid) they have a need to see themselves as the recipients of mistreatment. There is really no way to convince them otherwise.

10. They use gaslighting tactics to throw you off.

They will lie, deflect, accuse, and attack, all for knocking you off balance. They want to make you unsure of yourself and your convictions, making you wonder if perhaps you are the real problem here. Then you’ll expend your emotional labor apologizing, comforting them, and trying to make amends.

And here’s the thing: all of us do the things on this list from time to time. You don’t need to walk away from someone if they do one of these things to you, or even if they do a few of them over time or on occasion. Being human means being imperfect, and it’s important to practice grace, empathy, and compassion when people you love mess up. Because, frankly, you’ll do some of these things, too. And you’ll hope to be given the benefit of the doubt when you do.

What this article suggests is that you need to pay attention to patterns of behavior. If you are seeing these things often in another person—if these ten behaviors are a pattern that you see manifest in most of their interactions with you or others, it may be time to stop giving your emotional labor. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It may just mean they have some healing to do. It is possible to have compassion for that while also protecting your own peace, energy, and well-being.

Save your emotional labor for someone who is ready to receive it.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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