Capitalism, Emotional Labour & Community Acupuncture

Marin POCAFest 2015 was an wonderful weekend of inspiration, stimulus, support and dear friends. To borrow a quote from Nora’s excellent post-PFest blog: “My colleague Whitsitt once said that POCAFest is always great because in our jobs we are used to connecting with people quickly and getting down to the nitty-gritty, finding out what hurts (and sometimes what’s funny, or just plain sweet); we’re also pretty good at allowing each other quiet time when we need it.” 

One of the highlights for me was the How Do We Get Support? workshop. As is typical (in my experience, anyway) of PFest workshops, we covered a lot of ground, folks got humble and vulnerable and learned from each other and it was phenomenally poignant. But during that workshop I was struck by the fact that despite the rich friendships and crucial support offered in POCA, a lot of us need a certain kind of help that we aren’t regularly getting.

Treating people in the clinic is hard work. A significant piece of that hard work is emotional work, i.e. emotional labour. Being present for people’s pain and giving them care is emotional labour. Having simple honest connection with people about the most real & important things is also deeply nourishing, which is one of the reasons why we love our jobs. But hard work, even joyous hard work that often feels easy, is still hard work. It takes a toll. This isn’t a post about self-care. This is a post about why emotional labour is not adequately recognized as LABOUR, how that impacts us, and what we can do about it.

I’ve been reading Sylvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch.” It’s about the beginnings of capitalism as we live with it today, about people being pushed off the land that had sustained them and forced into waged labour, and about the European witch hunts: hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, killed by the state in a span of two hundred years. It’s about peasant resistance to the emergence of capitalism – which was not a natural next step from feudalism, but brought about through intensive social control and immense violence, much of that gendered and racialised violence.

This is a huge topic and beyond the scope of what I’m writing about here, but it’s relevant to a discussion of emotional labour because a part of what made capitalism possible was a major campaign to break women’s power and control their reproductive labour – that is, everything to do with reproducing the labour force: child-birth, child rearing, cooking, cleaning, and care work. Women’s activities came to be considered not work. This was deliberately created and we live with that legacy today.

I think that this historical erasure of “womens’ work” has to do with why we don’t always get the support we need when the cumulative stress/heartbreak/frustration of bearing witness to people’s pain & suffering and giving them care is reaching crisis levels in our own bodies and psyches. I italicized cumulative because it’s easy to think that if you can do a kind of work once, or twice, or 5 days a week for months, that you can do it forever and that’s fine. But we’ve all treated enough repetitive strain injuries to know that’s not always the case, right? That barista with wicked wrist pain who comes in with her right arm in a brace – she didn’t get into this state after a day on the job, right? Maybe not even after the first few months.

What I’m trying to say is this: emotional labour is real work. If you are acupunking, that real work is part of your job. You’re doing it with everyone you treat. Everybody needs support around all aspects of the hard work they do. If you are way too emotionally tired/feeling like a zombie/ getting unusually triggered by your patients’ distress/inexplicably depressed, then you might not be getting enough support for the emotional labour that you are doing. Note that I AM NOT SAYING YOU JUST NEED TO DO BETTER SELF CARE.  This is not a post about self care. This is about community care.

Support looks different for different people. I am a fast talker, a messy weeper, a deep listener, and a phone person. I know not everyone wants to be witnessed in their difficult emotions and not everyone wants to talk in groups, even small groups. I can only share what’s worked for me and some of my friends & colleagues. I would love to hear what is working for other people.

When I punked at Poke, I met with the two other Poke punks regularly to talk shop and check in with each other. A part of those conversations was emotional support. We carved out a precious, precious 90 minutes every other Thursday morning at 8am. I still miss those meetings. They never felt like enough for me, but it was a billion times better than nothing.

When I moved to Guelph and was facing the prospect of being a solo punk for awhile, I made a deal with a friend who is not a community acupuncturist, but who gets what we do, and has training as a trauma-sensitive yoga teacher. She gets unlimited acupuncture on my shifts, and I get to call her when I need to talk. Even when she only has six minutes of attention for me because her kid needs her, it’s a billion times better than nothing.

Now that I’m not punking alone anymore (YAY) Stef and I meet every Wednesday. We plan, we talk about our lives, we talk about people who we’re sad/confused about as well as people who are getting better (celebration is super-important) we maybe talk points a little bit, we needle each other and doze together before her shift. We both need these meetings. I still call my yoga teacher friend to get specific support around clinic stuff. (Once when she came in for treatment right after someone had been mean to me she took one look at my face and sent me to the back room to have a quick cry while she sat at the reception desk.) I also rely on a weekly phone date with another community acupuncturist in a different time zone for an hour and a half of plotting, cackling, bonding & support.

I don’t share this to suggest that I’m doing it perfectly now or that I never get stuck & lonely or that I’ve got some kind of superior emotional intelligence (eeeewwwww, I hate that phrase anyways) but to give examples of practical things we can do in order to not get such severe repetitive strain injuries from emotional labour that we end up hating our jobs and/or our lives. There have been times when I’ve not had adequate support for the emotional labour I do at work. It’s been ugly. First I get brittle and then I start to break.

Of course it’s tough to get everyone in the same room together when you’ve got a BDC that’s open six or seven days a week, and not everyone is friends with their coworkers, and there’s always a ton of other things to talk about at work meetings. But if you are at a multi-punk clinic and thinking wistfully “It might be really awesome to get together to talk about the tough stuff at work” then I’d suggest two things: 1) You’re probably not the only one at work who feels that way and 2) It doesn’t have to be every punk at every meeting. Smaller groups could form.

I also know that as a clinic owner, it’s easy to think that you have to give the appearance of being fine all the time. “I got this. I’m great. The clinic is great!” We don’t want to worry our staff. I’ve certainly struggled with “Oh god if they only knew how much I don’t have it together sometimes…”

The thing is, we keep learning in community acupuncture world how much better everything gets for everybody (patients, punks, office staff) as we flatten as many hierarchies as we can. That applies here too. If we as clinic owners allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our punks, we give them implicit permission to be vulnerable with us. We become like our environments. It can be tremendously supportive to our punks to create a space where they can be real about how hard the job is some days, with someone who gets it. As an employer it’s important to me that my staff can get emotional support from me when they need it. And I think that they appreciate that I trust them enough to lean on them too. The reciprocity of these relationships makes them sturdy.

Emotional labour is real work. We owe it to ourselves, our patients and the movement to be attentive to this. There are hundreds of us. Buddy up.

Lisa B.
Author: Lisa B.

Lisa prefers fireflies to fireworks, reverts to bluntness in stressful moments, would happily wear legwarmers year-round, and probably wants to be your friend.

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  1. i’m just a student now, but i am happy to hear about clinic ownership bc i hope to be there someday. it’s hard to be vulnerable, and a good reminder to build support into the game plan. thanks.

  2. We (all clinic staff) meet once per month and usually have an opening / check-in and a closing round and it’s a chance to mention personal stuff. Also we have an open agenda staff meeting structure, so anyone present can add things to the agenda. This gives another opening for something a bit more wordy to be brought up. Or if something feels juicy in the check-in it can be slapped onto the agenda to process more deeply. Other than that, we do not have a structured system for checking in, though we know we are available to each other by email and phone if something comes up. Maybe we should consider something more structured… My experience is that it is so darn hard to find time to schedule even one meeting per month and having more meetings may feel more stressful to most of us.
    I will also confess that I am not much of a phone person and I usually find meetings exhausting and often anxiety provoking. I am not someone who shares often in a group. As an introvert, I find that my best option for emotional labor relief most of the time is not talking about it to someone but taking a break from it and being alone, having space to wrap around it all, to breathe into it. And pretty much exercise is my drug of choice. (I have had many a crying spell during cardio at the gym or in stretch / yoga class).

  3. I so agree with what you expressed, I AM NOT SAYING YOU JUST NEED TO DO BETTER SELF CARE. This is not a post about self care. This is about community care.

    What has been working for me lately is texting or messaging other acupunks. One of my owners is cool with me shooting off a ranting text about whatever is aching my mind, soul, heart and that helps cause it feels more like “in house” community. Messaging and texting helps because I can look back at that text, message the next day and feel that “wow! – I’m not there anymore” or somehow feel and see a move, a change, a new perspective, and a sense of “other people get it”.