Emotional Labor & Eeyore


Lately, I’ve seen a variation of the above image circulating on my Facebook feed.

In one comment thread, someone asks if this is the awesome thing about Eeyore, or if it’s the great thing about his friends. Almost everyone who responded to that particular person said some variation of “both.”

For a time, Eeyore was my favorite character of the Pooh characters (none of whom I felt especially invested in, but this is back when you had to like Pooh characters or Tweety bird). I should be specific: I liked the Disney version of Eeyore because he didn’t seem overly sunny or naive or (unlike Rabbit) use his intelligence to measure that of others.Eeyore was sad, and the part of me that shared this related so hard to Eeyore’s view of the world and himself.

I assume the image above relates to the Disney version of Eeyore. I assume also, that this reflects more on his friends, who are the ones doing the work to pull Eeyore into the world. They mostly refrain from judgement and expectations, and accept Eeyore for who he is. As someone who has lived with depression, and who has lived with others experiencing depression, I know that this type of unconditional positive regard takes a toll. I know that sometimes, that sometimes it seems as though I’ve been out of tools (either for myself or for whoever I’m working to support through their depression). I know this is a sad and scary place to be, regardless of if the person I’m trying to help is myself or someone else and that sometimes being out of tools has made me feel like a bit of a failure.

I also know, and have had to do a lot of personal work to accept, that it would be okay if Eeyore’s friends needed to take space to replenish their own resources. We can only pour so much out without getting something (from somewhere) in return.

So, lest we get too invested in those rose-colored glasses, we also see instances where it’s evident Eeyore’s friends might be burning out (a broken red balloon for a birthday present? Really?). We see instances where the levity changes based on whether Eeyore is there. And, it’s difficult for most of us to accept that it’s okay for Eeyore’s friends to do things without Eeyore to replenish their emotional stores. It’s difficult to accept this, because many of us are taught that it’s our duty to manage not only our feelings, but the feeling of those we care about — and we come to expect this of others.

This isn’t to say that Eeyore’s friends should reject him or leave him out all of the time. Only that they needn’t always include him, and that if they choose not to include him (or any other member of their merry band) that it’s not equivalent to personal rejection. It is a statement of “I need space,” or “We’re going to do this thing now, and we’ll do this other thing with you later” or “You’ve never expressed interest in this before all the other times we’ve asked you, so we’ve stopped asking you to do [ACTIVITY], but when we’re done with that, we’d love to have brunch.” But, our FOMO paints a negative picture. If we live with depression, or even if we don’t, our FOMO might cause us to enter a downward spiral. We may imagine that our friends have given up on us or will never care about us again or that they’ll form all these amazing bonds without us if we aren’t along for some particular shenanigans.

I’m not sure how to change the narrative on this. For me, it’s taken a lot of personal work and sometimes I still slip into that mentality — that my friends are rejecting me even when I trust it’s not actually true. It’s taken a lot of personal work to not (completely) internalize it when someone has said, “I love you, but I can’t do this anymore,” which I have heard, more than once.

But we have to start changing this narrative. We have to start talking about this rather than holding up the above as a shining exemplar of “true” friendship.

We must especially do this when things aren’t painted with Disney’s softer brush strokes. The AA Milne version of Eeyore is caustic — the type of personality that verges on verbally abusive. The type of personality that really may be best to avoid, especially for those of us who wind up doing a lot of the emotional labor in our friendships. Those of us who wind up feeling like we failed when these “friends” continue to berate us or those around us.

Because, let’s be clear, as many have written before, there’s a difference between depression and being an asshole.

But this is a hard conversation to have too — with ourselves, with our friends, with the caustic people in our lives. It’s hard because we probably genuinely care about that caustic person (or we are that caustic person or we at least see traits of that in ourselves). We probably want to see them change (to be happier, to be more accepting of others, to realize how they’re projecting, etc.). But as friends this is not our job. There are professionals for this. We don’t need to take abuse. We can say, if we are up to it, “hey friend, I think you need more help than I can offer.” We can encourage them to seek that help and we can take space while they seek it, or not, and neither choice makes us a bad person.

As the saying goes, self-care is not selfish. It is an act of self-preservation.

Creating that distance, if that’s what we need, is not selfish. We are not responsible for another person’s feelings. We are responsible for our own and how we act.

We can still act in kindness, and support those in our community who live with depression, while preserving ourselves.

We need to be having that conversation, too. It’s a hard one. It’s necessary.

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