The Potato Metaphor for Emotional Labor

Have you had the experience where a friend comes to you for support and you find it quite easy to give it to them? It may not be effortless for you (it’s still labor), but the way your friend shows up with their feelings makes it much easier to offer that labor.

On the flip side, has someone come to you for support and it feels exhausting to give it to them? Has it left you drained and tired and in need of your own support after the interaction?

Emotional labor is work, but the degree of difficulty and positive result from the interaction can vary dramatically. In order to clarify one facet of this dynamic, I started using a metaphor. It’s about potatoes. Let me explain.

In this metaphor, the person providing the support is the one offering to “bake the potatoes.” They provide the kitchen. They preheat the oven. They season the potatoes. They have the plates on which to serve the potatoes once they’re cooked. These actions are metaphors for things like active listening, asking empathic questions, and witnessing someone’s feelings.

The person seeking support is the one who brings the potatoes. The potatoes are their feelings and their issues that need attention.

These two people might prepare the potatoes together, but the person with the kitchen is probably going to do the majority of the cooking (the emotional labor).

In some relationships, the person needing support shows up in the kitchen with potatoes at the ready. They are saying, “Here. These are my potatoes. Cleaned and ready for your pan.”

In other relationships and situations, the person seeking support makes it harder to find their potatoes. They might come into the kitchen looking hungry. The kitchen-owner might be asked to expend a lot of energy finding out where that person’s potatoes are located. Are the potatoes in another kitchen, and do they know how to get there? Are they in the backyard in the dirt? Is the kitchen-owner requested to go dig up the potatoes? Knowing they exist, but having to work to uncover them can be a lot of work.

In some cases the potatoes may be so much effort to find that they never get baked at all. This can leave one or both parties feeling frustrated or unfulfilled.

The potato metaphor is useful because it highlights how the person being supported has an active role in how laborious the emotional labor involved really is. There are things we can do to be more supportable, just as there are things we can do to better support others. Sustainable networks of support require two-way maintenance.

In many relationships, one partner is more skilled than the other at emotional labor. It can be lopsided. One can end up doing a lot of potato digging, while the other just has to pop their partner’s potatoes in the oven. In some relationships, one partner may not even be skilled enough with an oven to bake potatoes at all and that cooking has to happen exclusively in friendships.

This dynamic is not always gendered, but I often see this lopsidedness happening in partnerships where one person has been socialized as male and one has been socialized as female. The one socialized as male may have the implicit expectation that their partner dig their potatoes for them. This unfairly burdens their socialized-as-female partner.

Lopsided potato-handling can be damaging to ease, equity, and harmony in relationships.

Want to be more supportable? Here are some examples of practices that make it easier to bring your potatoes to the kitchen. None of these are immediate fixes, but they’re all part of the process of meeting your supporters halfway.

1. Practice reflective self-care like journaling (so you can find your potatoes on your own first).

2. Allow yourself to feel your feels without too much judgment (so you won’t be ashamed of your potatoes when they aren’t so pretty).

3. Get more comfortable with vulnerability (so it’s not quite so scary to share your potatoes).

4. Improve your feelings literacy (so you can identify your potatoes).

5. Choose an appropriate time to share (so your potatoes are better received by the kitchen-owner).

6. Make clear requests for support (so the kitchen-owner isn’t left wondering if you need your potatoes cooked).

It is crucially important to improve our skills as a society on how to better support people going through challenging times. I spend a tremendous amount of my professional time on this exact endeavor through my Tea & Empathy workshops. That said, I would like to see a significant amount of airtime devoted to how we can be better at receiving support. How can we be better at delivering our potatoes so it’s easier for our loved ones to bake them for us? It’s more sustainable for our supporters, and we’d get more of the support we desire.

Of course, there will be times when life gets so difficult that even the most self-regulated and self-aware among us will need a little help digging out our potatoes. But the point is to be mindful to do as much of our own potato digging as possible so that our supporters don’t get overly taxed with the day-to-day emotional labor we request.

So I invite you to think about how you serve up your potatoes today. When you want help baking your potatoes, how do you deliver them to your supporters? Do you bring them all cleaned and ready to bake, or do you expect the folks in your life to dig them out of the garden for you? Are you spending a lot of time digging out other people’s potatoes? Do you need to set better boundaries about keeping people out of your kitchen so you don’t get overly drained?

Metaphors are memorable, clarifying tools and as such, this one has been a helpful one for me in describing a facet of my emotional and interpersonal landscape. I hope it’s helpful to you, too.

Wishing you lots of sustainable, healthy relationships in friendship and love.