What Happens When Your Job Becomes Your Identity?

this is who I am

At the annual holiday party, a new employee asks what you do at the company.

“I run sales for the entire Southwest Division,” you reply.

“Impressive,” he says. “I can’t even imagine how demanding that is.”  He pauses for a sip of his drink. “So, what do you do outside of work?”

Outside of work? You think long and hard. “Well, I travel a lot…and… I put in a lot of hours calling on clients, and…”

You realize you have nothing else to say. What you DO as a profession has become who you ARE with no separation. You’re proud of your accomplishments but realize the imaginary line separating work and personal life is just not there anymore. Your job has become your identity.

When a job is a person’s identity, what happens if its lost? Or a career is changed? Just where does the job end and person begin?

The Pressure to Find “a Calling”

Finding “a calling” is everyone’s ultimate employment goal. It means knowing yourself well enough that you know what kind of work will fulfill you on a higher level. Many of us do not ever find our calling.

The pressure to find a calling can be overwhelming. “Research shows that pressure to find “a calling” makes students feel lost and depressed. Even young children get the message that the career they choose will be part of who they become; consider how often today’s kids are asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” (Kate Morgan, BBC)

A calling blurs the boundaries between work and personal life as values are defined through work. Our friends become only the friends we make through work and over time, we lose more and more of our personal life to our job. “When you become so enmeshed in your job that it begins to define you, you also may begin to let it determine your own value. This can have disastrous effects,” says Morgan.

Losing a Job That is Your Identity

If your job is your whole identity, losing it can be catastrophic. “But when your personal identity is heavily tied to your job, losing that job-even through no fault of your own, such as in an economic downturn or a restructuring- can seem catastrophic, causing an existential crisis or what the authors of the book Difficult Conversations call an ‘identity quake,’” says Rebecca Zucker of Harvard Business Review.

These people feel lost and ungrounded. It is also more difficult to change fields when inherently affiliated with a role.

The Cell Phone in Our Pocket Prevents Work Separation

Like many of us, you may not be able to resist checking emails, chats, or texts, even on vacation. The 24-7 access is so tempting that most can never truly disconnect. Working from home further blurs the line.

When our jobs are our identities, we think that we should be doing more of what we love.

But is it possible to be creative and connected to others with a constant work distraction in our pockets? When do we hit burnout? “When you’re overworked, you’re actually less productive,” says author Jeffrey Davis of Psychology Today.  “When you get more sleep, develop a healthier work/life balance, and actually learn how to separate yourself from your work, you will find that you’re capable of not just enjoying more meaningful (and productive) work, but also of creating a more meaningful and well-rounded life.”

Establish a Healthy Personal Purpose Outside of Work

It is important to have meaningful relationships outside of work. A person’s definition of success should go beyond their chosen industry. Mentally, we need to have friend and family groups outside of work who give us a break from thinking and talking about our job.

It may benefit us to assess our core values and become more intentional about how we spend our time. “Basing your life’s meaning on your work is not the same thing as crafting meaning in your work,” says author Jeffrey Davis of Psychology Today.  “You should define your own personal purpose. “Your ‘core self’ is where you derive your identity.”

At Artemis Consultants, we care about the total person. Please contact us to help you craft a healthy identity with your next role.

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