Updated: Sep 30
Our roles at work and our personal identity are closely intertwined. Imagine this common scenario: When someone asks us: “What do you do?” Most of us naturally reply with what we do for work even when the question isn’t work-specific.
In social situations like these, our jobs provide us with a quick way to define and position ourselves in relation to others. While there’s nothing wrong with basing ourselves off our 9-5, it becomes concerning when our self-worth becomes too entangled with our professional lives.
A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour stated how losing our jobs (and even the fear of it) can negatively impact our self-esteem and wellbeing (1). Apart from dealing with the financial stress of job loss, people tend to struggle to separate themselves from their professional identity. So, what can we do about it?
How Do We Separate Professional and Personal Identity
As human beings, we naturally label and objectify ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. We assess our self-worth in terms of our physical appearance, social class, political preferences, and especially our job titles.
And society tends to reinforce our own beliefs by telling us that success is dependent on how successful we are at our jobs. The trap occurs when we associate our full identity and self-worth with our work. And it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the idea of meaningful work and meaningful life.
To prevent ourselves from reducing our humanity to a single professional title, here are some ways to restore self-worth that comes from a healthier and fuller place:
1. Redefine success and achievement
It’s not wrong to derive your self-worth from your professional achievements. You’ve worked hard to land that job, get that promotion, start that company. However, success comes in many forms, and your achievements outside the office matter too.
We’re conditioned to think of success in terms of status and money. But true success is living a happy and fulfilled life, being comfortable in your own skin, and understanding who you truly are. As more people begin to define their own success by those measures, it will undoubtedly shift how we view both mental health and success.
2. Leave work-talk at work
Do you talk endlessly about your office ongoings at the dinner table? While it’s okay to vent about work frustrations, be mindful of how much they infiltrate your peaceful evenings. You may even set a rule restricting work-talk to half an hour after arriving home. The key is in accepting that we need to talk about work while learning to restrict the time we spend doing so.
3. Grow your social circle outside of work
Investing time in friendships with people who have zero connection with your professional life encourages you to develop non-work interests and values. This is extremely beneficial because these people remind you of who you really are regardless of your professional success and failures. And oftentimes, being a loyal friend, a generous mentor, or a creative thinker is way more valuable than being your office’s “Employee of the Month”.
4. Intentionally create space between work and life
As obvious and clichė as this may sound, drawing boundaries between your work and personal life is essential. This is often preached but only a few of us intentionally carve out that space for ourselves.
This includes taking your vacations and not working during them at all. You can also take a small Sabbath each evening by proscribing work and dedicating your time to relationships and leisure. The idea is to create breathing space to help you gain perspective on other wonderful things in life.
5. Reassess your core values
Our values are what we stand for and what we deem as important. They are the essence of our identities and stay fairly constant over time. This may be things like integrity, creativity, autonomy, or candor.
However, we tend to lose sight of our values when work and life get busy. As our stresses get in the way, it’s easy to forget why we do what we do.
Hence, it’s important to check in with yourself every once in a while. Has your attachment to work pulled you away from your core values? If the answer is yes, reel yourself back and let your values be the driver of your work goals, your personal goals, and even your family goals. Remember, your work should add meaning to your life, but it should not be the meaning of your life.
Being passionate about your job is wonderful — but moderation is always key. If you become so consumed up in your professional identity to the point it affects your self-worth and wellbeing, it’s time to take a step back. Keep a healthy perspective by distinguishing who you are from what you do. In the grand scheme of things, your job is just that — a job.
Your worth as a person is not tied to your position on the organizational chart. So when someone criticizes a presentation you gave, remind yourself that they’re criticizing the presentation, not you. By shifting your perspective this way, you build resilience and protect your self-esteem from inevitable challenges and even failures. And having a strong sense of self, in turn, will help you perform better in your role and help you live a more wholesome life.
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