Does Your Job Define You?

An outplacement client recently laid off from her job mentioned that she planned to avoid social gatherings over the holidays because she knew she'd be asked, "What do you do?"  Now without a job title, she feared she would not know how to answer.

This candid admission led to a conversation about her identity and how linked it was to the work she had done for well over a decade. In spite of the other aspects of her life that also took her time and attention, her work had become the core of her identity—her face in the world. Without it, she was unsure about who she was.

Experiencing an identity crisis is not always a bad thing, although in the moment, it feels threatening. To be stripped of one way of seeing yourself in the world can open you to the ways that you have forgotten.

Take Mark for example. Because of a serious physical injury, he was no longer able to continue in his profession as a civil engineer. His recovery period required sustained bed rest and gave him plenty of time to ponder his situation.

During this time he had vivid dreams in which he saw himself with an artist’s paintbrush in hand. These dreams prompted memories of his artist grandmother and of special times when they would draw and paint together.

When it came time to choose a career path, Mark’s father suggested that his math aptitude would serve him well in the field of engineering. As many young adults do, Mark followed his father’s advice and abandoned all thoughts about art as a possible direction.

It was three decades later when the art theme returned in Mark’s dreams and after a double loss of his physical ability and professional identity.

The late poet William Stafford has described this type of re-emerging theme in his poem “The Way It Is”: “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change.  But it doesn’t change.”

Individual threads often resurface as a result of a loss or ending of some sort: a physical injury, a job loss, or death of a loved one, as examples.

These losses, while initially difficult to bear, may open you up to a significant thread that reminds you of an important, perhaps forgotten part of your self-identity.

Our culture's implicit connection between work and identity can have a damaging impact on self-esteem when you are in a job transition or when you decide to take time out from the workplace to raise children.