Feather & Flint

Leaving a Job That’s Compromising Your Identity

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November 6, 2016 26 Comments 2 Photos

What do we lose when we let our job determine our identity—and how do we reclaim it?

Leaving a Job That's Compromising Your Identity | Feather & Flint

“What do you do?” It’s the first question that we ask after learning someone’s name. In modern American society, we’re defined by the job titles bestowed upon us. We spend our weekdays toiling in the pursuit of promotions and raises, and our jobs bleed into our free time in the form of late-night emails, insomnia, and Sunday night dread. We spend more time with our coworkers than with our families, and the stress we are steeped in from 9 to 5 (or, increasingly, 8 to 6) strains our marriages and our friendships. The benefit of this is that we make some of our most significant relationships at work; this has been one of the greatest pleasures of my adult life. However, we’re left with a creeping sense of ever-shrinking free time and little understanding of our own identities without our jobs to define us.

“When your identity is dependent solely on your job, you’re conditioned to feel as good or as bad as your latest performance, your worth hanging in the balance with every task. Having to remanufacture your worth every day is exhausting, and it crowds out the parts of life needed to bolster your real identity. You lose track of the authentic person behind the mask and that character’s needs, interests and values.” —Joe Robinson

This week, I left the company where I’ve been for the past year—my third job in the three and a half years since grad school. Before I move on to my next big opportunity, I’m determined to shed the lingering stress and self-doubt that have made a home in my mind over the last year.

My search for a new role gave me the opportunity to reconsider who I was outside of the walls of this company, without other people to dictate what my strengths and weaknesses might be. As I packed up my belongings last week, I found myself wondering: What was it about this job that had rendered me hopeless, confused, and dubious of my own self-worth? Am I unusually vulnerable to losing my identity because of my finely tuned sensitivity to others’ opinions of me? By measuring my sense of achievement on my progress toward work-related goals, am I doomed to repeat this pattern again and again? Does blurring the lines between work relationships and friendships enable me to be my authentic self at work, or does it extend my work identity beyond the boundaries of the workplace until I forget who I am? Is there such a thing as my “true identity,” or am I an amalgamation of the roles that I play in various environments and relationships?

These questions bring me back to my second job, where I was given the chance to lead a fantastic group of young writers after just eight months in my first copywriting position. I will always look back on this job as the first time I was able to be a pure version of myself in a group of peers. This job gave me free reign to become the writer, editor, and leader that I always suspected I could be. In a group that had been fragmented and disengaged, I discovered my ability to foster meaningful friendships and high-quality work. As I made it possible for other quirky, brilliant writers to develop their skills and be themselves at work, I was able to do the same. In the process, I forged lifelong relationships and a bulletproof sense of self—or so I thought.

Leaving a job - Coworkers

My last day at my second job

When it came time to take my talents to a new company, I was moderately concerned that my self-confidence wouldn’t prove to be transferable. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I had entered an environment that would force me to alter my perceptions and become a shell of my true self in order to dodge constant criticism and simply survive.

I arrived at my new company determined to make my mark on a team brimming with talent and brilliance. Almost immediately, I found that the workload was unreasonable, training was nonexistent, communication was strained, and the tension and stress were palpable. Between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, in my second week, I found myself working miserable eighteen-hour days, surrounded by concerned family members, tears streaming down my face. I wasn’t sure if the deadlines, expectations, and lack of support were insane, or if I just wasn’t cutting it.

I worked diligently through every weekend, lunch break, commute, and panic attack for months. I didn’t take a single hour off for my first six months, and I never took a vacation. I wanted so badly to prove myself and to not inconvenience any of my equally overloaded coworkers that I did whatever it took to just get the work done. My pleas for help were met with an insistence that my stress was my responsibility to solve and needed to be hidden.

Meanwhile, through all of this hard work, the praise and recognition that I so desperately sought never came. Whether or not it was a reality, I constantly felt as though I was barely scraping by, my job perpetually at risk. This persistent insecurity left me doubtful of my own talent, and it made me even more desperate to prove my worth, to the company and to myself. It was a toxic, vicious cycle.

“Without an identity, you are constantly worried about how you look in the eyes of others—instead of freely contributing your natural talents and abilities. Your identity has become what others want and expect it to be, rather than what you have always longed for—for yourself and your career. When you lose your identity, you become a replaceable commodity, rather than an appreciated asset.” —Glenn Llopis

It wasn’t until I began to develop relationships with my coworkers that I discovered that my unbearable anxiety was not unique to me. We each bore the weight of the impossible expectations placed on our shoulders; and in the absence of support and solidarity, we were left with an ever-present sense of personal incompetence and impending doom.

I saw a vital need to fight against this deeply dysfunctional environment—if not to save myself, then to make things better for everyone else. I had a proven ability to bring disparate groups together to create a more engaging, supportive environment for employees to develop their skills and form relationships. However, I found, unlike in my previous role, this was not a place where a twenty-six-year-old woman was welcome to challenge the dynamic of an entire team. My instincts and motives were mercilessly questioned. I was made to feel as though my circumstances were my own fault, and my only choice was to accept them. Worst of all, I was told that I was a negative influence on the coworkers that I cared for so deeply.

I questioned my talent. I questioned my past successes and my future goals. I questioned my perception of reality and the validity of my emotions. I questioned everything I believed was true on a daily basis because it was easier to adapt to my environment than to fight an uphill battle for goals that seemed less and less feasible. When you’re repeatedly told that the identity you believe you present to the world is a distortion, it’s impossible to not let doubt creep into your mind—it seems less delusional to accept what you’re being told than to remain irrationally steadfast in your convictions.

I didn’t recognize who I had become over those months—a shell of my former self, willing to suppress my identity in order to survive. I had stifled my natural talents and instincts in order to momentarily escape harsh criticism and dissent. I had been convinced that it was my duty to accept whatever work was cast upon me in the pursuit of praise that never came, obscuring the fact that this wasn’t the life that I deserved.

I ultimately made the choice to consciously disengage, for the sake of my sanity and my future. I did my best to set aside my doubts about my own worth to believe that I could get the job title and salary that I deserved, at a company that would support the blend of passion, community, and work-life balance that I sought.

It was in the course of interviewing for my next job that I realized I was still the person I believed all along. I was not an incompetent mess of emotions with workaholic tendencies, delusions of grandeur, and a negative influence on others—in reality, nothing had changed. I told bits and pieces of my story in interviews with potential managers and coworkers; and time after time, these people confirmed that they saw the same Robin I believed I had been all along—capable, accomplished, deserving, and filled with potential. After two interviews, I came away with two job offers, each of which was a significant step up and checked off all of the boxes I had been looking for. Not only could I leave my job behind once and for all, but I had a choice about where I wanted to go next.

In a conversation with one of my references, the recruiter at the company I ultimately chose said, “I think we’re going to be lucky to have her.” It brought tears to my eyes that I had not only been chosen to join this incredible company, with an even better title and salary than I believed I could achieve, but that they felt fortunate to be the company I chose.

Last week, as my job came to an end, I walked away with a number of valuable friendships and a more developed sense of who I was—this time, forged in significantly more difficult circumstances. I know now where to draw a line in the sand when it comes to my job—who I am not, and what I am not willing to sacrifice. I can breathe deeply now, the persistent tightness in my chest finally abating, knowing that I am exactly who I always believed, and that I deserve to be happy.

Leaving a job

Have you ever lost your identity in your job? How did you get it back? Tell me your story in the comments!

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26 Comments

  1. Reply

    Your Father

    November 6, 2016

    Sorry to learn of the depth of your despair. I and your family witnessed the angst you felt over Christmas and it was sad to lose you to your job for so many hours.

    However, never lose sight of the fact that you are working to sell someone else’s product. When you are not self-employed there is a chain of command above you that is one by one exponentially more afraid of losing their jobs than of you losing yours.

    Two things come to mind when considering your work superiors:
    1. The Peter Principle – many of your “bosses” have risen to the level of their incompetency and are therefore afraid of you, who might be more capable.
    2. We had a saying in the Army that our superiors were basically the unqualified leading the unwilling to do the unnecessary.

    Take comfort that you are not alone, you are at the beginning of your career and that you ABSOLUTELY have enough talent to be the rising cream in your personal and professional latte.

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      Thank you so much for your comment, Dad 🙂 Looks like I’m not the only one who enjoyed your advice – you’re as wise as ever!

  2. Reply

    Ashley B.

    November 12, 2016

    I’m glad you decided to get out of there! I bounced around to quite a few jobs after graduating (I had 6 jobs in 5 years!) but finally found a company that gave me what i needed. I’ve been there for 4 years now. I’m sure most baby boomers wouldn’t be impressed with that, but times have changed 😊

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      That’s so great that you finally find a place to call home!! I’m crossing ALL of my fingers that I feel that way about my new company. The decision to stay or go is a mix of so many factors – your relationship with your coworkers, how much turnover there is, how fulfilling your job is, how much money you could make by staying vs. leaving… Best of luck to you!

  3. Reply

    Karoliina Kazi

    November 12, 2016

    I love your father’s message to you, wise words. I also struggle with finding the balance of normal working hours and enough personal time, its so easy to get lost in it. But I have set some personal guidelines and try to follow them to my best ability – and I have noticed that you get more respect for saying no sometimes.

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      Setting boundaries is key, I’ve found! It helps to keep things in perspective, because you’re forced to ask yourself, “Okay, I’m about to hit 6 PM, is this task really worth me working overtime, sacrificing my limited free time?” So important!

  4. Reply

    Liz

    November 12, 2016

    An inspiring post. I’m still on my journey to find my true and your post has defiantly given me some food for thought. Thank you.

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      Thank you, Liz – that means a lot to me 🙂 Best of luck to you!

  5. Reply

    Sade

    November 12, 2016

    Thank you so much for sharing a piece of your heart and soul with us, many Im sure can relate to you, as do I. For me, its always wanting more out of the job then they are willng to give me…. being taken advantage in the workplace in hopes they they will see my potential, and then still nothing. Im in my 3rd job in 6 years since leaving High school and although it was a “growth” position, there has been no stepping stone growth (however i have learnt alot, and that”s always a win) But now i have been offered a transfer but to my hometown within the same company but the only incentive for growth and increase is on my shoulders on whether I can grow the business bigger. Nothing on a silver platter I guess. So I have to give up more of myself, in order to reach where I want to be in my career… al while making sure my son is always first priority. Not easy being an adult. LOL. Thank you

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      Hi Sade, I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through that! I can relate to this so much: “Being taken advantage in the workplace in hopes they will see my potential, and then still nothing.” To cope with that, I’ve been trying to be upfront about my needs and intentions from the moment I interview somewhere. This helps me to not fall into the trap of burning myself out trying to prove that I deserve recognition when a promotion wasn’t in the cards to begin with. I hope you find a place that appreciates you!!

  6. Reply

    Jasmin N

    November 12, 2016

    It’s so weird to think that job identifies you as a person, because here in Finland it doesn’t go like that. We’ve got such a huge differences between a job & personal life.

    ~ Jasmin N
    littlethingswithjassy.blogspot.fi

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      I was thinking a lot about how American this problem is as I was writing! We really envy you guys in Europe (and especially in Scandinavia) for having a lot of things figured out that we really don’t! I’ve made it a huge priority in my life to make sure I’m working for employers who care as much about work-life balance as I do in the future–good employers understand that it benefits them as much as it benefits you.

  7. Reply

    Vegancruiser

    November 12, 2016

    Loved the honesty, clarity and your quality of writing – a lot of wisdom for someone as young as yourself. And a lot of this resonates with me as for the first time in my life I find myself stressed and am considering leaving my work for something – anything. I’ve usually changed jobs for personal interest and the opportunity to explore new things/develop new skills. Never just to escape. Also feel guilty at even considering leaving when my colleagues are going to be even more overstretched if I do. You broke free – and I wish you all the best in your new adventure 🙂

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      Thank you, that means so much to me!! Worrying about my coworkers was a big source of guilt for me – both worrying that I’d be adding to their workload by leaving, and also that I wouldn’t be able to find such great people in my next job. However, I’ve been extremely lucky to find a great group of new friends in every job so far, and so far, it looks like I’ll be just fine in my new job 🙂
      I hope you find something less stressful – it really does have a negative impact on every area of your life, and you deserve better!

  8. Reply

    Sarah

    November 12, 2016

    I haven’t really lost my identity in a job, but I have become to caught up in a job. I was barely home, working really long hours (9AM-10PM often) and often during the weekend as well. Didn’t see my boyfriend or friends very much during that period, and became overworked. I quit three months in and changed to a much better place.

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 19, 2016

      Wow!! That’s about what I was doing in my first 5 months at this job – more often than not, I was working from 7 AM to 11 PM, weekdays and weekends. If I hadn’t been so convinced that it was my own fault for not working faster or being better at my job, I would have walked away much sooner – and now I know for the future that I need to trust my instincts and not blame myself in situations like that. Good for you for knowing your limits, I hope you found something much better!

  9. Reply

    Sarah

    November 13, 2016

    You are definitely not alone. Although I have had the opportunity of working with great bosses, I have been through tough times dealing with superiors in the past as well. It was a good call that you left before the job becomes even more detrimental to you. When I was younger, I always wanted to be on the top of the game to prove myself and it always seemed the guys above you just keep on raising the bar higher each time you achieve something, making you feel like you are just not doing enough, that you are not good enough. At one point, I decided I won’t take any more shit and allow anyone to make me feel that way again. They can work you hard, but no one has the right to make you feel unappreciated for all the hard work you put into what you do. Nobody defines you but you.

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 20, 2016

      Thank you so much for your comment – so many parts of what you’re saying really resonate with me! From feeling like every time you surpass your goals, the bar is raised; to feeling totally unappreciated for the hard work you put in, you definitely know exactly how I felt for the last year! I hope you ultimately found a place that appreciates you <3

  10. Reply

    kittylimon

    November 13, 2016

    thank you for sharing this, i always worry that when i start working for a company, hopefully in the field that i’m currently studying that i’ll lose myself and just become “another cog in the machine” reading your article in some sense reiterated that message that you should never let a job define who you are; you are not the job you work 🙂

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 20, 2016

      Exactly – at the end of the day, your job takes as much from you as you’re willing to give. And I also think that not letting your perceived failures at work impact your identity is as important as staying grounded when you’re successful – because either way, your job is not who you are, and you have to maintain a healthy identity separate from your career. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  11. Reply

    Anonymous

    November 13, 2016

    I can relate, I was 110% committed to my job at Goldman Sachs, 6years I put my heart and soul into it. But once i felt sick, no one was there to bother or see my through my struggle of healing. The company made it hard for me to take time off in peace. I now dont bother putting my sould there. It is a means to get wages and that is it. I am not there to make any friends. I learnt the hard way. I do keep good contacts and have a laugh with them, but once i clock out of work, i leave it right there and pick it up next day.

    I found a means to have a balance now with day job and my blogging. It is a like a stress reliever. Wouldnt have it any other way.

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 20, 2016

      I’m so glad you were able to figure out a balance eventually – I’ve heard that that’s especially tough in the finance industry. I’m so sorry you had to go through that, but good for you for ultimately making it work for you – that takes a lot of strength!

  12. Reply

    klaudia

    November 13, 2016

    Hm , I am still not sure whether your post has touched me more or your dad’s comment. It is easy to lose ourselves in jobs or relationships, I believe it has got a lot to do with confidence. As we grow older, we tend yo become a bit more ‘selfish’ in a very healthy way. I think , you are on the very best way … poor circumstances made you grow and at the end gain a lot. It is always essential to know what we DON’T want and stand up for it, no matter what.

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 20, 2016

      You’re so right – what we unfortunately see as selfishness is often our realization that we need to set boundaries in order to be our best selves. It’s a vital lesson to learn – and to keep learning at every juncture. Thank you for your comment!!

  13. Reply

    Lana

    November 13, 2016

    I have to say reading your post reminded me why I left (and do not miss America)! I lived in DC for many years and that’s exactly how I felt – I was constantly measured by where or more importantly, by whom I worked for. In the sea of overqualified professionals with one or more masters and working for the government (e.g. Congress, State Dept) or something like that, I was always looked down for working for a non-profit organization. Plus, no matter how hard I worked, it was impossible to progress as goal posts would change all the time or fellow male colleagues would get promoted first. I just had enough and moved to London. With 35hr working week and people being less up their ass, I feel much happier here. And well done for sticking to your guns and changing the job. Afterall, you have just one life to live and you need to focus on your happiness!

    • Reply

      robin@featherflint.com

      November 20, 2016

      Wow, Lana, that sounds exhausting!! I’ve been so tempted to move to another country with work-life balance built into the culture from the start. I’m so glad that you did and that it’s paid off – good for you!

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