What do we lose when we let our job determine our identity—and how do we reclaim it?
“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.
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.
Have you ever lost your identity in your job? How did you get it back? Tell me your story in the comments!