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Why your job doesn’t define your identity

Why your job or career doesn’t define your identity

Women’s right to work in Australia was hard-won by feminist activists only a few generations ago. Since then, we have seen slow but steady progress towards greater equity and opportunity for women to pursue fulfilling, rewarding careers.

Despite issues like persistent gender bias in the workplace and the gender pay gap, women now make up about half of the Australian workforce. The freedom to do work they enjoy took great sacrifice on the part of brave women who came before us.

So, it comes as no surprise that most professional women take great pride in what they do, and consider their job an important part of their identity.

But is identifying too closely with your profession doing more harm than good?

For many of us, the first thing we share about ourselves when meeting someone new is what we do for a living. Unfortunately, this may be a sign that we are ignoring other, equally important qualities that make us who we are.

Long gone are the days when most people stayed in one profession for their entire lives. Today, many of us have a wide range of different professional passions and will explore several different career fields. The average modern worker will have an average of 12 different jobs during their lifetime across various industries.

In a job market that’s constantly shifting, it’s important to keep clear boundaries between who you are and what you do. Otherwise, we risk continual identity crises and a shaky foundation for how we view ourselves and the value we add to our community.

Why your job shouldn’t be the defining feature of your identity

Taking pride in your work is far from a bad thing. For many of us, work is where we meet like-minded people and form meaningful connections with colleagues over shared values and interests.

But even those of us who are lucky enough to be working in a dream job need to remember that work is only one part of what makes our life meaningful. Allowing your work to become the singular or most important part of how you see yourself comes with risks.

Enmeshment is a psychological term originally coined to describe dysfunctional family dynamics. In enmeshed families, members are so closely intertwined that individuals cannot form a healthy level of independence. The same can happen in professional relationships, no matter how rewarding or enjoyable the work itself may be.

Nothing is ever fixed or permanent, and the job that brings you joy today could be a source of despair tomorrow. Identifying too strongly with your job can make it difficult to notice when your situation is no longer suitable or healthy and prevent you from making important changes.

It can lead you to ignore signs of burnout or end up paying a ‘passion tax’ whereby you sacrifice adequate compensation in exchange for doing work you care about.

If you spend most of your time and energy at work, it’s more than likely that other areas of your life have suffered.

People who take dedication to their job too far are more likely to neglect their relationships, hobbies, and mental and physical health. They are more likely to avoid taking sick days until they become severely unwell, rendering themselves unable to do the work that they love so much.

Tying your identity to something as unpredictable as a job leads to a fragile sense of self. When the time comes for your role to shift or end, you may find yourself feeling bereft and unsure why you spent every night at the office after all.

If you’re someone who feels lost or bored after even one day of vacation, it might be a good sign that change is needed to restore a healthier work-life balance.

Why your job or career doesn’t define your identity

Creating a sense of self that doesn’t depend on your job title

Acknowledging that we need healthier boundaries between our personal and professional lives is an important first step.

From there, we can start to slowly shift our mindset and habits to create a more balanced, holistic identity that doesn’t hinge on professional performance.

These steps will look different for everyone and may require assistance from a trusted friend, mentor or mental health professional.

Try a new hobby

Finding time for playful or creative activities that have nothing to do with our day job is a great way to reconnect with ourselves.

Hobbies remind us of how multifaceted and complex we are, and provide an important counterbalance to professional lives that are often heavy, serious and stressful.

Revive your social circles

It’s perfectly natural to let your social life slip a little when you’re in the midst of an important project. But if this pattern continues for too long, some of your friends and family may start inviting you to fewer events, tired of being the only one to reach out to make plans.

Reconnecting with your social life is an important counterbalance to a life consumed by work, and reminds you that life doesn’t always have to be so serious.

Take stock of your transferable skills

If your identity has been enmeshed with your work for a long time, it can be difficult to imagine living any differently. Cataloguing your strengths and brainstorming other fields they would translate helps to start broadening your horizons.

There is no need to actively pursue a new career, as simply considering new possibilities can shake up rigid ideas of who you are and what you are capable of.

Reconnect to your values

If your current role reflects your values, think about other ways you could build a life centred on what matters most to you.

Perhaps there are activist groups or volunteering opportunities you can engage in so that your job is not the only part of your life that aligns with your values.

Diversifying the ways you give back can alleviate some of the pressure to stay in a job out of altruism because you know there is more than one way to contribute to the issues that matter to you.

Living in a capitalist, consumer-driven world can make it difficult to remember that we are so much more than just our productivity or our salary.

Disentangling your identity and self-worth from your job doesn’t mean you can’t work hard, get promoted, or love what you do. It simply means creating boundaries to allow other, equally important areas of your life to flourish.

Working too much, neglecting friendships and not making happiness a priority are among the most common regrets of people who are dying. Life is about so much more than work, so don’t wait until retirement to start enjoying it.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.