By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published by Harvard Business Review.
Work provides us with more than a paycheck. It gives us recognition, status, belonging, self-esteem, and reinforcement of our self-concept. Research also shows that having a strong work identity (defined as how important your job is to who you are) can be tied to your wellbeing.
But what happens if you lose your job? Being let go is a difficult experience, no matter the circumstances. But when your personal identity is heavily tied to your job, losing that job — even if it is through no fault of your own, such as in an economic downturn or a restructuring — can seem catastrophic, causing an existential crisis or what the authors of the book Difficult Conversations call an “identity quake.”
To be sure, losing this anchor or source of reassurance (your job) can be destabilizing and make you feel adrift at sea. In more extreme cases, it can make you go beyond questioning your value to making you feel unworthy or even worthless. While it will likely take some time, there are several ways to start the process of regaining — and even redefining — your sense of who you are.
Our relationships reflect back to us who we are. Reaching out to people from your early life and career, who you are still in touch with, such as a childhood friend or a friend from college or your first job, can provide a good mirror. These are people who “knew you when” — before you were a finance executive, management consultant, or intellectual property attorney. They saw inherent value in you before your big job. Talking with them can remind you that, in addition to your work identity, you are also other things, like a loyal friend, a generous mentor, a risk taker, or a creative thinker.
Our identity and sense of self are mental constructs. When we feel stuck, it’s often because we are seeing ourselves through a singular, fixed (and often unproductive) perspective. One client of mine, Eduardo, was fired for pushing his team to the point of burnout. In our work, we discovered his limiting belief behind his behavior was “My value is what I produce.”
To challenge or test this belief, I had him talk to a variety of personal and professional contacts that he respected and ask them two questions. The first question was “What do you value or appreciate about me?” to see that other people likely value him for different things than he does. The second question was “How do you see your own value as a person?” in order to show him other models of how he might see or value himself.
As I expected, none of the answers he received to either of these questions reflected anything about work or what he or anyone else produced. He heard things like “Great dad, fun to hang out with, good listener, supportive spouse, can always be counted on, trustworthy, good friend, etc.” These conversations helped to loosen the grip of Eduardo’s limiting belief of “My value is what I produce,” so that he could start to distinguish his personal value or self-worth from that of his work product.
While Western culture is very heavily work oriented, it’s still possible to overinvest in work, as those with a strong work identity are more inclined to do. Dr. Neil Talkoff, a San Francisco-based psychoanalyst, shared that “when we’re overinvesting in work, we do it at the expense of other areas of our lives where we might find meaning and purpose.” These might include personal relationships, hobbies, volunteering, etc.
Engaging in a broader set of activities can help you to structure your time, build new relationships, deepen existing ones, and derive significance from other sources, ultimately diversifying how you see yourself and define your identity. Eduardo, who was quite antsy now that he wasn’t working (anxious that he was no longer delivering work product to prove his value to himself), started to spend more time at the playground with his young child, learning to slow down and be present, creating a more balanced view of himself that extended beyond his work identity.
Our identities are not static. They evolve over time. Few people would say that they are the same person they were 10 years ago. Yet, we have a bias that can keep us stuck in a contracted view, where we see our present identity as our perpetual identity.
Zoom out your focus and ask yourself, “Who do I want to be five to 10 years from now?” By focusing on your future self and who you want to become, you start to change your identity narrative — the story you tell yourself about who you are. This can help you get unstuck from a fixed mindset that has you see yourself trapped in your current state and can also start to shift your behavior in the desired direction, making you more proactive versus reactive. Like any goal, you are more likely to achieve it if you tell other people about it.
One aspect of our identity that does stay fairly constant over time is our core values. Values are what we stand for and hold as important — they are the essence of who we are. These might be things like inclusion, integrity, creativity, autonomy, or candor.
What may change over time is how we express these values and their relative importance. While they can help you to find meaning and fulfillment in your work, they transcend your work identity and can be expressed in many contexts outside of work. It’s also another lens from which to view yourself.
Moreover, values can be the foundation from which to explore other possible selves as you contemplate what’s next. For example, I used to be an investment banker. I was able to express my value of supporting others through the client service aspect of my job and my value of collaborating with highly talented people by working with C-level executives and my fellow bankers. I still get to live these values as an executive coach, in addition to now expressing previously unexpressed values like adventure and independence, which I now get from building and running the leadership development firm I co-founded.
Re-examining how you make meaning of your job loss — effectively, thinking about your thinking — can be challenging to do on your own, especially when you’re in the thick of it, feeling upset or devastated. Getting support from a trained coach or therapist can help you examine, learn from, and move forward from this experience more successfully.
This process often takes a kind of mental and intellectual neutrality, according to Dr. Neil Talkoff, where an individual can step back and look at themselves more objectively and ask, “What is this about for me?” He shared that therapy can be especially useful to those who experience their job loss as “recreating a situation that confirms a deeply held negative conviction they have about themselves” such as being unwanted or worthless. Dr. Talkoff explained that “taking in the thoughts, observations, and perspectives of another person can help you to use them as tools to create new ideas and new perspectives on your own.” In doing so, over time, you can then start to see yourself and the experience of your job loss differently.
We can be deeply committed to and engaged in our work, as well as find meaning and positive affirmation in it. Yet, we are more than our jobs. Losing your job doesn’t have to mean losing who you are.