How to Separate Your Work from Your Identity

UPDATED: April 2, 2022
PUBLISHED: February 24, 2022
How to Separate Your Work from Your Identity

Having passion for your job is a good thing. Your career can inspire you to break barriers and even make tangible change. 

But American culture is especially obsessed with the relationship between our jobs and our sense of self-worth. Often, studies show that work experiences influence one’s self-esteem and vice-versa.

Take military service members who often must often reckon with the consequences of their return to civilian life after service. Many are prone to substance abuse and depression because they feel aimless after returning from deployment. The truth is that similar feelings arise no matter the profession. 

Enter the importance of disassociating “success” at your job from your own personal sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. 

There are a multitude of ways to remember that your work doesn’t define your success, and what you do does not determine who you are. In fact, doing identity work as a preemptive measure can protect you against inevitable changes that will occur throughout life (more on that below). If you’ve spent your entire life defining yourself through work, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to flip a switch and suddenly reassess your priorities. Even if you enjoy your career, it’s a good practice to challenge yourself internally to break the link between your sense of self-worth and your job. So how can you start? 

1. Manage your responses. 

When you receive a negative reaction to a report or presentation you’ve done for work, remember there are many situations where criticism is not a true indicator of your work. Jessica Koblenz, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York, notes that there is often haptic feedback in workplaces, particularly from bosses who must generate something to tell you to improve upon

When that happens, Koblenz says, take a step back and put the comments into perspective: Is your boss critically analyzing everyone? Alternatively, take a moment to self-reflect. If a comment hits your emotional core and you feel your body tensing up and your blood pressure rising, ask yourself whether you’re actually pushing back against a voice you encountered at another time in your life and catch your negative emotions before they take hold.

2. Draw your lines.  

Make a renewed effort to keep your personal and professional lives separate. When something bad happens at your job, don’t let it bleed into your home life, so that each sphere actually helps you sustain energy for the other. 

Koblenz suggests developing a ritual that can help you get into “work mode” or “home mode” by building transition spaces to avoid simply shutting down your computer and plopping on your bed. Instead, consider taking a walk around the block as a metaphorical commute to work or doing something simple like drinking tea or taking a shower when you clock out. “You’re kind of shedding what happened in the day and being able to embrace what happens next,” Koblenz says. 

3. Discover how else you find meaning.

Even if you feel healthily passionate about your job, remember there are a multitude of ways to find meaning in addition to work. Do you enjoy taking on an athletic feat or reading a good book? Grow your passion. Whether you’re interested in planting flowers in your garden, learning how to play an instrument, meditating or spending time with your family, keep in mind that there is more than just the 9-to-5 slog. Challenge yourself to remember what other things make you happy and make time to do them, even when you get busy.

4. Be an outspoken voice.

Try not to feed the frenzy. When you go to a party, Koblenz suggests avoiding asking someone what they do as your first question. Instead, ask someone how long they have lived in your city or who else they know at the gathering. If someone asks you about your own profession, consider using a verb rather than a noun. Rather than saying, “I am an engineer,” try sharing something actionable, such as “I find computer bugs.” Doing so can help you remember that your work is something that you do, but it is not the sole purpose of your life

5. Develop your own mantras/affirmations.

Think about three qualities that you most admire in your closest friend. It’s unlikely you would ever say what they do for a living is what you most love about them. Instead, you might point to their ability to find joy or balance. Then, think about three mantras, affirmations or positive qualities you love about yourself

When you’re stressed over a difficult assignment from work, remind yourself of those qualities, and don’t forget about the extraordinary things you’ve already accomplished. “It’s like a watched pot [that] never boils,” Koblenz says. “You can’t just force yourself to create the extraordinary and press a button and that will happen.” But recognizing everything you’ve been able to accomplish and giving yourself credit every day can be helpful toward reframing a situation. Staying gentle will ultimately help you more than pressure. In other words, as Koblenz says, make a “ta-dah” list rather than a “to-do”list. 

Nearly three years into the pandemic, there has never been a better time to reassess our work-life balance. In fact, mental health has never had such an unstigmatized place in American culture. Millions have quit their jobs in recent months, and though we’re not saying you should do the same, you shouldn’t forget that a job is just that. Even fulfilling and enjoyable careers can become all-consuming. But smelling the ocean air, feeling a breeze, enjoying a hobby and calling someone you love are all actions that should be given weight in a life well-lived. 

Photo by @Yankasvetlanka/Twenty20

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