6 Signs Your Career Is Becoming Your Identity, And What To Do About It
Imagine you meet a stranger at a party. One of the first questions you’re likely to ask them is what they do for a living. That’s because someone’s career is an important marker of identity, and allows us to make a whole raft of other assumptions about them – how intelligent they are, what their interests might be, and what their social status is. We all know the dread of answering this question when you aren’t happy with your job, as well as the pride you feel when you are. In the UK, the most common surname is Smith - as in silversmith, locksmith, or blacksmith – denoting a time when a person’s job was even further cemented within their identity. Although today our jobs don’t dictate our names, they do often dictate how others perceive us – and how we perceive ourselves. It’s healthy to be dedicated to and find enjoyment in a career, but investing a disproportionate amount of time and energy into a job can lead to a state known as ‘enmeshment’. Psychologists use this term to describe a situation in which boundaries between people’s identity and other individuals, places or things become blurred, preventing the development of a stable, independent sense of self.
Is your career taking over your life?
Unfortunately, we’re living in an age of hustle culture, where high-pressure fields reward longer hours with wages, promotions, and prestige. It’s how many high-fliers rise to the top of their professions, and sacrificing time with friends and family is often viewed as par for the course. When we engage in such intense activity for so long, however, it’s virtually impossible not to pay a hefty price. If this sounds like you, let’s take a look at some of the key signs your career might be stealing your identity.
You’re always talking about your job
When people ask what’s been going on in your life lately, you inevitably respond with an update about work. In fact, you struggle to think of anything eventful that’s been going on in your personal life lately. At parties and social events, you find yourself working your career into the conversation, even when other people show little signs of interest. When you finally tear yourself away from work and return home in the evenings, it’s not unusual for you to spend a couple of hours talking to your partner about what’s been going on in your working life that day, leaving your emotional connection severely lacking.
You find yourself working on holiday
Most people’s must-have accessory on the beach is a cocktail, but yours is your laptop. You find it next to impossible to switch off (literally and metaphorically), and you stopped bothering to set your out of office a long time ago. You find it impossible to trust other team members to carry out tasks in your absence, and you’re constantly wondering if there’s a problem and wanting to check in. Worst of all, even on holiday, you sometimes find yourself missing the office, and counting the days until your return.
You find it hard to relate to others
On the rare occasions you manage to go out with friends, you often find yourself struggling to add to the conversation. While they’re all discussing recent holidays, films they’ve seen recently, nights out they’ve been on, time they’ve spent with family… you realise all you’ve done is work too late, eat and sleep. It’s possible this has also caused you to distance yourself from your regular friendship groups in favour of spending more time with people in your industry with whom you feel you have more in common.
Your relationships are rocky
Your friends and significant other are forever making jokes about your workaholic nature, and you often feel like there’s tension between you and people you’re close with. Your partner is often exasperated about you arriving home late several days a week, and sending and receiving emails outside of work hours. Your loved ones complain that you seem distant, and you get into arguments with those around you easily. You often feel like no one around you understands the pressures you’re under, and you secretly judge them for not being as devoted to their careers as you are.
You’ve started dreaming about work
Your dreams used to be an escape from the stresses and strains of life, but not anymore. It's not uncommon for you to find yourself back at the office during your nocturnal adventures, and more often than not, you’re in a stressful situation; maybe you’ve turned up late (or even worse, naked) to that important presentation, or you’ve missed a crucial meeting. And that’s when you manage to fall asleep at all – you’re frequently tossing and turning until at least midnight thinking about all the things you need to get done at work the next day.
You can’t imagine your life without work
The idea of losing your job is terrifying to you. It’s not so much the loss of income that scares you, as the black hole of purpose – you don’t even know who you’d be without your career. This leads to constant anxiety when it comes to your performance at work, as you’re always worried about falling short of the high expectations you’ve created for yourself.
If you found yourself nodding along to this list, then we regret to inform you it’s not good news. You’ve almost certainly fallen victim to enmeshment, enabling your career to define your identity rather than simply being an extension of it. The issue with this is that when our self-worth is tied so closely to our professional life, successes and failures we experience along the way deeply impact our inherent sense of worth. Added to this, if for any reason you find yourself losing your job, it can provoke an identity crisis that could be costly for your mental health. So, what steps can be taken to remedy the situation?
Force yourself to switch off on weekends and evenings
It’s not going to be easy, but set yourself some hard boundaries as to when you will respond to work emails and calls. If clients or teammates frequently contact you outside of working hours and expect a response, set your out of office making it clear that you’ll respond the morning of the next working day. Additionally, set a limit on how long you’re allowed to discuss work in the evenings or on weekends; allow yourself 10 minutes to get any burning issues off your chest, and then force yourself to move on. Remember, rest and time with family and friends isn’t just nice to have – it’s essential for our mental wellbeing and happiness.
Redefine your idea of success
To you, success might mean sealing a deal with a new client or acing a presentation. To someone else, it means getting home from work in time to cook a nutritious meal, or spending quality time with their family. Success comes in many different forms, and life is more satisfying when we experience different varieties of it. Make time for other people and things, and you’ll probably be surprised how rewarding it will be.
Grow your social circle outside of work
Investing time and effort in friendships with people who have no connections to your professional life will encourage you to expand your interests, as well as provide a source of happiness completely separate from work. After all, being a great friend or mentor is far more rewarding in the long-term than being named employee of the month for the fifth time.
Take time for hobbies
You probably had activities you enjoyed indulging in before work took over, or maybe there’s an activity you’ve always wanted to try. Making time for hobbies is a great way to encourage your brain to readjust, and to accept the fact that you’re far more than just your job title.
Write it all down
Once you’ve identified all the new and interesting facets of yourself, jot down everything you can identify that makes you ‘you’. For instance, you might begin with your job title, but next on the list could be ‘I am a great friend’, or ‘I am an accomplished guitar player’. The next time you feel yourself getting consumed with work, refer to this list to remind yourself your identity runs much deeper – and remember to add to it regularly.
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