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You Are Not Your Job

Keeping your identity alive when you are out of work

“Without my job I don’t know who I am," Brian told me, as he looked lost, defeated, and alone. Brian is like a lot of people who define themselves through their job. “I am a teacher," “I’m a lawyer," “I’m a construction worker," “I drive a bus," or “I am in marketing." Since the Protestant Ethic told us that work is salvation—and success at work is a sign of who is elected to go to Heaven—we have placed considerable emphasis on defining ourselves—and our personal self-worth—through our work.

Work-Role Centrality

This is known as “work-role centrality." It means that work is central to your sense of who you are. People with high “work role centrality” who lose their jobs suffer more. They are more likely to be depressed and anxious and more likely to feel that there is less purpose in their lives. Their identity and purpose seemed to disappear when they lost their job.

You are More than a Job

But are you simply defined by your job? Brian had been defining himself as a marketer, but he was overlooking the many other parts of his identity. I asked him to list all the different parts of who he was as a person, beginning with father and husband. “Well, I guess that’s right. I am Laura’s father, Priscilla’s husband. I am Darren’s brother, I am the son of mom and dad.” How about friends? “Yes, I am friends with Ellen and Gary and friends with Alex, Victor, Maureen, and Dan. I have a lot of friends, come to think of it.” Do you have any interests or hobbies? “Yeah. I play tennis, hike, I love to watch sports on television, I’m learning Spanish—have to know Spanish, today. I read, I follow politics—although I’m not really committed to any one party.” How about your values? “I consider myself a fairly moral person, but I know I’m not perfect. I guess you might say I’m a secular humanist. No particular religion.” Are you involved in a community? “Well, I do go to church with the family once in a while. I’m not really a believer, but we think it might be good for Laura. Sometimes I volunteer to help out at a local shelter.”

“It sounds like there are a lot of ways that you could define yourself. We have father, husband, brother, son, friend, interest in sports, learning Spanish, political interests, secular humanist, volunteer. Are any of these things meaningful to you?”

“They all are. Sometimes I forget that they are.”

“Let’s keep track of your activities for the next few weeks to see if these different roles in your life are rewarding and meaningful. Pay attention to when you are being a father, husband, and friend. Think about your volunteer work. Think about your interests and hobbies. Perhaps with some time off from work right now you might have more time to concentrate on these different parts of who you are.”

“That sounds like something important to do.”

“Imagine if you had all your money on one number at a roulette wheel in Las Vegas. They are spinning the wheel and you could lose it all. That’s how you are defining yourself—it all rides on having that job. But is that reality?”

“No. That’s Las Vegas."

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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