Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step

Keeping Your Job, Losing Your Identity

Feedback mismatches can make you lose your sense of self.

Posted Aug 29, 2017

Losing your job can make you feel like you’ve lost your identity.  Identity loss can lead to depression, anger, and anxiety. 

But sometimes you might feel like you’ve lost your work identity while you’re still working.  For example, the way you see yourself as an employee might not match the way others – say, bosses or co-workers – treat you.  I call these feedback mismatches.  They can make you question who you are and can create a lot of stress.

It’s NOT Just You

If you’re involved in a feedback mismatch, it may be not even be about something you did.  Factors bigger than you can shape your sense of self.  For example, company mergers and the Great Recession led to layoffs.  In my research, mergers often ended up indirectly producing feedback mismatches.   

Investment Zen/Great Recession Wall Street Sign/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made

Large-scale events in society can shape who we are.

Source: Investment Zen/Great Recession Wall Street Sign/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made

It’s common for new bosses to come on board during mergers.  Those bosses may want things done very differently than in the past.  In other words, the way you see yourself as, say, a retail associate may not match what your new boss believes you “should” be like in your job.  And when you hear that message – directly or indirectly – it can be terrifying.

The Case of Charlie

A good example is 62-year-old “Charlie” who described being an executive as “his life.”  His new boss continually scolded him and even denied his travel requests.  This sent the signal that he was not the employee he thought he was.

(By the way, when you’re blocked from performing the actions that someone in your position should take – like Charlie’s business travel - you start to feel less like that kind of person.  It’s like a welder not being allowed to work with flames.  How could they still feel like a welder?) 

Finally, someone who reported to Charlie disobeyed him in front of many other employees.   As he put it, “It was just like a stick in the eye…In other words, she’s saying ‘You’re nobody.’”  He told me that these feedback mismatches made him feel “unhappy,” like he was being “tortured,” and that ultimately he felt like “a slug.”

His executive identity began to disappear.  Charlie eventually lost his job, but he told me that even while he was still employed he wondered “Who am I now?”  During a staff meeting, he even literally “drew himself out of the picture” of his workplace, by writing down little stick figures marching toward the edge of the page in front of him, telling me “This is me, taking myself out of this picture.”

So What’s Important Here?

Nicu Buculei/Hurt/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made

Feedback that doesn't fit who you are leaves you feeling under siege.

Source: Nicu Buculei/Hurt/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made

When you get feedback at work that doesn’t fit with your identity, it’s not just about fear of losing your job, or losing face, or not being appreciated, or not getting that promotion; who you are is also under siege.  

Why is this important?  Because once you get that kind of feedback, your own self-view ultimately shifts to the way others see you, and that shift is very, very stressful.

What To Do? 

There are several steps you can take if you find yourself in this situation:

  1. Find new environments where you get feedback consistent with your identity.  You may need to find a different job that better fits how you do things, or volunteer, being around people who confirm that you are indeed the coach/scientist/construction worker/etc. that you believe you are. 
  2. Don’t freeze or stop doing your job!  Continue to perform actions that you believe someone in your role should do.  So if you’re a teacher, keep creating lesson plans, grading, etc.  
    getoutski/IMG_3646/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made

    Identities are performances.  They require constant attention.

    Source: getoutski/IMG_3646/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made
    Erving Goffman said we should think of identity as a performance.  If you stop performing the actions expected of you, you’ll stop “being” that person, and will lose that identity.
  3. If you feel comfortable with your boss, ask him/her about how to perform more to their expectations.  When we meet role expectations, we identify more strongly with the role, and we’re more likely to get feedback supporting that identity.   (BUT, if your definition of what’s expected clashes with your boss’s definition, go back to Step 1.  Clashing definitions create further identity crises.)
  4. Lobby for more workforce stability, fewer mergers, and more advance notice of layoffs to give people time to make identity transitions.

Have you ever experienced a feedback mismatch?  What did you do to manage it?   Please share your tips with me and other readers. 

About the Author

Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.

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