Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?

Work is a big part of our lives. It’s essential to our income and security, and it can be a source of meaning and satisfaction. But there are dangers with having our identity too wrapped up in our work.

What happens if we’re laid off? Or in-between jobs? No longer able to do that kind of work? Retired? We’re vulnerable to an identity crisis and a downward spiral when the work that animates our identity disappears or changes.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” Colin Powell

For sure, there are many different types of workers out there: nine to fivers working for the weekend, side hustlers, part-timers, hybrid professionals, unemployed, underemployed, and more. The job market has been brutal for some during the pandemic, better for others. Some like or love what they do. Others despise or endure it.

Some toil away in a workaholic organizational culture. Others are trying to live up to parental expectations. Some are trapped in golden handcuffs. Others can’t stop ruminating about work situations and scenarios.

 

The Traps of Overidentification with Work

There’s nothing wrong with working hard. Or with loving or liking what we do. Or with identifying with our work.

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f**king khakis.”Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

The problem comes when we identify too much with our work, losing other important aspects of ourselves and our lives in the process.

Problems come when we bury ourselves in busyness and overwork—when we glorify being busy and can’t slow down and shut if off (or can’t feel good when we’re not working). According to a meta-analysis of 89 studies, workaholism is related to lower physical and mental health and lower job, family, and life satisfaction. Sometimes we use overwork to avoid dealing with difficulties, disconnections, rejections, or wounds.

We get into trouble when work is all about trying to please or impress others. When we reject who we really are—abandoning our true nature and avoiding our calling.

Problems pop up when we bury ourselves in someone else’s priorities so much so that we never get to our own.

It’s nice when we get recognition, praise, or even prestige from our work, but it’s dangerous when we become dependent on those, addicted to our next hit.

It’s a problem if we feel terrible when work is going poorly, clouding everything in disappointment.

It becomes a trap when our relationship with work becomes an obsession in which we’re constantly striving and can’t switch it off—when we’re never satisfied with things as they are.

It’s trouble when our attachment to work disconnects us from meaningful relationships—from the people we love and who need us.

“…the work I’ve put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm.”Don Henley in “The Heart of the Matter”

It’s limiting when our current work keeps us from moving forward and trying new things, because we feel safer in the current iteration of our work and wary of venturing forth. So we avoid the uncertainty and awkwardness of the in-between periods of our lives—the ones that tend to lead to the biggest breakthroughs in growth and fulfillment after we ride out the storms of fear and doubt and stare down the unknown.

The problem is when our identity is wrapped up too much in our work, with too much emotional investment (and time). It leads to stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression—and a sense of emptiness, disappointment, or regret.

Who are we? Are we only our title? Only the person who gains income or accolades? Yes, we are those, and we’re wise if we’re intentional as possible about infusing those activities with as much heart and soul and fun as we can. It’s great if we can integrate our life and work into a cohesive whole that suits us. It’s powerful if we can integrate our values, passions, and authenticity across all the domains of our lives, bridging them with an overarching sense of purpose.

“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher

But aren’t we also husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, friends and neighbors, lovers and dreamers, community members, citizens, and humans bound together on spaceship Earth?

 

What to Do About It

What to do when we’re identifying too much with our work and not honoring other important areas of our lives?

Return to what’s important: who and what do we love? What do we long for? What are we missing in our life?

Do we have enough vitality, connection, and contribution in our lives? Do we have a strong sense of our “core identity,” and are we living with “authentic integrity” (integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature)?

We all get off-kilter sometimes. We need to cut ourselves some slack. But we also need to stop lying to ourselves. We must take our lives back when we’ve given them away. We must honor the fullness of our nature and the marvelous range and depth of our lives, both in and out of the work we do. If we do, we can learn to be well regardless of the events and circumstances of the day, grounded in a deeper presence and appreciation for all that we’ve been given.

 

Reflection Questions:

  • Are you identifying too much with your work?
  • What important areas of your life are you neglecting?
  • What will you do start doing to make yourself whole again?

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Postscript: Inspirations on Life, Work, and Identity

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus

“‘Can I be comfortable in my own skin regardless of what’s going on around me?’ And that to me is the definition of true success.” -Peter Crone

“People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.” -Herminia Ibarra

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Sign up for his monthly newsletter for inspirations, articles, tools, and opportunities.

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of this ruthless pandemic has been what it has reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout and overwork. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”The Beatles

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships. In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Isolation

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

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Postscript: Quotes on the Importance of Relationships

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” –Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” –Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” –Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” –Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” –Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” –Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent

There I was, a new father, my wife and I blessed with a beautiful young daughter, before our second daughter came along.

I had been awed at her birth, feeling the world move. Growing up, I had always hoped to have a family and be a father. I knew it would be a tremendous responsibility to be in charge of someone’s care.

I knew it conceptually and thought I understood it but really had no idea whatsoever—no clue—until I became a father and experienced how magical, and sometimes how trying, it could be.

I recall one day home alone with her, around age two, and we were both out of sorts. I was trying to get things done and felt so much pressure about all she needed and all I needed to get done. I was trying to juggle, but she was not having it. I was overwhelmed. I felt an unbearable pressure. How is it possible to do all this? How do others do it? What’s wrong with me?

I was at my wit’s end, and it just kept getting worse. She resisted everything with her signature strength. I reached a breaking point. Out of ideas, I sensed that my only option was to give myself over to her. Completely. There would be nothing else: I am here for you, only you, all for you, totally you.

Not long after that, she saw that something in me had shifted, and so she stopped resisting. Just like that. A total reversal. Everything was okay, and perhaps would be, as long as we remembered that silent, secret pact.

Some time later, I was talking to a friend about being a father and raising children and he, further along the parenting journey with older children, shared something that stopped me in my tracks:

They are only young once.

With five words, he engraved something on my heart. I suppose it hit me because it was something deep down that I worried about, as someone deeply committed to being a good and present father and also deeply committed to working hard and going good work in the world and, like so many of us, sometimes feeling caught in between.
Those five words often come back to visit me. I have shared them with many friends who are parents.

“Once” is of course a slippery concept. “Once” is the mystical sequence of days that, for us, God willing, can last a couple decades in raising our daughters as they discover way in the world. And “once” is also the blink of an eye. An eternity, and a millisecond, just the same.

“Young” is also a slippery notion. There is the miracle of youth and all its hope, promise, energy, enthusiasms, heartbreaks, insecurities, and triumphs. And also a state of mind, and of being, that can last long after those early years.

In the end, I know he is right: they are only young once. We will only have what we have now for a time. We will, I trust and pray, stay deeply connected in the years beyond, but it will be different, as it must be. Looking back, I want to stand behind these times we had together, as a family, together, connected and committed to a bond like none other in all the world.

So I try to live up to that charge. Some days are better than others, some a complete disaster. But the words keep calling to me and reminding me of this amazing gift before me. Today, like all days, is a good day to treasure it. They are only young once.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.