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.

Designing Your Work for Flow

 

We’ve all heard of flow—that remarkable state of being in the zone and operating at our best. Many of us have experienced it.

But what exactly is it? And how do we get into it?

First, we note that the deep concentration and absorption associated with flow is becoming much harder to attain these days with all our alluring devices and their dopamine-driving distractions.

Just when we need it most, it’s becoming more and more elusive.

Complete Absorption

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor now at Claremont Graduate University, has dedicated much of his life to studying flow. In his interviews with athletes, artists, chess players, and rock climbers, he found that many of them moved into a state of flow—a “state of complete absorption in an activity and situation.”

Why did he call it “flow”? Many of the people he interviewed described the experience as if a rushing current of water carried them along. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic captures it beautifully:

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal… I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along—something powerful and generous…. I lose track of time and space and self…. I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love.”

Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow as a state of “optimal experience”—of almost effortless attention and peak performance. In flow, he says, we feel “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”

Flow changes everything. Once you experience it, you’re changed forever, having glimpsed a different way of working. After jockey Red Pollard’s come-back ride aboard Seabiscuit at the famous “hundred grander” at Santa Anita, a spectator said Pollard looked like “a man who temporarily had visited Olympus and still was no longer for this world.”

In flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity…. You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

Nature of Flow

What is flow, exactly? Flow involves three elements:

  • Complete absorption in an activity
  • Lack of anxiety about losing control
  • Altered sense of time

The last one is a telltale sign. Recall those times when you’re so engrossed in the activity that you’re astonished when you discover how much time has passed in the meantime. It feels timeless.

The Body and Brain in Flow

Flow isn’t just a poetic description of a magical state but also a bona fide physiological phenomenon. When in flow, according to researchers, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and our facial muscles relax. Neurological studies show that the brain expends less energy during flow compared to when it’s wrestling with a problem.

Flow is associated with a decrease in “psychic entropy”: an anxious state of mind, common for many of us, in which our brain is stuck in a frustrating loop of concern and disarray, with fragmented attention. With that dialed down or switched off, we’re able to engage fully and enjoy the experience.

Flow and Performance

How does flow affect performance? According to Csikszentmihalyi, “a host of studies have found a strong positive relationship between flow and performance.” He notes that flow is positively associated with artistic and scientific creativity, learning, effective teaching, peak performance in sports, and even skill development. The latter is important, because it means that the more we can get into flow, the better we can get at our chosen activity.

According to the research, flow experiences are fairly rare, but almost any kind of activity—work, studies, hobbies—can produce them. So how do we achieve flow?

Conditions for Flow

According to the research, there are three necessary conditions for flow:

  • Clear set of goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback (so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals)
  • Balance between perceived challenges and skills, warranting our full attention (otherwise we’d get bored with too little challenge and anxious with too much challenge)

Here’s where things get really interesting. Flow is not some mystical state bestowed upon us by flow gremlins. It’s a mental state that we can invite by designing our work and context to meet these conditions.

Most of us live and work in a context today that makes achieving flow about as likely as winning the lottery. To invite flow, we need to get disciplined and systematic about doing what computer scientist Cal Newport calls “deep work”: working for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction.

How to do this? In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he recommends that we decide where we’ll work (a pleasant, quiet place) and for how long and how (with rituals, rules, and standard processes). We also need breaks built into our day to allow us to recharge—and to let our subconscious mind wander.

Perhaps most importantly, we must minimize distractions.

Distractions block flow and open the floodgates to psychic entropy. Too many of us have surrendered to a life of shallow work and distractions.

What could we do with a life of deep work infused with flow?

Questions for Reflection:

  • When have you been in a state of flow?
  • What was the context, and what were you doing?
  • What ideas do you have for designing your work—and that of your team, if you have one—to invite flow?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. 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). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”