Is your job your identity?

How would you answer, "So, what do you do?" generally? If the first thing that comes to mind is "what you do for a living," chances are you are "enmeshed," 🕸 Enmeshed is used by psychologists to describe when the boundaries between your job and your identity blur.

We commonly identify ourselves with our jobs. I am an executive; I am a professor; I am a manager. Identifying strongly with your job is a stage called “enmeshment.” Enmeshment can benefit your career – and your employer – as it makes you more focused and more invested. But it can also become a trap if it becomes all-encompassing. Anne Wilson, professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, stated in a BBC interview that “If you tie [your self-worth] to your career, the successes and failures you experience will directly affect your self-worth.

The chances of becoming enmeshed seem to increase in “high-pressure jobs.” According to a Harvard Business Review post by Janna Koretz, Psy.D, the pressure that leads to enmeshment can be the result of:

  1. A work culture that rewards long working hours with prestige and promotion. “What makes you leave early today? It’s only 5 PM?”
  2. Internalizing family expectations that link specific career achievements to self-worth. “There are only three career choices in this family … .”
  3. One’s socioeconomic status being tied to one’s career and a paycheck. “Who am I without … ?”

Being aware that you are enmeshed is the first step to change. The second is knowing how to think about yourself beyond your job. If you want to build awareness of who you are beyond your job, I have a little challenge for you.

Take a piece of paper (or a word document) and answer the classic networking prompt: “Tell me about yourself.” The trick, answer this without using your social roles (e.g. job, family relations) or physical features (e.g. brown hair, 180 cm/6 ft) or hobbies. Answering this question increases your self-awareness and is a first step to seeing yourself more holistically. It might also help you to have more exciting networking conversations 😉

This can be part of what Koretz describes as an important first step: developing a thorough understanding of what is important to you. Additional, often recommended, exercises popular include writing a eulogy, interviewing friends and family, and keeping a journal asking yourself, “What was important to me today?” Beyond these popular self-help exercises, coaches often recommend engaging in value and strength clarification exercises, which we also start with in the Life Design course.

Discovering yourself beyond work can support you in finding what Nilofer Merchant aptly named Onlyness Ⓡ. According to Merchant, “New ideas come from centering that distinct spot in the world where only one stands.”

Once you know what is important to you, Koretz recommends:

  • Start to engage in activities that help you discover yourself outside the job. Here, one might start small instead of overcommitting oneself. E.g. begin by writing a one-paragraph long short story instead of going for a novel.
  • Expand your network by strengthening meaningful connections outside of work.
  • Think about work skills you enjoy and how you could apply those in contexts outside of work.

If you are interested in talking about your enmeshment, career development, or career change, join me this Wednesday starting at 1 PM EST.

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