You are more than your job

Finding meaning in your work without losing yourself

When you meet someone new and they ask, "So, what do you do?" how do you typically respond?

If you're like many of us, you share your job title and likely a few details about how you spend 40 or more hours per week at work – that's over 2,000 hours per year, by the way. Our jobs are a core part of our identities. And rightly so; most of us take extreme pride in our work and in our ability to deliver good outcomes for the customers, clients, patients, students or whomever it is that we serve. Professional pride is a good thing, and often the mark of a successful person.

Getting lost in your work

Many people rely on their career as a source of meaning in their lives. Our work makes us feel like we belong somewhere, and like we are understood. If we don't feel that sense of belonging, we tend to move from job to job every few years (or sooner) as if searching for our soulmate in career form. Sure, we should all work to get paid as much as we can for our skills, but searching for the ideal job to fill a hole in your sense of self-worth will certainly lead to burnout. Your happiness and self-worth are up to you. You are more than your job.

If you've ever been laid off (it's happened to me twice), you know the shock of suddenly losing that part of your identity. Being without a job is an empty, hollow feeling ... like a key part of your character has been lost.

Relying on your job for self-fulfillment, self-worth and your sense of identity is a slippery slope. The chase for career success can lead to feelings of inadequacy, that you're not quite there yet, or that you're not good enough. Corporations are only too happy to encourage these feelings by continually raising the bar for performance to increasingly high standards of bigger, better or faster.

Warning signs

So, what are the warning signs? Someone whose sense of self-worth is entangled with their job and is reliant on their job or co-workers for validation and approval. They rely heavily on praise or recognition from colleagues or supervisors to feel good about themselves or feel like they had a good day.

Another warning sign is that their own personal well-being takes a backseat to the needs of their organization. They feel pressured to agree to every workplace request, fearing rejection or disapproval for saying no. They also stay late and miss important events in order to accommodate work and struggle to come up with interests or hobbies outside of work. Oftentimes sleep, nutrition and exercise are deprioritized with rippling negative effects.

If any of those warning signs resonate with you, it's important to know that over time, constantly putting others' needs before your own can lead to burnout and disengagement, harming your own performance and that of your organization. Your work should be an extension of your identity, not the root of it.

Fostering healthy dynamics

How can you foster a healthy sense of accomplishment and professional pride, while maintaining your self-identity? First, spend some time getting reacquainted with yourself and building self-awareness: What are your strengths, and how can you leverage these strengths outside of work? A friend of mine is analytical and a good project manager. This makes him a good operations leader at work, and he is able to leverage these skills when doing home renovation projects, which brings him a sense of fulfillment and personal pride.

Next, consider what roles you play in your life (partner, parent, child, friend, etc). Are you investing enough time in these various roles? If not, where do you need to spend extra time or effort? Again, strengthening these relationships will help you feel a sense of self-worth. Most likely, these people think you're great whether you have a job or not.

Third, make sure you're using your vacation time, even if you just stay home. It's important to gain separation from your job if you're too immersed in the work.

Consider taking up a hobby or restarting an old one. A hobby allows you to round out your response when asked: "What do you do?" You can provide intriguing answers, such as: "I'm an avid reader," "I play an instrument" or "I enjoy rock climbing." It makes you a more interesting conversationalist too. Finally, your new hobby will likely lead to the final area of focus – making new friends outside of work.

While getting lost in your job can seem like a trivial issue, its impact on well-being and overall health cannot be understated. By building self-awareness and personal accountability for a full and rewarding life, you'll be more resilient to setbacks. You can enjoy a healthy sense of professional success without sacrificing individual autonomy or well-being.

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