Consider this scenario:
You’ve downloaded a new dating app, hoping to give the whole ‘dating during a pandemic’ thing a try again. You create and verify your account, then you upload your best photos, a few that show your personality and others that are cute, but not too flattering because you don’t want to be misleading. Now it’s time to write your bio and that is when it hits you: the job/career section will be the hardest to fill in – because a lot has changed. You’re no longer working at the job that made for a great talking point when introducing and telling others about yourself. And as you continue to think about it, you realize the amount of confidence your work was instilling in you. But now you’re dealing with the loss of self because you no longer work there. So, what do you write in this section?
This example is just one type of experience that gets people to reflect on who they are and how they brand themselves – both of which play heavily into how others view them. This type of thinking is okay so long as you understand one critical point: career isn’t everything.
Sure, one’s career says a lot about who that person is professionally, but it isn’t meant to define self-worth. Or abilities. Or attractiveness. Or who the individual is overall. But, despite this being the case, many of us allow our careers to shape our identity, thereby leading us to then accepting when others draw their own conclusions based on where we work, what we do for a living, and other career-related factors.
The reason this type of thinking is so common is because, as humans, we naturally tend to characterize people, places, and things.
What this means, on the surface, is that we long for simple descriptors to quickly gain understanding of the world around us. This is why when you learn of another person’s career, you immediately begin to surmise their values, interests, and socioeconomic status. It is a useful mental shortcut, so to speak. The best way to make sense of this is to understand that the brain is an associating organism, so, to some extent, this behavior is innate.
Now, what doesn’t help when trying to draw the line between who we are (identity) and our occupation (career) is that we spend such a significant amount of our lives at work.We work tirelessly toward advancing in our positions, while simultaneously investing countless hours developing and nurturing friendships and relationships with those we work with.
It’s safe to say that, at one point or another, we end up reducing ourselves to just a career. And this tends to happen even before our careers start. Think about it, one of the main questions one gets asked while in college is “What’s your major?” This question is so commonplace that it is generally one of the first things asked when people meet one another for the first time – sort of like an icebreaker, mainly because it gets people talking.
First and foremost, you have to remember that your career is not your whole identity – it is only one piece of the equation. There are many other facets of you that, collectively, make up your identity; things like:
· The jokes you tell and laugh at
· The type of movies you enjoy and recommend to others
· The company you keep
· The values you have that guide your actions
· The hobbies that bring you joy
· The ways you express love
· And countless other things
The difference here is that you typically don’t pride yourself on these actions. In fact, you may completely overlook them, regarding them as unimportant or even boring. But, truth is, they are very essential to your being, your identity.
Now that you know that literally everything about you counts toward your identity, you should spend some time taking inventory of all the qualities that are you. By doing this, you’ll have a better understanding of who you are. If you’re feeling stumped, consider starting with these:
· The qualities or personality traits that make you special
· The things that help you feel like yourself (maybe that weekly yoga class you can’t miss!)
· The things about you that your family and friends love (don’t be afraid to ask!)
After you’ve compiled your list, the next step is to reflect on it, then act on it.
To put it into action, you’re going to commit to further developing the qualities that showed up on your list.
You’ll quickly see that by nurturing those qualities, you will begin to get in tune with sides of you that have always been there, but were being either overlooked or ignored.
At this point you may be wondering why getting in touch with your true self—the one that doesn’t only include your career—matters so much.
Well, research supports the notion that the more we identify with one part of ourselves, the less effort we put into other parts. In other words, the less time and energy we expend making those other parts a priority. We completely understand how the loss of employment may result in you feeling upset or even wronged, but it should never cause you to reassess your self-worth. Instead, this is an opportunity to work on the parts of you that, once you begin working again, will be more pronounced and appreciated by both you and others.
The final stage of finding your sense of self is reclaiming what you feel you’ve lost. The approach taken in this step will be and feel different for everyone. Start by asking yourself questions about what it is that you love about your career, what part of your work you are especially good at, and what personal needs were being fulfilled by your profession Once you begin to explore what it is you miss about your career, you can start incorporating similar activities into your life right now.
My clients all primarily work in the arts, so some of the things they miss are the opportunities for self-expression, the confidence their work gave them, and the thrill of performing, to name a few. The advice I like to give them is to find new activities and environments that allow them to achieve similar levels of fulfillment. For instance, an actor who is missing the stage may find delight in weekly play readings on Zoom with friends, or participating in an online “open mic” show . Finding something that helps you express yourself even just a little bit will help. In this case, the goal is not to find a replacement for performing, but to identify activities that can fill the void, so to speak, and address one’s need to perform.
Make no mistake, this process will take some time. If you feel as though you are unable to put things into motion on your own, you may want to consider therapy as a way to help move things along
Whichever route you decide to take, just remember that no option will serve as a magic bullet. At times, it may feel pointless to invest energy into finding ways to cope with what’s going on in the world right now. Nevertheless, trust the process and make the most of every opportunity to develop yourself. Remember, a strong sense of self means you will not only effectively cope with the now, but will be better prepared for the future.
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Elle Bernfeld, LCSW is a Brooklyn based therapist specializing in creative professionals, artists, and entertainers. Elle prioritizes a strong therapeutic relationship, and utilizes her prior experience working in the arts to help connect with clients on a deeper level. Elle uses a strengths based approach to help clients gain confidence and direction in their professional and personal life, while helping them gain skills and insight to minimize depression and anxiety symptoms. Elle can be reached at [email protected] or at her website.