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Why your identity should be more than your day job

Psychology says your identity is the way you define your uniqueness through your past, present and future.

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Last Updated: Feb 03, 2020, 07.07 PM IST
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Your job identity gives you strength to sustain the present moment and tackle an unknown future.
By Devashish Chakravarty

When you introduce yourself, you say—teacher, doctor, entrepreneur, auditor, CEO or any other job title. Why do you refer to your work as your identity? Is it a good thing? Let’s consider your psychological identity constructed out of stories you tell yourself, about yourself, highlighting your human traits. These stories can be empowering or disempowering and when taken together, they distinguish you from others. Let’s see how to make a career-defined identity work for you while avoiding its pitfalls.

Why?
Psychology says your identity is the way you define your uniqueness through your past, present and future and can include aspects of your gender, ethnicity, occupation and others. You may identify strongly with your community and extinguish your personal self or vice versa. You choose the stories that give you meaning, and these can lie anywhere between personal and group identity. Humans seek external validation. In childhood it is school grades. As an adult, you choose personal achievements to control your narrative. Since most achievements come from what you do, there is no escaping your job has a huge impact on your identity. How do you understand and use this?

Strength
Your job identity gives you strength to sustain the present moment and tackle an unknown future. As you gain competencies, you become confident in your ability to earn a living and send the right signals where the job market can believe you too. You know how you can generate cash flow and thus your survival fears are reduced. This is a powerful place to be, especially if you have been disadvantaged or socially powerless on account of say your economic status, gender, education or other reasons. Apart from this, your work gives you strength in terms of a title, social status and a new group to identify with. On the flip side, this starts limiting your future growth and happiness.

Meaning
Your occupation-driven identity may lend you meaning and a purpose larger than yourself. If you are struggling to find meaning at your workplace, try abstracting your job, function or company vision through how it contributes to the benefit of humanity. When the meaning is aligned to your internal values, you will sustain your career longer. If you are starting a career, or are a single person, or estranged from social roots—your occupation gives you a fabulous first identity or unique voice where none existed. However, over-dependence on this meaning will lead you to pain so reduce dependence by creating multiple identities and discovering meaning from within.

Direction
The personal identity shaped by your role gives you direction in life and makes decision making easier. It gives you access to structures and coping mechanisms so that you save energy in each phase of life. Your life is easier when you choose a path aligned to your interests. So early in your career, explore diverse roles to discover real interests independent of your education. Make sure that these interests come from within and not from narratives imposed from outside.

Anchor
Your work defined identity also gives you a critical anchor and a harbour to fall back on in times of breakdown. At work, you are linked to others like a piece in a jigsaw and thus it provides a sense of collective identity and helps make instant connections and bonds with new people. When there is a personal breakdown or bereavement, your job keeps you going. The collective identity rescues you while you redefine your personal self and thus getting busy at work keeps you sane and helps you stay in control. But remember—use your work identity only as a temporary harbour and not a permanent lifeboat which is ineffective to get past your long-term challenges.

Do you have a choice?
Finally, do you have a say in the matter of your job defining your identity? Yes. When you choose jobs, pause to think, what will it make you in 2 years, 5 years or 20 years. The dimensions that will shape your stories include work content, function, geography, company culture, designation etc. If you become a corporate lawyer, your life perspective and social behaviour is likely to be very different from that of a criminal lawyer.

A stint in sales or revenue generation where you create demand possibilities will transform you differently from a stint in revenue assurance where you optimise the supply side or costs. When your job changes, people change and your identity changes. At any stage in life, you can choose your roles, change your stories, swap your job identity and transform yourself completely!

BEWARE OF PITFALLS
1. Limiting context

When personal identity is driven by your job, you fail in other walks of life. Firstly, decision-making. Applying limited contexts and frameworks from work to life situations begets poor decisions and antagonises others— like physicist Sheldon Cooper from the web series Big Bang Theory. So, create multiple identities by embracing diverse roles in different circles and networks to get a wider perspective and to take better decisions.

2. Job loss
If your job is high paying, you may get dependent on a higher standard of living. If your job gives you power, you may get addicted to the higher social standing. If you lose your job, you may not be able to reconcile with the loss of status unless you have maintained a lifestyle and a social profi le independent of your current title and cash flow.

3. Retirement
When you have completely identified with your career, you face a huge void on retirement. Unable to find meaning, you may fi nd it challenging to deal with your environment or earn a living. To avoid this future, invest time early in meaningful identities as a family member, available friend and contributor to community.

4. Conflict
If you are a hyper-achiever or super-successful professional, you are engaged 24/7 within an extremely competitive environment or at the highest level of responsibility. You are at confl ict with other hyperachievers and with people in your relationships because of the time demands of your job. Exit the state of confl ict either by prioritising one role outside work or choosing a pace that is not cut-throat.

5. Mental crisis
Your professional success may come at the cost of broken relationships and lead to burnout through stress. Create time for relationships by reducing workload through structures and delegation. Lack of professional success may lead to self-imposed isolation or depression unless you have invested in other meaningful activities. Seek counseling/ therapy to build coping mechanisms for either challenge.

(The author is Founder and CEO at Quezx.com and Headhonchos.com)
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(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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