We often see our jobs as a defining detail of who we are, yet too closely tying our identities to work can be dangerous. What can we do about it?
he most popular surname in Germany and Switzerland is Müller, while in Ukraine, it’s Melnik; both are words for a miller. In Slovakia, the most common last name is Varga, a word that means cobbler. And in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, it’s Smith – as in blacksmith, silversmith, locksmith, gunsmith. These names date back as far as the Middle Ages, when a person’s job was such a defining characteristic, it became their literal identity.
Today, our jobs don’t dictate our names (though research into the phenomenon of nominative determinism says the opposite might be true; think a meteorologist named ‘Blizzard’ or an archaeologist named ‘Graves’) – but they still often become a major part of our identities. After all, one of the first questions we tend to exchange with a new acquaintance is, “What do you do?”.
In many ways, it feels natural to see a person’s profession as a defining detail of who they are. It can be a clue into their values, interests or background (or simply help two strangers pass time at an awkward cocktail party). But many of us have come to actually define ourselves by our occupations – which often comes at our own expense.
How did work become to be so entwined with identity – and is it too late to separate our perceptions of self from our professional lives?
Historically, most people didn’t get to choose their jobs, says Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. “It was usually generational – your father was a carpenter, so you were a carpenter,” she says. “Or, you’d just take a job based on the opportunities available.”
But increased access to education over the past century has led to the emergence of more varied jobs, and thus more income tiers. So, jobs have become a significant marker of identity in a more nuanced way. When someone says they’re a surgeon, you generally assume they have strong education and high income – two metrics that can determine one’s standing in society, and affect how you subsequently judge the person. Of course, it’s a two-way street: many welcome this judgement, because they desire to associate themselves with the wealth and accomplishment their professional titles imply.
“That is especially true among the ‘educated elite’,” says Wilson. “For people who have a certain type of job and certain class, it often becomes how you identify yourself and how others identify you.”
However, those who do let their jobs consume their identities may be doing so at their own expense. When people invest a disproportionate amount of their time and energy into their career, explains Wilson, it can lead to a psychological state called ‘enmeshment’, where the boundaries between work and personal life are blurred.
“This tends to happen especially for people with jobs that are relatively self-determined, where you’re not clocking in at nine and out at five,” says Wilson. People in high-powered executive positions, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, academics and others who set their own hours “can end up letting their jobs fill a lot of – or most of – the time in their lives”.
The enmeshment trap
There are some common signs of enmeshment, like thinking about work whenever you aren’t there, and bringing up your job within the first three minutes of a conversation, says Wilson. Enmeshment allows the job to “eat up one’s time and identity, leaving less space for hobbies and interests. It makes it harder to connect with people who aren’t a part of your working life.”
If you tie [your self-worth] to your career, the successes and failures you experience will directly affect your self-worth – Anne Wilson
When you become so enmeshed in your job that it begins to define you, you also may begin to let it determine your own value. This can have disastrous effects.
“If you tie [your self-worth] to your career, the successes and failures you experience will directly affect your self-worth,” says Wilson. “And because we live in a society where careers are less likely to be lifelong, if we switch or find ourselves out of a job, it can also become an identity crisis.”
And enmeshment doesn’t only threaten the way we feel about ourselves personally. Janna Koretz, founder of Azimuth Psychological, a Boston-based practice focused on the mental health of people in high-pressure jobs, says that linking self-worth to your career can turn a career hurdle into something considerably tougher to overcome. “Inevitably, something will happen,” she says. “There will be lay-offs, a recession, your company will be acquired, and suddenly your job isn’t what it used to be. It becomes really existential for people, and they have poor coping strategies because it’s earth-shattering. So, it becomes depression, anxiety, even substance abuse.”
But until there’s a problem, most people who’ve slipped into a career-centric identity don’t even realise it’s happening. “We work with people who are uncomfortable with how much they’re defined by their job,” says Koretz. Ironically, she adds, most would also say they’re doing their “dream job”, or something they love.
A new cultural identity
However, we may have a rare opportunity to disassociate who we are with what we do.
The pandemic’s forced disruption of all elements of our lives – work, especially – has caused many to evaluate what’s actually important to them. Some have taken on new hobbies; others have evolved their bonds with family and friends.
“When we face experiences that remind us that our mortal existence is transient and that tragedy can strike with little or no warning, we tend to be motivated to evaluate what makes life worthwhile,” writes Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, US. Routledge is one of the co-authors of a recent study on how American adults derived meaning in their lives.
So, while our careers are still in the picture, of course, we may be at a juncture where our jobs become only one significant puzzle piece of our lives.
Wilson points out that doing work you love is not a bad thing, nor is considering what you do for a living an important part of who you are. But she says moving away from a system where people are defined primarily – or exclusively – by their jobs will take more than realising there is a problem, or re-prioritizing in the wake of the pandemic. It will also require a cultural shift away from the idea that each person has a professional “calling”, dictated by who they are, and that the goal of life should be to discover it. “We often set people up to feel dissatisfied; if they don’t find themselves in that perfect job, they’ve somehow failed,” she says.
Changing that narrative may need to begin long before people actually enter the workforce. Research shows that pressure to find “a calling” makes students feel lost and depressed. Even young children get the message that the career they choose will be part of who they become; consider how often today’s kids are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”.
Discussing careers with children – especially little girls – can help them see the myriad possibilities their future holds. But Wilson says asking young people what they want to be may have knock-on effects. “The idea that this is when we want kids to determine a life course may influence the degree to which, as adults, we end up tying our identity so much to our jobs.”
While parents can begin to make those changes with their children, adults who feel too enmeshed in their careers have some recourse, too. Being deliberate about making time to relax and socialise outside work can help. It can be difficult to make friends as an adult, but joining groups or clubs can provide a leg-up. Picking up hobbies can be very helpful, as long as they have nothing to do with your job.
Koretz warns that identities develop over time, and cautions against trying to change too much, too fast. She encourages her clients to add new identifiers slowly. “Rather than drastic, very difficult changes, get hobbies a little at a time, make friends a little at a time,” she suggests. “Ultimately, it’s similar to diversifying a financial portfolio. You have to diversify your life. Diversify yourself.”