“If I’m not (insert job title here), then who am I?”
Some never realized how tied their identities were to their careers until they lost them. They feel lost mentally and emotionally, as if they’re experiencing a bad breakup. The present is surreal, the future is uncertain, and they’re unsure how to define themselves.
Christa Black, a freelance copywriter from Ashland, Kentucky, said her work shaped her identity.
“I finally felt like a ‘real’ writer, because after several years of trying, I was actually being paid to do what I enjoyed and was good at,” she said. “I started to feel less like an artist and more like ‘a professional.’”
But when the pandemic hit, the work faded away. Black’s income decreased to little to none. She soon felt that she had lost her identity, that she was no longer a professional and that she didn’t fit in with the creative community from which she had come.
That might be because sudden unemployment is a threat to “narrative identity,” said Jonathan Adler, a professor of psychology who specializes in identity and narrative psychology at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.
“Identity is the story of our lives that weaves together the way we reconstruct our past, make sense of the present and anticipate our future,” he said.
That narrative identity is the confluence of you and the culture in which you live. We grow up in a sea of stories about what a typical life’s journey looks like and what moments we’re supposed to hold onto, Adler said, so we take the templates available to us and tailor our experiences to those master narratives.
“We use our stories as the foundation for everything else that we do,” Adler said. “So when you rock the foundation, everything else on top of that crumbles.”
Through some inner work, however, you can take back your worth.
How our identities influence our jobs
For some, jobs provide merely a paycheck. For others, occupations also supply a sense of meaning that holds weight when they think about their sense of selves.
Our perpetually “on the grind” culture defines who we are by what we do for work.
“The first thing we ask when we meet a new person is, ‘What do you do for a living?’” said Nicole Hind, an Australia-based psychotherapist behind the online community, blog and practice Unveiled Stories.
“It’s as though we equate ‘goodness’ with ‘work’ when in fact goodness is so much more than that. It’s important to note that this is particular to our modern industrialized society: the idea that work is all of who we are and that we are not worthy humans if we don’t work.”
Additionally, people who feel motivated and engaged by and passionate about their work might have experienced psychological benefits from finding their calling, Adler said.
In the idealized college-job-promotion-passion trajectory, becoming unemployed isn’t part of the vision. “All of a sudden the end is totally open and uncertain,” Adler said.
Our narrative identities serve two additional functions that make us feel good. They provide a sense of unity, so that we feel we are the same people over time. They also provide a sense of purpose, so we know the meaning of what we’re doing and what our lives are about.
People suddenly faced with job loss are now challenged by a story with a cliffhanger and interrupted senses of unity and purpose — all of which can lead to anxiety, depression and anger.
What to do about it
Finding your identity begins with questioning yourself about three themes that construct life stories and tend to be the strongest predictors of well-being, Adler said.
“It’s not so much what happens to you [that matters]; it’s how you tell the story of what happens to you,” Adler said.
The first is agency, a characteristic of the main character in your story (which is you). Maybe your effectiveness at your job provided your sense of agency. Though no one is in complete control, how much are you in the driver’s seat of your life versus batted around by the whims of external forces?
Give yourself the space to grieve the losses, Hind instructed.
Don’t rush into proclaiming why you’re stronger because of it. Instead, acknowledge what you’re feeling physically, emotionally and mentally. Recall positive moments, too: the times when you advocated for what you believed in or hit a goal.
“People who do what’s called exploratory processing — which means deeply trying to make sense of their experience before creating a redemption sequence at the end — actually do better than the people who just do redemption without exploring the challenge,” Adler said.
Then find something else to prioritize, like a new venture or hobby. Revisit your core values and what really matters: What parts of your job were important to you? What fueled your passion? How can you express those during this period?
You can stay invested in those values whether you’re employed or not, Adler said.
For example, Black, the freelance copywriter, has found her roots again in creative writing. “It has helped me get back in touch with my creativity and given me something enjoyable to focus on while I emotionally recover from everything that came along with the pandemic and its fallout,” she said.
In this way, the underlying value of her job might be fulfilled.
Figure out your own definition of success, Hind said. What do you admire about your role models? Is it their “success” or their skills, compassion, kindness or wisdom?
And our stories aren’t just about ourselves. Communion, secondly, entails a sense of being connected to, nurturing and feeling cared for by quality relationships. Engage with the connections that matter to you.
“Step away from ‘job’ as being the only and step towards appreciating [yourself] and others for everything: the way you take care of someone or the meal you cooked today,” Hind said. “What [do] my everyday life, my interactions and my values say about who I am?”
Taking action and finding community foster the growth leading to redemption — stories that start out bad but end well.
“There’s a lot of research on the theme of redemption. It’s sort of a classic American master narrative,” Adler said. “We have the Puritan settlers finding freedom. We have ex-slaves’ narratives about liberation. We have the rags to riches stories.”
The outcome of finding yourself
Reclaiming your identity requires both a quick shift in mindset and a journey of changing your thought patterns and behaviors — just like setting an intention to lose weight, Adler said.
“That’s something that takes place over time, but it actually happens every moment of every day. You can’t just diet and exercise on the weekends,” he explained. “Changing your narrative identity is like that — it’s a cumulative process that builds up over time, but the intention … is something you do in the here and now every day.”
When we’re focused only on work as a measure of success and what defines us, we lose touch with many other areas, Hind said.
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We might devalue our contributions to our families or forget to be present with them, ourselves, pets and other sources of joy. We say we “don’t have time” for leisure and then wonder why we’re so anxious all the time or need a drink to unwind. Then we wonder why we’re unhappy, Hind said.
Just as a threatened identity might have upended every area of your life, a solid identity can also flow into different domains and increase your confidence.