(CNN)"If I'm not (insert job title here), then who am I?"
This is the type of question some adults are asking themselves as they struggle through the darkness of losing a job to the pandemic.
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," A