In my occupation as coach, I have numerous opportunities to assist clients facing life and work transitions: career shifts, loss of employment, restructuring, or retirement, among others.
Aside from the economic challenge posed by these changes, they face the painful process of losing the core of their identity. Overnight, they cease being the CEO, CFO, Vice President, General Manager, etc. and shortly after, they find out that notwithstanding the many years of being reflexively recognized as such, they have lost their prestigious position and with it, their identity.
As with all losses, it is very hard to let go of the attachment, in this case, to their “persona”. Despite its high demands in time and effort, the status quo has also brought a sense of value, security, and status.
How many times have we heard the phrase “you are not what you do?” And yet, it is hard to accept that premise in the world we live in, where success and productivity are glorified. Here, we are defined by what we do. And that’s because of our excessive dedication to do more, produce more, and be more. In the task, we lose track of our lives and sense of self.
Most successful people love their work; I do too. We all acknowledge that there is a tempting mix of pleasurable feelings when we are seduced by the potential of success. For some, this behavior is so pronounced that they find it difficult to savor moments of pleasure and leisure, without subconsciously experiencing guilt. The need to be connected to work 24/7 allows us to justify conduct that was not deemed normal a few years ago, such as dedicating hours to work when on a family vacation or having a conference call while attending a dinner party.
When some lose their job, they try to reconnect as soon as possible with a position that will offer them a similar or better identity. Often, they accept positions for the uncertainty they avoid more than for the fit they have with their interests. Faking or maintaining an identity that is not aligned with their values, is not only hard, sooner than later it will look phony.
Others willfully or otherwise need to forge a new identity for themselves and engage in a long and arduous process that requires courage and determination. Living without the suit that fit us so comfortably is a painful act.
And then comes the question, “What is my new identity? How could I define myself now?” Probably the right question to ask ought to be “What is my real identity?”
It will start emerging when you start examining with an open heart and soul your other human dimensions that are not part of your professional facet: What are the things that bring you joy? What do you enjoy doing and sharing? What are your passions? Where do you focus your energy? And so on… It’s a process of discovering, understanding and connecting with your authentic self.
What would happen if the search for our true identity were a continual quest in our lives and not limited to extreme cases where we seek for it in a state of fear and discouragement?
Let us contemplate how we can start reevaluating the importance of the identity that our work provides us. Rather than placing our career at the center of our lives, we should accord it the right place and space among all the other matters that are meaningful to us.
Wrapping our identity only with what we do will leave us empty-handed when our job ends or our profession comes to a halt.