Changing careers, finding our passion, taking the next steps after a significant change… All these are stressful situations where the majority of us will find ourselves questioning our identities and life decisions.
I have lived it firsthand.
“Hi, I’m Ollie; I used to play rugby.”
This is how I kept introducing myself after being forced to quit rugby because of an injury. I identified myself solely by my rugby career, and without it, I didn’t know who I was or what to do next.
This is actually pretty common; in fact, psychologists use the term “enmeshment” to describe this type of behaviour.
The term enmeshment is defined as “a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear”. In addition, it’s used to describe the blurring of boundaries between a person and their job.
What are the repercussions?
People who identify themselves solely by their careers tend to work longer hours, have difficulties disconnecting from work, and end up being available 24/7 or even while on holiday. All these, in turn, will cause burnout, lack of work-life balance, and even mental health problems.
“If you tie (your self-worth) to your career, the successes and failures you experience will directly affect your self-worth. 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,” says Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario.
Unfortunately, life is quite unpredictable, and our situation can change at any time, and this last year has been a big reminder of this.
In my case, it was an injury, but it can be any form of change or disruption, being laid off, or a company going under that can prompt and provoke these types of feelings inside us.
In addition, we keep changing too. You may have spent years in a job, and at some point, decide that you don’t enjoy it any more or that you would like to move in a different direction. But then realise that you have no idea who you are outside of your job or don’t know what you want to do or where to go next.
Are you suffering from enmeshment?
This can seem pretty extreme, and you may be thinking that it won’t happen to you. But it’s more common than you may think.
According to a study by the Illinois Psychiatric Center, 70% of millennials identified themselves only through their jobs.
And psychologist; Janna Koretz has built a business entirely focused on helping people who suffer from this.
So, how do you know if the boundaries between your personal and professional lives are becoming blurry? You can start by answering these questions:
How much do you think about your job outside of the office? Is your mind frequently consumed with work-related thoughts? Is it difficult to participate in conversations with others that are not about your work?
How do you describe yourself? How much of this description is tied up in your jobs, title, or company? Are there any other ways you would describe yourself? How quickly do you tell people you’ve just met about your job?
Where do you spend most of your time? Has anyone ever complained to you that you are in the office too much?
Do you have hobbies outside of work that does not directly involve your work-related skills and abilities? Are you able to consistently spend your time exercising other parts of your brain?
How would you feel if you could no longer continue in your profession? How distressing would this be to you?
Are you fully present outside of your profession? Are your values as a person entirely defined by work values?
What can you do to change it?
Start small. Whatever approach you choose to take, you don’t need a dramatic change. You can always start taking small steps and adjust accordingly.
Make time for yourself. If you know that you are overworking and that your job is almost everything you do. You can start trying to free up time for yourself. Delegate more within your team, or take on less workload.
What’s important to you? Start by evaluating your priorities and what is important for you. Then you can examine if your behaviours are reflecting that or not. Are you focusing on the things that are really important to you and the things that make you happy?
Reevaluate your beliefs. We all have some beliefs that we formed through our lives. For example, “I can’t do anything else, I have always done (whatever your job is).” Evaluating the veracity of these beliefs can help you realise what your next steps need to be.
In my case, I learnt that my skills were transferable, and I could use them in a different environment and position.
Try new things. This can be helpful for many situations. If you have spent a lot of time focusing on your job, you may have lost contact with the hobbies or activities you used to do. You can start picking them back up again or trying something new and seeing how it makes you feel.
On the other hand, if you are looking to change career paths, trying new things can help you identify your next steps.
Explore your options: Talk to people you know and see what other opportunities there may be for you. In my case, I was lucky; I had the opportunity to sail around the world and embark on other adventures. And it’s because of these experiences that I end up where I am today.
Focus on personal relationships. It’s pretty common to lose touch with friends and family when we devote too much time to our jobs. An important step is to refocus on your personal relationships. Call those friends you haven’t seen for a while, or start building new relationships outside of the office.
The Optimist view…
We are so much more than what we do, and we have the ability to reinvent ourselves as many times as we want.
I certainly understand how difficult it can be to change the way we identify ourselves, but I also know that it’s possible because I had gone through it myself.
Change can be scary, but we are all able to overcome it. Whether you want to change career paths, start your own business, take on a new direction, or maybe just find a better balance, it’s important to remember that we are so much more than our job title.
At Optimist Performance, we help people who are facing some of these challenges. People who are in the process of changing positions or careers, or people who need support finding and understanding their strengths in order to achieve their goals.