We are not our jobs. We are not what we do, either. But even if we know all that, our sense of who we are can take quite a beating when we lose our source of income, a relationship, or a loved one. Learning to redefine ourselves as separate from our jobs or relationships is only step one. But what are steps two, three, and beyond? Few people talk about those.
I had to learn the hard way for myself when I lost both my long-term relationship and my job in short succession in 2017, and had an identity crisis shortly thereafter. That, along with losing my furry friend of 13+ years a few months later, led me to the path in life I am now on. I knew I wasn’t defined by my job or by my relationship (a lesson I learned the hard way), but by what, then?
Turns out, “who I am” was a story I got to write for myself.
Our self-image and identity are not defined by our work, but they are defined in part by the story we tell about ourselves: the narrative we repeat in our thoughts or to others. To maintain a healthy and confident self-image we have to be mindful of that narrative, especially during the times our lives are not quite what we want them to be.
Any time we think thoughts like “I’m a failure because I can’t find a job even though I’m good at what I do!” it perpetuates the story and self-image of ourselves as a failure. Any time we think “no one will love me like they did,” or worse, things like “I am unlovable,” we uphold a narrative that holds us back.
So step one is believing we are not our job (or relationship), and step two is practicing being mindful of what narrative we are creating in our heads. Mindful of the protagonist we are describes ourselves as. Pay attention not just to your actions, but also your thoughts—especially those that portray you in any specific way, and rewrite that story in your head: “I’m good at what I do, and even for me it’s really difficult finding a new job right now” (all the more true with the pandemic lockdowns).
Step three is sharing the stories of your successes and accomplishments with others. This serves two important purposes: first, sharing your story keeps you grounded because it strengthens your connections with others, and helps to silence that voice of doubt. The more other people know who you are and where you’re coming from, the better they understand you and the more you feel seen and heard. (There are also physiological benefits to this.)
The second purpose is that telling your stories of achievement lets you maintain the image of yourself as a confident and capable person, which you are. Make sure your stories are not just boasting about your successes, but rather, about the challenges you overcame on the path towards them.
I put this to the test in 2018 by telling at least one story to someone every single day, for 365 days. I started the year still dealing with my crises of confidence and identity myself, but throughout the months my idea of who I was, my internal narrative, was getting completely rewritten—and so did my stories! As I shared them repeatedly over time, I would discuss or further examine the events and certain details, and through that process my understanding deepened and the stories evolved with them. Each time I dug deeper into myself I uncovered a greater treasure, as if the carbon dust of my memories I once buried to forget had become compressed by time and become little diamonds.
Step four and beyond go outside the scope of this, but they focus on becoming mindful of where one places their locus of control, and on designing a deliberate and authentic identity for oneself as a blueprint.
Photo credit: LoboStudio Hamburg