If you lost your job today, what would that do to your sense of self-worth?
Would you be OK with it, or would you really suffer? Would you be worried about what your spouse, children, family, and friends think about you because you lost the job?
During the financial crisis of 2007-08 millions of American’s lost their jobs. Unemployment was at long-time highs. I know this time very well. You see, I too suffered loss because of the crisis. I had to close a company. A company my wife and I had labored to build.
We were almost to the five-year mark, then the crisis hit. Five years is significant because the Small Business Administration tells us that the odds of a small business surviving go off the chart if they make it through their first five years. We didn’t make that.
After losing my company, I started exploring what to do. I started joining large networking events that were happening all over Houston, my hometown. However, none of these events were being held near my house. I live on the outskirts of Houston. Driving to some of these meetings included a fifty-mile trip, one way. With gas at over $4.00 per gallon and me unemployed, this didn’t make sense.
The Main Event
So my entrepreneurial juices were activated. I started my own career transition organization called Jobs Ministry Southwest. We applied for and were given the 501c(3) non-profit status. We started organizing a weekly gathering known as “The Main Event”. Soon we had over 200 people attending our weekly workshops, hearing our speakers, and using our materials.
We had all of the usual things you would expect from a job assistance organization (resume writing, interviewing skills coaching, networking, social media, etc.). For me though, what I quickly figured out was the phenomenon of how people dealt with job loss.
First, there was a huge common split between men and women. Men looked at their jobs for their significance. When I asked a man to tell me something about himself, 99% of the time he went straight to talking about his job; title, role, reach, budget, team size, and so forth. I had not asked what he did for a living. I asked to know something about them.
Women, on the other hand, talked about a sense of security. The job gave them security. This usually translated into financial security, but often included the notion that at work they could be safe from whatever may be happening outside of work. Yes, this includes domestic violence, substance abuse, and other horrific things we see in the news.
Job Loss Can Be Devastating
Let’s see how this works. You can only imagine how losing the job caused devastation in either direction. Men would often express losing their actual identities over a job loss. “I am not an engineer anymore; I am going to have to become a fry cook.” (No disrespect to any type of position or work intended here). Women losing their jobs were emotionally wreaked for having lost their security; fear became the primary emotion.
While coaching hundreds of these folks individually, I found myself revisiting this common thread far too often. I spent a lot of time helping people re-center their core beliefs about who they were, what they were made of, and differentiating the job loss circumstance from their inner being. It was no small task.
When someone has interwoven these beliefs for decades, trying to untangle that mess was daunting. Sadly, not everyone made it through the mental shift. For those who did though, a whole new outlook drove them to seek new ideas, even new careers, to better align with what they discovered were their true values.
Separating the job from who you are is the key.
The need is to learn how to begin separating the job from the self. That’s pretty lousy grammar, but it gets to the point.
First, let’s talk about how we even get to this point in life. My wife and I are in the grandparents stage of our lives. Our kids are grown and married, having their own children. We have seven grandkids and counting.
As we celebrate the births and bring the new babies home, I have observed a few key thoughts. None of those babies left the hospital with a smartphone, a business card, a laptop, or an iPad. They weren’t waiting on the next call or rushing to the next appointment or shift change. Their only ‘job’ was to eat, sleep, and, well, you know what.
When did the identity thing start shifting away from what it was at birth to what it becomes for so many Americans? Where does this sense of work and vocation creep in and drive the definition of personal significance?
The Frog in the Pot
I like to refer to the story of the frog in the pot. The story says that you put a frog in cool water, in a pot on the stove. Then start turning up the heat slowly. Eventually, the water boils and the frog dies. If you boil the water first, then drop the frog in, he jumps right out.
So many situations in life are this way. We get into a scenario. Over time, the circumstances change, pressures build, attitudes shift, and eventually, we are at a whole new place.
Believe me, I know about competitive forces at work – the push to win the next promotion, get the right recognition, and get that next raise. All of it becomes a focus for anyone hoping to prosper in the workplace. As these things accumulate, our culture tends to honor the achievements.
We stand in awe of our corporate giants, people who have “climbed the ladder” as we say. It is easy to feel proud of those accomplishments. For each new rung on the ladder though, a bit of our true identity gets painted with a new brush. We start becoming the job.
Again though, the need here is to distance our definition of self from the job description we have.
Satisfaction of the Need
So how do we ever start making this happen? How can we separate our identity from the jobs we hold so dear? What might be some of the hurdles to overcome? Well, here are the ones I have seen over the years in my business.
Poor self-esteem – This one might have been overdone in years past. Yet it remains a key driver. Why?
When our individual understanding and belief about our sense of self has been damaged, we naturally look for a substitute. We look for something to latch on to that can fill that void deep inside us. It’s a kind of replacement thinking. The job is a huge part of our life, so why not let your new statement of what you are be about the job. Well, the logic might not be bad, but the result is dangerous. Why? Because if the job opportunity evaporates as it did for so many in 2008, what do you have?
You get pushed right back into that sense of failure, inadequacy, and so forth.
This sounds too ethereal – “Everything you’re talking about Doug sounds bogus.” Really? All I can tell you is that I have firsthand experience with thousands of job seekers who needed to get this right before they could land their next gig. When the economy is throwing lemons, a person needs a really centered belief system to avoid getting down on themselves about the situation. It can happen to anyone.
Bad tapes playing in your mind – Losing a job has a lot of unhealthy consequences. The biggest one is the risk that those old tapes in your brain start playing. You know what I am talking about. The tape with the teacher telling you how bad you are. The one with the sibling riding you about something you did feel bad about but didn’t need to be reminded of. And worst of all is the look in the mirror where you see a very poor image looking back. I know these bad tape topics can go on and on.
None of this kind of thinking is good for you. And frankly, I have yet to find a case study where the truth was anything close to being as bad as what the person claimed as their downside.
By understanding this overall dynamic and the relationship between job and self, you can free yourself of the disappointment, guilt, fear, and uncertainty when your job is adversely impacted or lost.
When the job situation changes enough you no longer have to trigger all of those emotions.
By redefining your purpose and sense of self, you can more quickly focus your energy when the job situation changes.
The rollercoaster effect does not have to have such severe highs and lows. A job change is never easy, but by disconnecting your value system from the significance of the work, you reach a better, more realistic view of what the job should be and where it fits in the scheme of things.
So how do you get there? Here are a few action items to consider.
Test yourself in advance. Ask the key question – will I be OK if I were to lose my job?
I mean really dive deep on that one. If the answer is “NO, I won’t be OK, emotionally I’ll be ruined”, then you might be dealing with this troubling idea that your self-worth is too closely bound to your job. While I will grant you the obvious issues that arise from such a question, I am saying to set aside the financial impact.
Focus on the psychological and emotional things that are spun up when you entertain this question; things like fear, doubt, anger, hostility. Experts tell us these kinds of emotions are symptomatic of deeper root causes. I contend that having your job tied to your identity is a pretty big root.
Ask others – Ask your closest friends and confidants. Ask these folks what they think about your balance for work versus your sense of self.
Hint: a spouse is not always the best person to ask this question. This is true simply because they have too much vested and at stake.
Imagine going a whole new direction with work – If your opportunity to make money went a whole new way, would losing the former position or job impact your definition of yourself.
This can help determine how proud you are of the current situation. Pride is usually indicative of tying it to some sense of self-worth. If something is boosting some area of your mental image, you are often proud of it.
Try to define who and what you are without mentioning work – Try this one day. See if you like the statement you have. If not, take some time to work on that.
In closing, let me say this theme has been played out in many lives I know. It seems to be human nature to let our work become a definition of what we are. I encourage you to do yourself a favor. If your identity and sense of self-worth is tied too closely to your job, start the process I’ve presented here. Work through the issues and create a new story for yourself.