Redefine your identity

If you have grown tired and weary doing what you no longer like for a living, or if you recognize that you define your existence primarily by your occupation, it's probably a good time for some self-reflection.

The Globe and Mail
November 21, 2003

Redefine your identity
Ignore your job and ask yourself what goals and dreams are important to you
Dorothy Ratusny

If you were asked to define yourself, chances are, you'd start by describing what you do for a living.

Our sense of identity and self-esteem is tightly woven into our work. We assess our self-worth based on how successful we are at our jobs and how others perceive and acknowledge our performance.

Yet what happens if we begin to feel less passionate, or even bored with what we do for a living? How do we go about restructuring our definition of "self" if we have always associated who we are with our work?

It's a dilemma that Gordon understands well. He became a lawyer because he thought that it would be a "marketable profession." Gordon (not his real name) admits that his entire life has been dominated by decisions made purely from a place of logic — what he thinks he should do.

While the practice of law has been an important way for Gordon to define himself, he admits quite candidly that he absolutely hates being a lawyer. In fact, he has always hated it. He says he's at a point now, some 10 years later, where serving burgers or coffee is looking good — not because it is any less important than being a lawyer, but because doing anything — absolutely anything — else would be better than pushing paper and reading contracts at his desk. When you ask Gordon to describe his interests, and his likes and dislikes, he looks completely lost and has trouble remembering the activities he once enjoyed doing.

Gordon was recently diagnosed with clinical depression. He doesn't sleep well and feels lethargic and numb most of the time, making it even more difficult for him to figure out how to get out of this rut.

Gordon is scared. He has seen several career counsellors in the past five years, but hasn't been able to leave the profession that he has built his life around. Gordon has become so skilled at rationalizing what he does in order to be able to function in a job he hates, that he has successfully disconnected from feeling much of anything any more.

We are more likely to grow tired or bored with our work if we chose it without really contemplating our personality, core beliefs, and innate talents. Ideally, what we do for a living can be an extension of who we are — if we consciously chose a career that reflects our interests and passions. Our work can then become another facet of how we see ourselves, rather than the only one that defines us.

If you have grown tired and weary doing what you no longer like for a living, or if you recognize that you define your existence primarily by your occupation, it's probably a good time for some self-reflection.

One of the simplest and most important practices to adopt is the notion of "alone time." You will be amazed at what you'll learn about yourself if you make a habit of creating quiet time (even 15 minutes a day) to be alone with your thoughts and ideas (and this doesn't include watching TV, listening to music, or shopping). We need to spend time alone with our thoughts in order to make the best decisions around what we have come to learn about ourselves.

Instead, most of us will do almost anything to avoid being alone. We get on the phone, engage in social outings with friends, we play sports, we even go on-line and chat with strangers in other countries to avoid being alone with our thoughts. The cost of all of this interaction? We surround ourselves with the distractions of external noise to the point where we become completely disconnected from the person inside.

We allow our work to define us, instead of defining our work. Unfortunately years can go by before we wake up and ask ourselves: What else do I want to do with my life? What are my goals and dreams? Who am I really?

During some of those quiet "alone" moments, brainstorm all of the positive qualities (the characteristics, mannerisms, behaviours, and beliefs) that you feel best describe yourself on the left side of a piece of paper (this is how you perceive yourself).

On the right side of the same paper, list all the qualities that you would classify as "a work in progress." These are qualities or traits of your authentic self that you feel honestly depict who you are (even though you may be less happy about having some of these traits).

For example, on the left side of the page, you may write something like "I am able to always make the best of any situation." On the right-hand side of the page, you may be honest with yourself by writing, "I can be very abrasive with people when I get angry." Should you find yourself stuck, try completing these sentence stems as a way to get started: Left side of page:

My needs are …
I feel good when …
I am most happy when I am …
I think I am …
Right side of page:
I wish I was more …
I run away from …
I would be happier if I …
I need to be …

By beginning this type of introspection — and recording your thoughts and ideas on paper — you begin to create a profile of the real you.

Now take a good look at the paper in front of you. What does all of this say about who you really are? What aspects of yourself (from either column) might you want to change? What does all of this say about the kind of life you need to be living?

By creating a multidimensional view of yourself, you begin to increase your self-concept. You create greater balance in your life because you are aware of the many qualities that shape who you are.

When people focus their entire lives and worlds on one skill, one identity, one way of being, one job title, or even one person, to such an extent that they exclude other dimensions of their personalities, the universe often has a funny way of throwing them a big curve ball.

For Gordon, a diagnosis of clinical depression and his current state of numbness forced him to seek help in order to figure out what would make him happy and how to get there.

Fortunately, you don't need to wait for something drastic to happen to decide that it's time to reassess your self-concept. If you define your existence by what you do for a living, then you are already living in a state of imbalance.

The more intricate or complex one's view of self is, the more resilient our self-concept is to the stresses of the world.

Dorothy Ratusny is a psychotherapist in Thornhill, Ont.

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