We Are Always More Than Any One Job: Identity And Work


Several years ago, a client of mine described being invited to a networking event, the very thought of which caused them to dread the following anticipated question: “So…tell me about yourself, what do YOU do”? My client, who was navigating a significant career transition at the time, associated this question quite strongly with their identity. My client then stated, “How do I answer that question? I no longer have an identity”.

Identity disruption: the impact of career transitions, unemployment and burnout

The work we do, and the work we aspire to do, has a profound influence on how we see ourselves and how we identify. When I work with clients who are facing career transition, or those who might be experiencing a period of unemployment, or still others who are taking time away from work due to burnout, many of them feel a profound disruption in what they experience and define as their core identity.

This disruption can be multi-faceted. I have encountered clients who express tremendous fear or intractable resistance at the prospect of changing careers because of a perceived loss of identity. I have often listened to various iterations of, “But this is who I am”! Still others feel a transition or change will result in a loss of certain key capacities and skills associated with their identity. And many clients express worry that any change in work or career will disrupt their sense of purpose and the meaning of their lives, also strongly associated with identity. Each of these experiences and feelings is understandable in the face of great change.

With more and more people experiencing - and expecting - several career transitions in their lifetime, conversations about identity and its relationship to the specific work we do are increasingly frequent in my practice.

Transitions and change are not always easy. The capacity to step into and through career transitions without carrying perceptual burdens about identity requires perspective, practice and self-compassion. I view these conversations as very positive and helpful as they can illuminate personal narratives and insights, which once exposed, help clients to connect more deeply with their experiences, begin the practice of self-acceptance and develop emotional openness, flexibility and resilience.

We are always more than any one job

Our identities are certainly shaped and influenced by the work we engage in. But we are always more than any one job. We are in fact continuously developing and accumulating a unique and individual “experiential expertise”.

This expertise is the result of the totality of our experiences. It encompasses all that we have engaged in, learned, contributed to; everything we have integrated, that we have given our unique personal shape and expression to; and all that we carry forward. Discovering, identifying and articulating this amazing pot of personal expertise is extremely helpful to clients.

When we combine our experiential expertise with the practice and development of awareness, all the while being present to and connecting with our experiences, we are able to build the resilience(s) necessary for transitions. This does not guarantee an easy transition, but it does equip us with the ability and confidence to connect our unique expertise with new possibilities.

The practice of acceptance, awareness and self-compassion

Accepting career transition and change is often a difficult hurdle for many people. We may acknowledge the reality of career change taking place in our world but we also like personal stability. Accepting contrasts such as this also takes practice: the practice of being fully present in our lives, of being open to our experiences, of recognizing accompanying feelings of getting to know ourselves. As always, self-compassion is a key requirement! This practice gives us the perspective to separate appropriately the changes that may be taking place in our lives from a perceived loss of personal identity. It helps us to view change as another component of our expanding identity, even when the change is difficult.

Emotional openness aids in our ability to accept change and contemplate possibility. It refers to our practiced ability to be attentive to, aware of and present in our experiences and feelings.

The practice of being present exercises our awareness muscles. We get to know and become comfortable with our different emotions, reactions, attitudes, choices and actions. The perspective and insights we gain from “turning towards” our inner self and our unique experiences helps us develop, and go on developing, openness and flexibility.

Being open to our evolving identity

A characteristic of existence is our capacity to create and re-create our lives. We are continuously encountering, relating to and integrating the world around us while simultaneously participating in and giving unique shape and form to all that we experience, strive towards and create. Being decisively active in creating and constructing our lives includes accepting the movement and development of our lives with compassion, being open and attentive to our experiences and practicing being present in every moment of our lives. This makes us increasingly aware of our evolving identity, an identity that is both separate from and connected to all that we do.

Britt-Mari offers customized 3 or 5 session coaching packages that help clients create personally empowered solutions to career transition, burnout and the development of meaningful careers. For more information on how an integrative and existential approach to career counseling can assist you, or to inquire about individual session options, contact her at brittmari@brittmarisykes.ca