How to Handle a “Professional” Identity Crisis

How to Handle a “Professional” Identity Crisis

When you introduce yourself to someone, how long does it take for you to mention your occupation? Chances are it enters your conversation fairly quickly. That’s because most people entwine their identity with their job.

Self-identity and career go hand in hand because we often spend more time working than we do with our families. In fact, even though you likely don’t know many folks who turn a gun barrel or shoe a horse, “Smith” remains the number one last name in the United States. It has held that spot for a very long time because, for many centuries, people literally were their occupations — e.g., blacksmith, gunsmith, etc.

However, we have many choices for how to make a living today. This makes the interlinking of career and self all the more acute.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself. “OK, this is interesting. But where is it going?”

Bear with me. We’re getting there!

The Connection Between Your Job and Your Self-Identity

If you were to wake up tomorrow and learn your job disappeared overnight, how would you feel? If it’s a “bad” job you might feel some relief. But let’s assume you like your occupation. Now, how would you feel? My guess is somewhere on the spectrum between “abject panic” and “not great.”

Let’s mix things up a bit. Assume your job disappeared because you owned the business and sold it for a truckload of cash. Pretty, fantastic, right? Now you get to sail around the world and do all the things you promised yourself you’d do if you had the time and money.

But wait, didn’t we just call out the fact that our identities are hard-wired to our occupation?

Uh oh.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur who successfully exited your career or an employee caught in an unfortunate circumstance, there’s a very good chance you’re staring down the barrel of an identity crisis. It doesn’t matter how strong your values, faith, or personal relationships are. We’re all human and when it comes to work and identity, the struggle is real. So, how can you work through this existential crisis?

I suggest asking the right questions, which is usually the path to success in most meaningful solutions.

The Right Questions for Regaining a Sense of Identity

Self-reflective questions that drill directly into your “why” and tap into the meaning you found in your work are key.

  • What brings me joy?
  • Who do I enjoy spending time with?
  • What accomplishments have I achieved and what about them is most meaningful to me?
  • What skills do I have that transcend my job?
  • Who did I enjoy regularly interacting with at work?
  • Of the people I enjoyed interacting with, what was it about them that made those interactions memorable?
  • What are my priorities and what is important to me?
  • Under what conditions do I perform my best work?

Grappling with questions like these is vital, and the answers will be different for each of us. Self-reflection leads to a higher level of self-awareness, which, in turn, leads to more informed, deliberate choices. This is a far superior approach to instantly jumping into a new opportunity. The bias toward action is tempting. But without forethought, immediate action can be akin to spinning a roulette wheel and hoping the ball lands in the “right” spot.

“To Know Thyself Is the Beginning of Wisdom” ~ Socrates

Taking the time to ask self-reflective questions will enable you to get to the real root of your occupational crisis. The exercise will allow you to begin aligning your personal and professional self in a deliberate manner. And, if at any point you need a sounding board as you embark on regaining your identity after professional changes or challenges, drop me a line!

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