One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made over the years, the largest source of my anxiety and fear, the impetus behind my self-deprecating thoughts; was tying my identity–who I am–with what I do.
The axiom that states: the accumulation of your habits is who you become does hold true in a way, but you and I, at our fundamental core, are not what we do or think about. The famous saying by Descartes: “Cogito, ergo sum”—“I think therefore I am,” is an almost default setting that we all live by. We’re programmed as humans to crave community–we need some semblance of connection with others and can achieve that goal by forging relationships with those who have mutual interests and hobbies. We define ourselves as a runner, powerlifter, yogi, writer, artist, entrepreneur, etc. However this expression, as conveyed in Eckhart Tolle’s words, “[is] the most basic error: to equate thinking with Being and identity with thinking.”
It’s not really a surprise that most of us derive our self-worth from what we do; this proves to be particularly true in a career context. Society forces us into boxes; making us craft a Cole’s Notes version of our life. We need to write bios for our social media profiles and craft a job title for our LinkedIn–defining ourselves neatly in 250 characters.
What do you do for work? is one of the most common questions asked when meeting someone for the first time–whether that be at a networking event, a first date, or at a party. We then proceed to judge someone and categorize them based on our perceptions or preconceived notions of said career. I personally find this question a challenge to navigate. I do many things for work–some paid, some not paid– but one commonality across all of them is that I am none of them.
Here’s my strong opinion on the matter: tying our identities and self-worth to our careers, hobbies, work, relationships, etc. is one of the most fragile ways we can live our lives. This isn’t really an issue when things are going well; we’re making progress in our chosen interests, we just hit a personal best on our 10k time, we got a promotion or career recognition. Our accomplishments and recognitions make us feel great and in turn, our self-confidence improves.
The danger, however, lies when things aren’t going so well. If you attach your identity to anything you do, then your accomplishments, setbacks, and failures will directly impact your self-worth. What happens if you have a bad performance review at work, critical or harsh feedback from a client, or you inflict an injury that requires you to hang up your runners for a while or take some serious time off from lifting?
This mistake has been costly for my mental health over the years. When I experienced any form of adversity, I felt like a failure. My first few years of self-employment were awful. I was trying to build a start-up, my income was precarious, I struggled to pay rent and couldn’t afford basic necessities for months. I was completely accountable to myself and since my career wasn’t going well–I equated this as my lack of intelligence and discipline. I lost motivation to persevere because I felt so apathetic all the time. Upon reflecting on my 4 year running streak this past May, I realized how much of my identity was wrapped up in this “consecutive running persona” that I configured in my mind. I contrived a mind-made self that I tried to uphold no matter the costs. Just the mere thought of missing a day (ie. getting injured, ill, or experiencing some random life event that caused me to break my streak), sparked so much anticipatory anxiety—who am I without my streak?
What to Do Instead
I judge people by what they do in their everyday life–their work, relationships, hobbies/interests. I would be lying to your face if I said I didn’t. I want to associate with people that live with purpose—that have passions and pursuits. I find these characteristics of a person inspiring. However, I need to remind myself that the cumulation of what these people do is not who they are. It’s so easy to place judgment and resolve to know who a person is based on one aspect of their life—which, when you think about it, is absurd. People are so much more multidimensional and multifaceted than what they do for work.
So what’s the alternative then? How can we live a more stable, less precarious life? For me, it meant simply changing my verbiage from I am, to I do. I own a business, I do freelance work, I write, I read, I run, I lift weights, I love my family and friends—but who I am is none of these things. Instead of saying “I’m a runner” I say, “I love to run”.
I’ve had to come to terms that I am not this run streak persona. I love to run and will continue doing so daily as long as I can, but I’m no longer going to base my identity on it. Formulating a comedown plan has helped—a prompt that forces me to reflect on this part of my life coming to an end—a strategy that I encourage you to try as well.
To avoid the pitfall of relying on a single aspect of our life to define who we are, try engaging in new hobbies and building new connections. Stop solely relying on one part of your life to define who you are. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Drastic changes aren’t necessary–taking small steps to develop new skills, knowledge, relationships, and interests will likely be the more sustainable route.
In a BBC article titled Why we define ourselves by our jobs, founder of Azimuth Psychological, Janna Koretz writes: “Rather than drastic, very difficult changes, get hobbies a little at a time, make friends a little at a time. Ultimately, it’s similar to diversifying a financial portfolio. You have to diversify your life. Diversify yourself.”