Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Having a label, a job title, gives us something to identify with, and a point of reference for others. But when we remove the job title, where does that leave our identity? Many of us associate our identity with the job title that we have. Often when meeting people - new colleagues, friends, family, friends of friends, people at networking events, random people on the train...the questions inherently presents itself ‘So what is it that you do?’. We place so much focus on that question that it has come to define us.
According to the English Oxford Dictionary, the definition of ‘identity’ is simply ‘The fact of being who or what a person or thing is.’ I read that and appreciate that I am not my job. My job is not me. It is a choice I made, to follow a certain career path based on my values, beliefs, opportunities and ambitions. I am lucky in that my choice of career is aligned with my values and skills – for others this is also true but for some it may be be out of necessity (for security, financial reasons etc).
Career transitions such as a new job, time out from a job, a career change or a break to have a family, can hugely impact on our identity. They lead us to second guess and question who we are. During the lead up to my own career break, I spent vast amounts of time pondering: ‘Who would I be without my job? How would I describe myself to others? How would people know what I was about?’. I became so preoccupied with these questions that it delayed making a decision and I have heard similar stories from others too.
I worried that by giving up my job, I’d be giving up my identity. I knew who I was at work, I had experience, I had respect, I had a title, I had a game face. When I met people and they asked ‘So what do you do?’, I had an answer. As I was transitioning, I worried how to respond to this question. ‘I’m between jobs’, ‘I’m having a career break’, ‘I’m considering my options’…these didn’t sit comfortably with me.
In work, I was the manager, the motivator, the leader, decision maker, professional, formal, organiser, prioritiser. Out of work I was the friend, the sister, the daughter, supporter, carer, healthy, spiritual, casual, relaxed, informal, organiser. Not often did these two personners cross over so how could my identity lay simply in my job title?
I had long associated with everything I was in my work. Without realising it, so much of my work identity had taken centre stage in my social interactions, conversations and head space. The opportunity of a career break for me, presented the chance to understand the two ‘mes’ and take a more active role in choosing which I wanted to bring to the forefront. A really worthwhile exercise to try is to write down all the words you use to describe yourself in work, how you are known and how you describe yourself. Do the same for the ‘out of work’ you and see how they align.
Our career are vitally important and play a big role in our lives in many ways – success, self-esteem, community, financially. However, we are not defined by that title. We have the ability to shape our identity, write it, mould it and rewrite it. Our identity evolves. I am so different now to my 15 or 25 year old self but I would not be who I am today without them. As we transition from one stage in life to another, we have the opportunity to create a new identity that is right for the here and now.
Gemma Brown is a certified coach who works with successful women, 1-2-1 and in groups, to identify their strengths and build confidence which enables them to have the self-belief to fearlessly bring their whole being into all areas of life. Gemma is based in Cambridgeshire and carries out face to face coaching in the area as well as 1-2-1 coaching via Skype and Zoom. For more about Gemma, visit her 'About' page.