Identity Crisis

Aug 14, 2020

LEADER’S FIELD GUIDE

Our identities can become enmeshed with our jobs. How does your job performance, business card, and work past contribute to your Professional Identity?


I had an Identity Crisis. Yes, there was a time when I couldn’t wait for people to ask me, “What do you do?” I would almost hyperventilate as I magnified my brilliant impact or bragged about my stellar accomplishments. I was my job. If you wanted to know me, you had to know my job. I like the term Janna Koretz referenced in her What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity article in the Harvard Business Review: enmeshment. She writes, “Psychologists use the term ‘enmeshment’ to describe a situation where the boundaries between people become blurred, and individual identities loose importance.”

I had lost my identity. I was enmeshed with accomplishments, my title, my salary, and my potential. (Yikes, is this getting a little too personal for anybody else?) Chatham University’s Professional Competency Model (PCM) suggests our professional identity is, instead, comprised of skills and abilities (like computer skills or problem solving), knowledge and experience relevant to a specific industry or job, and values, ethics, and work style.

If your professional identity is not your job, but characteristics of your readiness to execute a task or role, then we (hopefully) have so much more that defines us as unique individuals. Like fingerprints, no two people are identical. We are our likes, dislikes, what makes us laugh and cry. We are our beliefs including self-image and what we think of others. We are why we care and the influence we have on those around us.

So, how do you untangle or unemesh your identity from your profession? You must remember you are not your:

  • Performance: The performance trap can lead to, “If my job’s not going well, I am not well.” Or, “If I don’t have a job, I don’t know who I am.” As humans, we have a desire to accomplish, achieve, and thrive. Yet, we are so much more than how we perform.
  • Business Card: The titles we use can give us a sense of pride. Adding a few letters to our name can be a status symbol or a demonstration of value. As humans, we want to be important, indispensable, and worthy. Yet, we are so much more than what we do.
  • Past: The past is tricky because it can be a mixed bag of cherished memories and spoiled dreams. As we savor or lament past experiences, our attention is drawn away from today, which is full of new possibilities. We are so much more than where we’ve been.

To so closely identify with what we do to the exclusion of other interests or topics of conversation may teeter toward enmeshment. Let performance spur intentional excellence, let titles drive sincere contribution, and let the past inspire today’s focus. Our identities are not about prideful busyness or empty effort, but about who we serve and how. I have long since recovered from my Identity Crisis. So, please don’t ask me what I do, ask me what I care about and how you can help me! By the way, what do you care about? How can I help you?


by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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