You are Not Your Job: Detangling Work and Identity

In 2020, when everyone began working from home, ordering food for delivery, and not seeing anyone outside of video calls, work became my life. It was all too easy to let work bleed into every area of life until there was nothing else but work. Eventually, I burned out and became unmotivated and anxious. 

Fast forward to a couple years later, and I’m still fighting the battle of not letting my job define me. In the adulting struggle, detangling work and identity is its own battle. This article provides valuable tips to help you know if work has become your identity and how to break free from it. Because the bottom line is you are not your job, and your job is not your life.

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When Work Becomes Your Identity

Our world is obsessed with productivity and achievement. I know because my identity and work used to be so closely tied that my worth came from work achievements. I thought that if I didn’t perform well enough, receive high performance reviews, or outperform my peers then I would be a failure. Worse, that others would be disappointed in me.

This drove me to work long hours, to forgo other responsibilities, to drive myself crazy redoing my work until it was “perfect.” I didn’t want to let my team down, and while that was good at first, I slowly became a “people-pleaser.” 

Exhausted, burned out, and at my wit’s end, I realized two things.

My job was defining me, and

I didn’t like that my job was defining me.

Does Your Job Define You?

Sometimes, our jobs consume us because we love our jobs or career field and we want to be successful. Other times, the company is short-staffed, and we feel like we have to pick up the slack. 

Here are other signs that work might have become your identity.

  • You can’t talk about anything else but work
  • You are thinking about work when you go to sleep and when you wake up
  • You can’t describe yourself outside of work
  • You are always taking on more work because:
    • you don’t want to let anyone down
    • you feel like you need to achieve more
    • you think others will be disappointed in you
    • you can’t seem to say “no”
  • You can’t focus on others because you’re thinking about work
  • You show up late or have to cancel last minute because “work”
  • You think of the future, and all you see is “work”
  • You compromise your beliefs and values to get farther in your career

Pick any number of these, and soon, it feels like you are your job and your job defines you. But this doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

What Your Job Says About You

There may be positive reasons why you are experiencing your job overtaking your life. Likely, you are also:

  • Hard-working
  • Reliable
  • Go the extra mile
  • Skillful
  • Willing to Learn
  • Employ a growth mindset…

…and these traits may give you more opportunities at work. Your boss or coworkers may rely on you more, or at times there’s simply no one else to get the job done. But while these traits may be what your job says about you, you can be those things and still set boundaries at work so you don’t turn into a workaholic.

Even while being hardworking and reliable, your job does not have to be your life and neither does your job have to define you. 

Life when “You are Not Your Job”

After months of being entrenched in work, I was burned out and knew I needed a change. More than once, I asked myself, what am I doing with my life? I missed my friends, my other interests (like writing!) and a good night’s sleep. 

In the end, I had to take a step back and recognize 3 things about my work and identity. I told myself:

  1. Your Job is Not Your Career
  2. Your Job is Not Your Life
  3. Your Job is Not Your Identity

Telling myself is one thing, but living it out is another story. As my career progressed, I’ve had to be diligent in reminding myself of these truths and setting boundaries to help maintain a healthy work-life balance. It’s a constant, uphill battle, especially for those working in a company where being a workaholic is the norm. 

But the reward for such a battle is incredible. I’m happier, calmer, and less stressed by knowing that my worth is not tied to my job and I am not my job.

#1 – Your Job is Not Your Career

The first part of my journey to detangle work and identity was understanding that “your job is not your career.” 

When I was fresh out of college, a year felt a whole lot longer than it does now as a young professional. I remember thinking that my year teaching abroad would never end. Now, I look back at my career in consulting and can’t believe it’s been three years since I started at this company. 

On top of that, what I do now is only marginally related to what I did in college. For most of my colleagues, they have a similar story. In talking to my trusted mentors, I have been surprised by how many twists and turns their careers have taken and how many unhelpful and draining projects they experienced. 

Looking back, my mentors can now see how that experience built onto something better. But while you’re going through a tough job or feeling like your career has already hit a dead end, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

A career or a job?

But a job is not a career. A career is a string of job, experiences, and positions that tell a story about who you are as a professional. It’s how you build eminence and leave a professional legacy. 

Your career is like a book, and the jobs are the parts that make up the book. Some jobs are long chapters while others are short paragraphs. Either way, no job has to define your career unless you want it to.

One of my fellow interns in college had a bachelor’s degree in biology. Upon realizing that she didn’t want to be a doctor, she instead applied for business jobs. After her first job, she worked for 4 years across a couple of companies to gain more experience and figure out what she wanted to do with her career. Now she has an MBA and is very happy in a marketing position at a tech firm. 

What I love about her story is how she was not afraid to go after what she wanted or be patient in getting there. 

Bottom line: Your job is not your career. Right now, this job may be all you can see on the horizon, but it doesn’t have to be your whole future.

#2 – Your Job Is Not Your Life 

At the interview for my first job, my future boss told me something I’ll never forget.

“We work to live. We don’t live to work.”

Halfway through 2020 when work had consumed my life, it felt like I lived to work. Everything I did (or didn’t do) was on the timetable of work. My personal purpose was tied so tightly to work that nothing else seemed as important. 

I didn’t make time for God in my busy life or unwind from the stress of what was happening at work . And forget about me-time or vacation because I was convinced the company wouldn’t survive without me.

Does your work define who you are?

Is the top phrase you use to describe yourself your job title? Do you think that’s the most important thing about you?

Dear reader, we are all so much more than our jobs. We are family members, friends, coworkers, church members, community members, and more. We are all passionate and enthusiastic about things outside of work. 

Life exists outside of the 9-5, and if you’re not living it, then you are missing it. 

My passions outside of work are writing and traveling. A couple months back, I submitted time off and was filled with anxiety. Taking a week of in the middle of a project seemed so detrimental. But I shut off my work phone and had an incredible time with my friend: celebrating my birthday, snorkeling with sea turtles, and lounging on the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. 

Both my managers had to push me to go on vacation at first, but I’m so glad I listened to them. 

While on vacation, I realized that I needed to take a step back and widen my perspective. Because right now, it feels like this job I have is everything. And perhaps you feel the same. But on my trip, I realized that similar to how distance could make my job feel so much less important, in 5 years, this job will just be a few bullet points on my resume. 

My time spent with friends and family or doing things I love though—those are the moments I’ll cherish forever. Now, I work to live. 

#3 – Your Job Is Not Your Identity

Lastly, in order to get away from being a workaholic, I had to recognize that “your job is not your identity” and “you are not your job.”

As someone who spent her school years obsessed with getting good grades, my overachiever attitude came naturally into the workplace. It wasn’t until my health took a bad turn and I had to focus on getting myself well that I realized I had been finding my identity in my job. My self worth and my job were so intertwined that I couldn’t even take a step back long enough to take care of my health.

What would my boss think of me? Would my coworkers be disappointed in me? Who will I be without this job?

With all these thoughts racing through my head, I became anxious about taking the necessary time and focus off of work so I could concentrate on getting better. Anxiety turned to stress, and my health became even worse. Is this who I was now?

But during this time, I decided to seek God through prayer and reading Scripture. 1 Peter 5:6-7 says:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.”

1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV

When I casted my anxiety on the Lord and poured my heart out to him, I received an answer I wasn’t expecting. 

The problem was that my work had become an idol, something I loved and revered over God. And because work was my idol, work had taken over my life and my identity.

Identity and Work for Everyone Else

Everywhere I look, it seems like everyone loves their job and finds ultimate satisfaction and purpose in their job. But I’ve been disappointed over and over again with my job trying to fulfill my desire for a greater purpose. 

Humans long to be part of a greater mission, which is why a company seems like a perfect place to find that mission. But work makes a terrible master. Unfortunately, companies can change overnight, and we can become wounded by the leaders and coworkers we used to respect. If our identity is found in work, then there is no room in our lives for other things. No work-life balance, time with friends and family, or time to pursue other passions. 

How do you separate your identity from work?

But there is still hope for those of us struggling to live knowing that “you are not your job.” 

Finding freedom from an identity based on our job means understanding that “you are not your job.” In fact, we all have a greater identity in Christ. Colossians 3:23 says: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (ESV)

So we have to surrender everything to God, including this part of our life. We have to approach God and give him control over our job and career. Instead of charting our own path, let him decide our steps. 

It’s countercultural to find our identity and worth in something other than work, achievement, or other’s approval. But nothing else I have chased – money, achievement, praise, promotions, or health – has even come close to the wholeness I have in Jesus Christ. 

woman talking on phone and working on computer

Work and Identity: What You Do is Not Who You Are

Two years ago, my job was my life. Fast forward through several hard lessons learned, and now I can tell you with confidence, “You are not your job” and neither am I! That’s the beauty of navigating the adulting struggle. We’re new at this adulting thing, but we’re always learning and always growing. Along this journey, I hope you realize that your job is not your life, and you are not your work. You are far, far more than a couple bullets on a resume.

Is your job your life?

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Don’t miss this! More posts about Working and the Young Professional Lifestyle:

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