Which you is you?
Are you the one who commanded that staff meeting the other day; the powerhouse of productivity and focus on the job? Or are you that one who lounges around in sweatpants and eats ice cream for dinner sometimes?
Identity is a bit of a shape-shifter, isn’t it? You’re just as much ‘you’ when you are in your professional role as you are when you are slaying zombies on the Xbox at home. That’s you on the conference call, offering valuable professional insight, and that’s also you having an argument with your partner about how to pronounce “gorgonzola.”
Sometimes professional identity can become a bit clingy, though.
You’re still the same multi-faceted person, but the professional self (who may feel more competent, confident and productive than your other parts of self) hangs on after-hours, like some over-achieving midlevel manager.
It may feel really good to stay there, in that professional part of yourself.
Especially if other aspects of your life aren’t feeling as strong. People naturally tend to gravitate toward where they feel successful. Plus, you spend about 40 hours per week being this “professional self,” it makes sense that it could become hard to shake it off at the end of the workday.
Most people who end up over-identifying with their professional self aren’t doing it intentionally.
It is a subconscious process in which the person isn’t shifting over from one state of being to another, and there can be a variety of reasons for it. Professional self can become the dominant part of a person’s identity if they have a particularly demanding job, for example.
Someone who is able to go to work, put in their time and leave at the end of shift unencumbered is less likely to carry over their professional identity into personal life. Someone who has a lot of responsibilities, is supervising others or has a lot of stress at work may be “on” all the time, in a sense.
Others who may carry over their professional self into personal life may be those who have a lot at stake in their profession. Medical providers and those who work in helping professions may feel a particular burden to remain vigilant. In a sense, it can become a ‘way of being’. It changes from being a profession to being ‘who I am.’
A minister is a good example of this type of professional persona turned full-time identity.
Religious leaders are as diverse and multi-faceted as any other person, but society inadvertently demands that they rise above ‘the norm’ in some ways, and become a 24/7 extension of this role.
A pastor is a pastor whether in front of a congregation or at the grocery store. It may be unexpected to see a clergy member at the bar having drinks and smoking cigars, for example. The confines of the role create different norms for him/her than for others.
There are societal expectations about how professionals in certain fields are supposed to behave. In a sense, taking on a profession is like getting married to it, in many cases. Reputation becomes a significant consideration in those professions.
After all, would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who spends his personal time using IV drugs, or send a child into a classroom with a teacher who is known to have poor personal boundaries with children? Of course not.
Some professions demand a commitment to certain behavioral expectations, in and out of the workplace; it is a social contract of sorts.
And sometimes is part of an ethical code of conduct for specific types of professions. It makes sense that people in these professions don’t always leave their work-self at work.
It is important to differentiate your work-self from the rest of your life, however. Regardless of what profession you are in, there should be an intentional boundary around your work identity. Envision a picket fence around your professional self.
The fence has a hinged gate that you open when you leave work, and securely fasten before you enter the rest of your life. Nurturing the different aspects of who you are not only helps separate your work identity from personal life, it can also be validating and built confidence in your unique self; your personality, your gifts, and your strengths.
Here are some suggestions to help get you started:
- Create a list entitled, “I am” and list all the different aspects of who you are; different roles, interests, skills, personality traits.
- Learn a new hobby/skill. Make sure it is completely unrelated to your profession and brings you satisfaction.
- Step outside of your “professional demeanor” and do something unexpected or adventurous on your personal time; white water rafting, stand up comedy, amusement park. Something that will make you laugh or give you a thrill.
- Use mindfulness skills to notice when you’re in ‘work mode.’ You may not be aware of when you are in the zone. Bring your attention to your thoughts and bodily sensations. Notice when your thoughts drift toward work related subjects and gently remind yourself that the work day is over and it’s time to be your home-self. Pay attention to your tension areas; are your shoulders tight? Are you clenching your jaw or holding your body in a rigid position? Relax each part of your body, focusing on each section individually.
- Devote time to your friends, family and self. Your friends and family don’t want the work-version of you, and spending time with them will ground you back into your personal life and roles that are unrelated to your profession. Equally as important is time for yourself to reflect on your life, your thoughts and your feelings. Sitting in your own company can offer you realizations that you may not have if constantly surrounded by other people.
There are so many aspects that factor into a person’s identity.
The ‘professional self’ is often a significant and time consuming part of the equation that takes up more real estate in our lives than other aspects. In no other area of our lives do we go spend a pre-designated part of each day in a certain, defined “role.”
The artificiality of this routine undoubtedly sets us up to over-identify with this role. In order to feel fully present in our lives, it is important to embrace where we are at any given moment and live there, not in some ‘other’ place.
The moment can become lost to us when we are too enmeshed in any one of our roles in life, whether that is the role of a professional, a stay at home parent or any other configuration of responsibility. Honor the varying parts of yourself and allow each role a chance for a vacation now and then.