Lose Your Job Without Losing Your Identity

By Linsey Knerl on 22 March 2009 (Updated 8 February 2010) 6 comments

[Editor's note:  If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]

Getting a pink slip can cause more distress than just a shrinking income.  It can also give you a sense of insecurity and may make you question your place in this world.  Here are three effective schools of thought for keeping your sense of self (long after the paychecks quit coming.) 

Keep it “Seasonal” 

I’m from a farming community, which means that most people I know are farmers.  I bet many of you wonder what farmers do in their downtime, however.  (Remember that the growing season doesn’t go all year in Nebraska, and you can only fix your tractor so many times.) Some relax during the winter, but many more will pick up jobs in town.  Joe may schlep bags of seed at the farm supply store.  Dave may do some mechanic work for the neighbor.  If you caught either one doing their “off-season” jobs and asked them what they did for a living, they would both reply with “farm.” 

The same situation occurs with teachers and students.  Ask a teacher doing a summer job about their profession, and they won’t stray from their insistence that they “teach.”  College students can spend up to 6 years taking classes, but if you bumped into them serving coffee at a Starbucks, they would let you know that they were “students.”  And so it goes. 

If you’ve suddenly (or not so suddenly) found yourself without the job you know and love to identify yourself with, don’t feel that you have to betray your longing with a complete acceptance of the task that pays your bills.  If you’re an out-of-work accountant who has decided to tend bar until better job prospects arise, do it with grace and confidence.  (In other words, when a patron asks you about your bartending status, tell them you’re an accountant.  Then look them in the eye and ask if they want their drink shaken or stirred.) 

Search for Meaning 

All too many of use wake up one day and find that we hate what we do.  We go to work from then on with a bitter taste in our mouths, a scowl on our face, and feet that drag along the carpet of our stale, cubicled offices.  We dream of ways we can escape the doldrums (non life-threatening car wrecks, a falsely triggered fire alarm, or possibly corporate bankruptcy).  The reality is far worse than the romanticized alternatives we dream of, but we are too fearful of the future to do anything else. 

What better opportunity to make a change than to lose your job!  Yes, I said it!  I’ve been there, my husband has been there, and while the sting may take a while to wear off, eventually you decide to do something different.  It may not be better, but it is different, and it can inspire you to move forward with that small business, trade school, or stay-at-home parent dream. 

Those who don’t have a dream in the wings can take the opportunity to think carefully about what they want to do.  They can form a new identity, in their own time and on their own terms. 

Make a Separation 

There is a final group of people who have decided to throw all their professional aspirations as far from their “identity” as possible.  Either by necessity or desire, they refuse to define themselves as what they do for a living.  I have to admire these people, because as hard as I’ve tried, I find this especially difficult.   

Before marrying my husband, I’d had opportunities to date gentlemen from various professions:  auto mechanic, pilot, military police, and trust-fund brat (among others).  I chose instead, to marry my soul mate (a man who had many jobs at once, loved almost everything he did, and did it with compassion and integrity.)  Because he (and I) found value in him as a person (and not an employee), we were better prepared for long college semesters, corporate downsizing, and starting our own small business.  We took turns with the “stay-at-home” calling, and still share many of the household responsibilities. 

While we are very blessed to share our goals of keeping career from defining who we are, many don’t have the full support of their spouse or family when deciding to make the separation.  I read of so many stay-at-home Dads who find themselves feeling less-than-valuable.   Mothers share in this dilemma, and have for some time.  Both feel societal pressure to equate their “dollar per hour” worth with their human value. 

Whether you choose to keep it seasonal, try something new, or remove the stigma altogether, losing your job can cause a tremendous disruption in your personal life.  Finding a community that shares your beliefs can be vital to your survival (and believe me, they are out there!) 

While it only matters to me that our professions are honorable and legal, some may not share in our acceptance.  If all else fails, you can always do what we do, and say that you are “a consultant.”  (It sure beats telling everyone you’re a social media expert!)

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Guest's picture

I went from calling myself a college student, to a law student, to a lawyer (sometimes an attorney if I wanted to throw in the extra syllable), then, when I quit law to blog, I was a bit at a loss. Was I a blogger? A writer? A self-help writer? A novelist? A screenwriter? Labels are useful but also confining. I wanted to be accurate, but I was also aware of the tremendous power of words.

When I called myself a blogger, most people had no clear idea of what that was -- including me. There are so many different types of bloggers, so that's not really descriptive enough. When I called myself a writer, most people wanted to know what kind of books did I write? And, anyway, like "blogger," "writer" can mean almost anything. That was a problem b/c I really wanted to write self-help books as much as novels. So, should I say "a writer of self-help books and novels?" Kinda wordy. Luckily -- and partly as a result of searching for the right words to describe who I am and what I do for a living -- I settled on "novelist and screenwriter." There's no confusion about that. But, best of all, it feels right in my heart. That's what I want to be known as, so why not call myself that? Indeed! : )

Linsey Knerl's picture

You stated my heart exactly!  I was also growing weary of the term "blogger" (which I do, but not alone.) My business cards were increasingly difficult to pen down, as I had other labels like "Freelancer" "Copywriter" and "Marketer" in there, as well.  

It's no less confusing than trying to state what a Mom or Dad does.  Too many tasks, but not one definite career label.  Thanks for your comment!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Dana

This is such an over-looked aspect of the recession, where people sudden find themselves without work to define their identities. Without proper support of a good community, this can be extremely hard on one's physical and mental health.

Thanks for bringing this up. We are certainly nowhere near the Japanese when it comes to work and life identity fusion, but a good reminder nevertheless for those of us dependent on work to define us.

Julie Rains's picture

Great post and topic. I first noticed the work = identity after my employer was acquired by a larger competitor (First Union then Wachovia now Wells Fargo) and I opted not to follow. But shaking that work is who you are is harder than it seems because even if you decide not to define yourself by your work/career/whatever, most people judge you by your profession or signs of wealth (those noticeable such as houses or cars, not bonds or stocks). A lot of people probably think I'm odd because work status is irrelevant to me. But I have learned that people worth having as friends don't really care what type of work you do or whether you have a corner office or not.

Guest's picture
Jean

I had to make a decision that would possibly effect my life for ever. Almost 6 months ago I became gainfully unemployed at a pretty good paying factory job. But once I lost that job and I was losing money every day,and this was because I was living in Florida. Bad place to lose your job. Rent is out of this world. So I decided to leave for Wisconin. And ways hard. It came down to survival. And now I am lucky because I do have a family here to help me through it. yet, now beyond survival, changing view of the work place. I don't think I can go back to the sort of Blue collar work I had before, so you are absolutely right in saying "What better opportunity to make a change than to lose your job!" I agree with that. Jean.

Guest's picture

great topic..wow! just like me, I finished BS marketing but I worked as as SEO team leader..the mean reason why is that there is a lot of new graduates and the competition seems to be very heavy like the traffic on the internet. Rather than no job and money at all, well we try our flexibility on how to do other jobs and try to used our instincts, our capability;)