Senior communicator Varghese Thomas asks: Is a person's identity known by the job they keep?

Jobs are so ingrained in our identity that one of the first things we do when we meet new people is to ask them about their profession and tell them ours.

For as long as I can remember (precisely 26 years now), I’ve always associated my self-worth with my position. Whether it was because of how our society views certain positions or my pride, I worked hard enough to get a job that my family and I would be proud to identify with. To say, “I work for Cisco, Intel, BlackBerry or with TVS Motor” or “I am a global head of communications” filled my heart with excitement. So when I finally accepted my assignment, I felt like I earned the right to let those words slip off my tongue to show the world that I made it.

I became so entangled in my job that it began to define me, and I also began to let it determine my value. 

“If you tie your self-worth to your career, the successes and failures you experience will directly affect your self-worth,” says Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. “And because we live in a society where careers are less likely to be lifelong, if we switch or find ourselves out of a job, it can also become an identity crisis.”

My occupation was a big part of my identity. For the last month, since I took a break from my job, I have observed fear, scepticism, anxiety and questioning my self-worth. Deeply worried that my identity was at risk of being eliminated. My observation has been that this is usually unrelated to the fear of being unable to provide for my family. Instead, this fear is about losing my identity and, perhaps, having to redefine myself or perish.

While I felt burned out and lacked enthusiasm, I didn’t listen to my gut and decided to hold onto the job because I loved how I felt accepted by others when I’d mention my job in conversations. It was like an addiction I wasn’t willing to let go of. I felt like my identity was closely tied to my position, and if I had to lose it, then I would be a nobody. It was as if I would have no proof of all my hard work. 

However, a new high took over when I parted ways. While a part of me wanted to hold on to something that wasn’t making me happy for haughty reasons, a huge load was lifted off my shoulders because I finally decided to follow my heart.

After a month into my break, I soon realised that a nice-sounding job doesn’t define my self-worth; it’s defined by my values, my truth, and what happens beyond the typical 9-to-5 routine.

Yes, it was gratifying to be associated with notable brands, I sometimes do miss that “accepted” feeling and the camaraderie. But deep down, I know I shouldn’t allow my job to define my identity because the only approval I need is my own.

Many people like me with high-pressure jobs find themselves displeased with our careers, despite working hard our whole lives to get to the current position. Disliking your job is one thing – but what happens if you identify so closely with your work that you start questioning your ability?

The boundaries between people are becoming blurred, and individual identities are losing importance. I realised that identifying closely with my career isn’t necessarily bad, but it makes me vulnerable to a painful identity crisis.

I am working towards claiming some time for myself and diversifying my activities and relationships to build a more balanced and robust identity aligned with my values.

Varghese M. Thomas is the senior VP and Global Head of Communication for TVS Motor Group, presently on garden leave. With over 26 years of experience delivering goal-oriented outcomes and business value in high-growth environments, Varghese is one of the most respected names in the Indian PR and Communications business - having worked across various sectors, managing issues and initiatives that transcend countries and stakeholders.

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