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Are you being defined by your job?

05 July 2019 - By Raewyn Ng

When you’re asked, “who are you” or “what do you do”, how do you respond? Movement and health coach come straight to mind for me and I’m sure many of you also reach for your job title as a defining characteristic of who you are. It’s such a common conversation starter, and while we can answer in many different ways about the things we like to do (walking the dog, going to the beach, reading or holidays), we usually end up talking about what we do for a living.

It’s not surprising really. We spend so much of our time at work, or in it, it’s easy to get caught up and be defined by it. Many of us have a passion for our work and it often gives us a sense of purpose, meaning and identity. It helps us to understand our place in the world and gives us a structure as to how to conduct ourselves.

A woman working at a laptop

Society places such a high value on what we do for a living that many people judge us by the job we have, and we judge other people in exactly the same way. We make assumptions about a person’s intelligence, income and the value they provide to society based on what they do. Because of this, it’s no wonder that for some of us our job is a status symbol and provides us with a sense of self-importance.

Associated with our job is often a set of traits that we’re implicitly asked to adopt, but to what extent can we let our job, and the expected qualities and traits associated with it, define us? If we start to fully embody our work persona in all areas of our life, can this be a problem?

There’s no argument that a strong professional persona in the workplace is essential for advancing your career prospects. There’s lots of advice out there about how to be a better listener, communicator, leader, manager, and how to have authentic relationships in the workplace, maintain professional boundaries and manage difficult situations.

While much of this advice will almost certainly make you better at your job and help you to cultivate a strong professional identity, it’s also important to ensure that your work persona does not take over our whole being. Creating a strong professional identity should not mean that you need let go of who you are, lose your core values or the things that make you unique, or that you should assume the identity of someone else.

Here’s three reasons you shouldn’t let your work define you.

Your job is not your only success

When you’re in the thick of it all, it can be easy to be consumed by work and get caught up in the drama and excitement of deadlines and deals, drawing your sense of self-worth from your work successes. Remember that your achievements in life are not just work related and that success is not only about the job you have or the money you make.

Everyone’s definition of success is (and should be) different so consider what makes up your definition. Think about the relationships you have, the qualities you value and the challenges you’ve overcome.

Jobs are temporary

If you were to suddenly find yourself without a job, would you still have a sense of who you are? If the answer is no, you may have high ‘work-role centrality’ or you’ve placed too much emphasis on work to help define you. When the link between what you do and who you are is too high, it can increase levels of depression, anxiety and a lack of sense of purpose if you unexpectedly find yourself without your job.

Bear in mind that all jobs are likely to be temporary – you develop from them, outgrow them and move on to better opportunities.

A job is something you do, not something you are

We spend around one-third of our time (probably more) at work but remember it’s only one thing you do and that in the other two-thirds of your time you have a multitude of other roles and interests – parent, grandparent, child, friend, chef, gardener, dog-walker, gym-goer, rock-climber, book reader, etc. All these things form part of your identity and your job is only a small part of that.

We need to value all of who we are, not just what we do

Some things to help you be less defined by your job:

Recognise that your self-identity is multi-faceted

Our values, qualities, goals, interests and passions all help to define us, and our work is only a small part of this.

Be aware of your values, those principles that guide how you live, work and behave. The closer we live in alignment with our values, the happier, more content and fulfilled we usually are. If your top values are not immediately apparent to you, spend some time clarifying them. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What’s most important to you?
  • What do you need to do or be to feel fulfilled?
  • Are you acting in accordance with the things that are important to you?

Does your workplace hold the same values as you? If so, you’re on to a winning formula.

Cultivate your interests and passions, identify the people and relationships that are important to you and make time for them.

Remember, you don’t have to be someone else

You may have started off your career emulating the qualities of someone you admire in your field, and it’s great to recognise the features that have made them successful and to adopt them to suit your purpose. But remember you don’t need to become them. Keep in mind your own values, and the experiences and challenges you’ve faced that have shaped who you are.

Set boundaries

From a practical point of view, avoid letting your job take over your life 24/7. Set a time when it’s appropriate to switch off from messages, calls and emails and leave them to the next working day so you can focus on other things that are important in your life – family, friends, health, hobbies and interests. You’ll be more rested, efficient and productive when you are working and have more balance in your life.

We have to be something to earn a living, but we don’t have to be something to be important. Who we are is about our qualities, values and potential more than it is about what we do for work. We need to learn to value ourselves and others for who we are, not what we do.


Raewyn Ng rae@mybod.co.nz is a movement coach with an interest in wellbeing and holistic health, managing stress and living a balanced lifestyle.

Last updated on the 5th July 2019