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How To Separate Self Identity from Work Identity

How To Separate Self Identity from Work Identity

You are not your career. You are not what you do from 8 to 5, your salary, or what you put down on your W-2 or a 1099. You are not defined by your entrepreneurship or startup mentality, though these can certainly be part of your identity. Separating your personal identity apart from your vocation or career interests can be difficult, though very important, especially for people who take pride in what they do.




This is somewhat of an unpopular opinion among the startup community where many times, people define themselves as entrepreneurs or startup owners. Self-identity is a complex beast that changes over time and in response to internal and external stimuli. It is multifaceted, in flux, and relational. One’s job title is certainly a part of their identity, but there are risks involved with basing your identity off of your career path.

We spend a considerable chunk of our daily lives at work, and it’s not uncommon for people to answer the question of “what do you do” with their occupation rather than their activities outside of work. Many people take pride in their work and base their self-confidence on their career performance and successes. The work we do becomes who we are, rather than something that we do or a composite piece of our lives.

Yet, when we are unable to disentangle our personal identity from our occupation, we hedge our self-confidence and self-worth on its success. This means that when times are good at work, we feel pleased in our decision to pursue this path or confident in our successes. But a change in career paths or job status can also provoke severe identity crises for people who are unable to extricate their self-identity from their work. Basing our identity on our career choice or our current occupation leaves us vulnerable to external changes in our work status impacting what we think of ourselves. If we fail to separate our work from our self-identity, who are you outside of the 8 working hours of the day?

Thinking critically about identity

A good barometer for assessing the extent to which you define yourself by your startup or small business is to ask how you would respond to negative criticism. Criticism can feel deeply personal and in the face of a negative response, many people’s gut reaction is to respond emotionally and treat it as an attack on oneself rather than one’s work.

Challenge yourself to engage intellectually by thinking about your identity. When you think of who you are as a person, what traits and words come to mind? Do they describe your work and your career? Do they describe how you relate to others, your passions, what interests you, and your goals? Ask a close friend or family member to share three things that they think of when they think of you. While personality traits and characteristics are certainly a component of your personal identity, you can also look at your relationships to others (are you a parent, a sibling, a friend?) and your value system to help inform this exercise.

Find ways to separate yourself from your work

Having examined yourself in a more thoughtful way, are you struggling with feeling like you rely too much on work, or that it is digging into your personal enjoyment? Try using your paid time off and vacation days to separate yourself

The average American employee who receives paid vacation days only takes about half of those days. A new report from the career website Glassdoor found that the average worker uses 54% of their paid vacation day, effectively giving hundreds of dollars back to their employer. The U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off estimates that workers gave up 658 million unused vacation days in a 12-month period. That’s an enormous amount of time and resources that employees leave on the table.

Physically separating yourself from your work by being outside of an office is a luxury that not everyone has. Freelance and remote work have become increasingly popular in the past few years. In fact, 43% of employed Americans said that they spent at least part of their time working remotely in 2016. Many self-employed people find it difficult to separate their work and home lives, as the two are intertwined daily. If possible, it’s a good idea to treat one or two days a week as your weekends and refrain from working. This can be a mandate of sorts, and an opportunity for you to unplug and disconnect.

Spending time on the things that you enjoy doing, such as hobbies and passions, can also help to remind you of the things that make up your self-identity outside of work. Whether it’s reading, writing, biking, painting, learning a new language, or traveling, make it a priority to do the things that you enjoy when you have the opportunity to do so.

Separating your identity from your work is not a quick fix, nor should you look to completely remove your work life from the equation. Work is a large part of all of our lives, and it’s one that shapes other parts of our lives, such as the amount of time we have to spend with our friends and family, as well as our economic situations. The work that we do does help to inform how we think of ourselves, but resist the temptation to categorize yourself as your career. You are a person outside of the office, and it’s important to take your self-worth from other sources.

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Cassidy Welter
Staff Writer: Cassidy Welter is a Chicago based researcher at a consulting firm specializing in nonprofits. When she's not working, she's reading anything she can get her hands on, debating politics, watching the Pittsburgh Penguins and eating her way across the city's food scene. See more from Cassidy on Twitter at @CassidyWelter.

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Staff Writer: Cassidy Welter is a Chicago based researcher at a consulting firm specializing in nonprofits. When she's not working, she's reading anything she can get her hands on, debating politics, watching the Pittsburgh Penguins and eating her way across the city's food scene. See more from Cassidy on Twitter at @CassidyWelter.

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