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Unlinking Self-Worth From Work

Unlinking Self-Worth From Work

For many, so much of what we do lies in our ability to create something that produces results. How can that added pressure manifest itself and affect mental health?

The majority of people tend to only see the success and outward optimism projected by high achievers. But for most, there is tremendous struggle underneath the surface including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness that they might crumble under all of that pressure to produce results.

The very traits that propel high-achievers to take big entrepreneurial risks and lean into creative endeavors predispose them to strong positive and negative emotional states, making them more vulnerable to depression, feelings of helplessness, amotivation, and suicidal ideation. These factors are much less talked about, but there are significant low points that coincide with the very traits that prime these folks for success which manifest through a subclinical presentation of hypomania and depression. 

There is also a certain pride that comes with being a writer, artist, designer, even an editor. What is it about certain jobs that get us wrapped up in these ‘work’ identities while other jobs are simply vehicles that “pay the bills”?

Some self-select into careers where personal and professional identities become fused as a way to tangibly prove self-worth. The very factors propelling them to success in these jobs may be rooted in insecurity or feelings of inadequacy, as they compensate for these difficult feelings through external markers of success. 

What are some societal messages that reinforce the idea that our self-worth is only as good as what we do for a living?

The culture in many of these fields tends to incentivize people towards working lengthier days with bonuses, status, and company advancement. In turn, when more time is spent in one activity, it inevitably becomes fundamental to one’s identity. This becomes especially prominent when time spent on other values becomes displaced by work.

Our society places importance on career achievement or high-status jobs which often trickles down into smaller social hierarchies and family systems. For many, career achievement is linked to gaining acceptance from parents, peers, or people who doubted them in early life. High-achievers usually lose touch with those critical others or no longer care what they think, however, those critics become internalized – so they are always battling that inner commentator that lives within them.

Career success is often encouraged to be the ultimate life goal. This becomes so centralized that people may fear failure or rejection from their family or community if they don’t achieve on an extreme level. The paradox is while this fear motivates their intense drive, it also isolates them from the very people they care most about.

High-achievers tend to be rewarded financially. They not only are able to afford materialistic possessions but are elevated into a social class that influences the experiences and people to which they have access. This becomes a powerful driver to both maintain that work-centric identity that elevated them to this socioeconomic class and also to propagate behaviors to maintain it.

What are the dangers in tying our self-worth to our work/career, and could it ever be a good thing (i.e. having a sense of purpose, drive, etc.)?

If your self-worth is tied to what you do then all outcomes will influence your self-perception. Here lies the central conflict for people who fuse their identity with their work. They are often good at what they do, and as long as they are able to achieve and produce results, their self-worth remains sky-high. The trouble comes when they are unable to control the outcome of their work, unexpected developments arise, or they hit a rough patch. Career success is rarely linear, and when the inevitable stumbling blocks arise, they tend to experience a crisis in identity.

When work is the defining feature of who you are, the boundaries between work and your personal life become blurred through enmeshment. This can be helpful, especially among self-determined people who are able to channel this enmeshment to sustain motivation to reach a higher level of success, but ultimately comes with many drawbacks.

Is it ever really possible to achieve a perfect work-life balance?

It is possible to achieve a work-life balance, but not all the time, and not all at once.

Instead of conceptualizing work-life balance as a fixed model, it’s more helpful to view it as a compass that must continuously be referenced as you navigate changes in your life and shifts in your priorities.

The balance might not ever fully be achieved, rather it is something to constantly strive to, orienting our behaviors, and guiding our decisions 

What are some not-so-obvious signs that your career is compromising your self-worth?

Criticism of your work is often internalized as a criticism of you as a person. If you find yourself constantly struggling to take in feedback as constructive and instead feel demoralized and dispirited you may be placing too much of your self-worth in your performance. When your sense of self is not entirely dependent on your work, it is easier to take in feedback, learn, and improve your performance for the next situation. When people are over-identified they tend to become defensive or dejected as they perceive criticism as a personal failure.

While work might only be part of your identity, you primarily present yourself through your work self and title. For example, when meeting new people, you primarily talk about work and your responsibilities as a way to introduce yourself, during free time your thoughts are consumed with work situations, and all activities become secondary to your work life. People who are over-enmeshed find that everything in their life revolves around their job, as they might not make plans that could potentially interfere with unexpected work developments, plan their week around work obligations, and steer conversations around their work identity.

You find it hard to unplug and are constantly thinking about or checking in on work. Mentally, you are always at work, as you notice rituals like checking your work laptop each night before bed, or monitoring your phone for slack or email updates. Essentially, over-enmeshed people are almost always at work mentally, regardless of whatever activity they appear to be doing physically. They tend to be superficially engaged in meals, parties, or social gatherings, as their primary focus remains at work. These tendencies lead to burnout and a lack of mental acuity.

Your relationships are distant, rocky, or tense. You either project your work stress onto your relationships or you are neglecting important people in your life to focus on work.

Take inventory on how you’re feeling and how your work impacts you emotionally. You might become overly emotionally identified with work situations, feel personally responsible for work issues, and in turn sacrifice your free time to solve work problems. You also might micromanage and seize control to ensure a good outcome instead of trusting your team.

Do you find this has become more of a prevalent issue during the pandemic? For example, are people less inclined/able to be more productive or pursue more opportunities and are, as a result, harder on themselves?

Yes. While the pandemic provided more liberty in terms of where people are able to work, in many ways it reduced the boundaries between personal and work identities. Particularly for people working from home, spending all day plugged in at work tends to be the path of least resistance. 

While more free time did open up, and people initially took advantage of that time by pursuing hobbies and connecting with old friends and family members, over time many made a return back to baseline. This coincides with Parkinson’s Law, in which work expands to the time that is available for its completion. 

There is also the added pressure of comparing our lives to others’ lives on social media. We might notice how peers are advancing in their careers, juggling multiple passion projects, or are turning their hobbies into side hustles. Can you touch on that as well?

Exposure to social media amplifies the process of upward social comparison and can cause people to collectively miscalculate their social standing as being lower than that of their peers. When we’re constantly exposed to idealistic and not entirely authentic content online, this leads to frequent feelings of inadequacy, low self-confidence, and negative emotions. In turn, people strive to reach the unrealistic ideals that their peers are portraying. The paradox is that neither the creator or consumer of that content benefit from inauthentic posts as the creator rarely exposes the struggle and challenges that contextualize their success leading to impostor syndrome and feelings of loneliness of the reality of their situation, and the consumer is left feeling inferior and worse about their relative circumstances.

Outside of seeking therapy, what are some things we can do to regularly develop or boost our self-worth both within and outside the workplace?

Outside of work:

Do things you enjoy, are good at, and build a sense of mastery – outside of the domain of work. This provides positive reinforcement and feelings of proficiency and capability. These moments will provide little reminders of your strengths and talents beyond your work identity.

Exercise and challenge yourself each day. Inducing moderate strain on your body and striving toward increasingly advanced goals provides a tangible experience in which you can prove to yourself that you are capable of more than you thought. The strain recovery cycle of exercise will also recalibrate your mindset and lead to both mental and physical benefits for self-esteem.

Challenge negative thoughts. Thoughts are not facts. And most of the time, they are distortions due to internalized critics, stress, and situational demands. Next time you have a negative self-thought, think of an alternative thought to replace it.

At work:

Remember that self-esteem is not a fixed trait. We do not hold stable values of worth for ourselves, and for good reason. We need to be impacted by our experiences and environments to grow, become curious, and evolve. Incidents, people, and events that stir up strong emotions guide us to areas that require deeper processing. 

Notice moments that trigger feelings of low self-worth at work and use them for deeper processing to learn what insecurity or challenge that situation is arising in you. You can use these situations to your advantage to learn more about yourself and areas that you can continue to work on.

How does impostor syndrome feed into these feelings, and how can we avoid perpetuating the cycle?

The reality is that many high achievers do experience impostor syndrome and many are able to embrace that feeling and utilize it. They might not rid themselves of impostor syndrome entirely, but they can use it to motivate them, and not allow it to get in the way of doing the things most important to them. If it is interfering with your productivity and functions see below for a few tips on how to manage it.  

First, it is important to know the signs of when impostor syndrome arises in your daily life so you can overcome it. These include: constantly attributing your success to ‘getting lucky’ instead of acknowledging your preparation and hard work, difficulty accepting praise, apologizing even when you did not make a mistake, holding yourself to impossibly high standards, feeling like you’re not good enough, having a fear of failure, and avoiding expression of confidence because of concern that people will view it as overcompensating for weakness. Start to pay more attention to how you communicate and interact with others as you may be sending these signals and they could impact how others perceive you and your work.

Relinquish your perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism is a major barrier for efficiency. If you suffer from impostor syndrome, you are likely to set high standards for yourself, and are committed to being perfect, which is unattainable and only nourishes your belief that you are an impostor. When you notice feelings that you are a fraud, it’s usually stemming from comparisons made to an unrealistic perfect ideal. Holding yourself to a perfect standard can be counterproductive, instead of the standard of producing something that is good enough. Ultimately, perfection is not realistic and will only make you feel more undeserving of your success.

Be kind to yourself. Impostor syndrome often manifests itself through negative and critical thoughts. Negative self-talk influences your levels of stress and anxiety. Practice adding positive thoughts to your inner dialogue. This requires identifying moments when you have a negative thought, and challenge it by adding in more positive alternatives. Also utilize the power of repeating affirmations to reduce stress and anxiety levels.

Track and measure your accomplishments. Keep track of your wins in a private note on your phone or computer. Having 1 place that stores all of your success will serve as positive reinforcement for both work and personal accomplishments. This can include college acceptance emails, job offers, work presentations you’re proud of, and praise or recommendations from respected mentors. Whenever you’re feeling low, read through them.

Talk about your concern with a mentor or trusted friend. Talking with someone you trust can give you candid feedback about your performance through an objective perspective. It is important to also ask if they’ve ever experienced these feelings and to normalize them. The best mentors will usually provide helpful stories and advice for how to deal with this common experience.

What is a healthier way to measure success in our careers, where we can enjoy what we do but disconnect from the idea of pressuring ourselves to meet an unattainable ideal of how “success” is supposed to look?

There are many metrics for success, and unfortunately, we often default our system of measurement through tangible titles or compensation. Ultimately, those things don’t provide as much intrinsic motivation and fulfillment as other aspects that actually bring satisfaction (below).

Ensure that you are finding meaning in your work. This could be done by listing your values, your strengths, and ways in which your work provides purpose or makes you feel more competent. This helps ground your work for a greater purpose, and even if you don’t enjoy all aspects of your job, it can help orient you towards the bigger values that it does satisfy.

Outline your goals for your projected career growth or path. This helps with instilling feelings of progression and will protect against concerns of being trapped in your position. This also provides perspective in the evolution of your career, learning, experience, and forward movement that you can work towards.

Another way is to measure the amount that you are learning in your position because that directly correlates to personal growth and development. This is a metric that tends to be underutilized but is particularly valuable as it relates to increased expertise, skill level, and experience – which can never be taken away.

Try to establish the impact you are making in your job either with regard to your personal impact on your team or company, or the impact of your work on other people or society at large. 

Because so much of what we’ve learned results from what’s been instilled into us, how can we reframe conversations that perpetuate these beliefs with friends, family, and other people around us?

The best way to start is to lead by example. If you begin to cultivate other aspects of your identity, prioritize your relationships and friendships outside of work, and spend time engaging in other hobbies your friends will get an inlet into the positive effects of this shift and they likely will want to capitalize on those gains for themselves. 

Being solutions-focused instead of problem-focused is another way to communicate your values without sparking defensiveness in your friends. For example, if they are enmeshed with work and it’s all they seem to talk or complain about, you can sympathize with those feelings, and share what has worked for you in terms of re-prioritizing the things you most value in life.

Are there ways for people to talk about these issues with managers, bosses, etc to make sure that they are supported?

Before approaching your boss, identify the source of the problem. Are you enmeshed with work and overloading yourself due to self-imposed pressure? Or are unreasonable expectations being placed on you from external sources like your boss, team, or company? Usually, there is a combination of pressure, and it’s important to own your role in the maintenance of the uneven work-life balance in your life.

If the pressure is stemming from external sources, schedule a meeting with your boss and prepare solutions to request. For example, you could request that your tasks be delegated to other team members, more flexible hours to accommodate your priorities outside of work (e.g., to spend more time with your kids, parents, friends, or hobbies), a modified schedule (e.g., work longer days so you can have an extra day off), an additional work from home day (to cut down on your commute, spend more time with family, and reduce exposure to stressors in office), and lastly you could ask for time off to recalibrate your perspective and recharge.

What are some self-care practices our readers can incorporate regularly after a long day’s work? 

Move your body: Either go for a walk, schedule a workout class, or take a run. This will boost your energy level, recalibrate your perspective, and relieve stress from the day.

Take a break from screens: Don’t replace the computer screen you’ve been staring at all day with your television or phone when you clock out. Instead, connect with a friend in person, read a book, cook, or engage in an activity. It can be tempting to engage in passive screen-based activities to unwind after work, but the accumulated effects of chronic screen time have been shown to lead to depression, fatigue, disordered sleep, and stress.

Engage in an activity that capitalizes on non-work-related skills: For example, cook a meal and share it with your partner or friend, listen to music, or go to an event.

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