15 September 2009

Lost identity

Another person I know lost his job recently. He was feeling ashamed, diminished and fearful. Some of those feelings probably originate from the painful experience of separating from daily work activities that we psychologically integrate into our personal identity. Work, the intellectual, creative and mechanical efforts to which we dedicate so much time, substantially contributes to the way we see ourselves. Most of us want to participate in work situations where we feel we are contributing and our contributions are valued. Take that away, and we are left feeling that we have nothing to contribute and our past contributions were in fact, not valued at all. It is deflating and stages a damaging conflict with our internal belief system.

In 2002, I lost my identity too. Actually, I had lost it years before, but in 2002, I stepped onto a new road to try to locate it again.

Having steeped myself in a highly stressful and personally taxing profession for many years, and feeling captive to that job, I decided to give myself permission to make a decision on my own behalf. This was a personal and empowering watershed moment of change. I decided to stop spending my time in that job, with a vague notion that I would dedicate my time to working for the greater good. I gave notice and four weeks later after a harried farewell lunch with colleagues, boarded a plane home for the last time.

I felt good about my decision, and immediately became rigorously involved with some volunteer work in my community. Soon, however, questions started coming in from many quarters: When are you going to get another job? Aren’t you working below your capabilities? Are you still just volunteering? Those questions made me feel that the way I was spending my time was trivial and unimportant since there was not a hefty paycheck attached. Over time, I began to buy into the idea, and felt like a loser.

A year or so later, when I selected a new career direction to pursue, my biggest obstacle was overcoming my own identity loss and rebuilding a sense of confidence and accomplishment. My second biggest obstacle was forcing myself not to conduct my job search from the shadows, but to go to luncheons, introduce myself to people, call new contacts, ask for assistance and fight off the feelings of discouragement.

I was eventually successful at forging a new career path, but the rest of my identity, my own sense of self, was still lurking out of sight. It would be several more years before I woke from the sleep walking state in which I was living at the time. But, we’ll leave that for later.

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