Do You Define Yourself By What You Do?

by Anne Webber on May 14, 2020

The other day, I was struck by a particular comment that a client made. She was saying that she tended to avoid certain social occasions because she knew she’d be asked the ‘dreaded question’: “What do you do?”

The answer did not come easily and her confusion was compounded every time she was introduced.  She had been unemployed for some time and, although she frequently found herself in these situations, she was not accustomed to them.

Many of my clients come to me after redundancy.  Many of them never expected to be in this position.  The shock of what has happened, therefore, is really difficult to cope with.

There are, of course, very practical reasons for this.  The worry of how bills are to be paid is a pertinent example.  The main reason for struggle, however, is that they can no longer answer the question at dinner parties of “What do you do?”

Initially, they cling to the usual line delivered in autopilot – their job title.  As time rolls on, however, it starts to feel stale and ‘kinda odd’.  This is because there are two implied parts to the question of “What do you do?”  These are “What is your role?” and “Who do you work for?”

How an innocent question causes an embarrassing dilemma

My clients may be able to answer the first part of the question with a job title or type, for example, “I’m a …”, but can’t answer the second part of “Who do you work for?”, which invariably follows.

They are in the awkward situation then of having to explain their current circumstances to a bunch of strangers.  For many this is an embarrassing dilemma.  When we are going through major change, particularly in circumstances where our usual response would roll off the tongue, it is a hard adjustment.  We don’t need the reminder of where we’re at.  We need time to come to terms with what’s happened ourselves.

Confidence is the first thing to go in these situations.  We fear judgment and that we no longer ‘fit in’ with everyone else.  Our social norms have been knocked off-kilter.

Certain questions have become so much a part of our routine conversation, most of us don’t give a second thought to delving right into finding out someone’s profession as soon as we know their name. It’s as common as “How are you?” and “Nice day isn’t it?”

In doing this, we act as though there is no boundary between who we are and what we do.  We seem also insensitive to the implied ‘status and pecking order’ of certain circumstances, jobs and employers.  We do not give pause to the person in front of us or how they might feel when asked this question.  It has become so much a part of general social chit-chat.

Why you’re a LOT more than what you do

At a training seminar I attended recently, one of the leaving gifts was a yellow rubber ball.  On it was written:  “Don’t confuse who you are with what you do.” (Robert Steinhouse).  This ball sits on my desk as a reminder that I am so much more than the work I do.  Sure, my work defines me to an extent.  I have the luxury of running my own business which is very much tied into my value and ethic systems.  It is, therefore, a reflection of who I am.

There are parts of me, however, that are nothing to do with what I do for a living, but have just as much value, if not more so.

Our culture’s implicit connection between work and identity can have a negative impact on someone’s self esteem, particularly if they are between jobs and trying to decide what next.

It is natural to experience feelings of loss when some part of our lives ends.  We enter a limbo state of transition while we are deciding what to do next and this can influence our feelings of insecurity.  Being in this transitional mode, however, does not mean that we are without value or worth. Yet, this is a common feeling for people who find themselves between jobs.

While the experience of being without a job has its particular difficulties, it also provides rich opportunities for growth and personal reflection.  When we no longer look to the superficial contexts of job roles or employers to define us, we are more able to delve deeper into other, more meaningful aspects of ourselves.  This type of change is an opportunity to reflect and to realise the possibility of taking another path in life.  It is the way of the explorer.

When anticipating the ‘dreaded question’, start to think about Who you are, rather than What you do.

So who am I?

Think about all the different rôles you play in life and look at their value.

When I left full‑time employment to start my own business, part of the transition was to establish Who I was now, so I could answer that dinner party question, so here are a few of mine …

I am Anne Webber, I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend, a partner, a lover, a student of life, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a community volunteer, a voter, a helper, an activist, a dreamer, a keen zumba and gym enthusiast, poet, writer, humorist, adventurer, traveller, driver, passenger (sometimes nervous!), gardener, cook (and bottle-washer!), decorator, customer, amateur mechanic (sometimes very amateur!),  … and many more …

Seeing the full range of the roles I play helps me to gain a broader perspective of my life.

So … What does your list look like?



Patience … When Is It Not ‘A Virtue’?

by Anne Webber on February 15, 2020

“Patience is passion tamed.” Lyman Abbott (1835-1922)

Working with a client recently, I was aware of how much she moved her body, even while seated, as she spoke about her plans and the things that were happening in her life to move her forward.

Her feet were tapping, her legs were jumping.  She leaned forward as she spoke and her speech was quick and full of expression.  I found myself smiling just watching her and commented on what I was observing.  She laughed and said that she just felt so excited to be getting going.  There were so many things to do and she wanted to be doing them all – now!

After she finished speaking, however, a shadow crossed her face.  I queried this and she commented that she also felt the need to hold back.  When I asked her why, she said that she didn’t want to do anything on impulse, but wanted to do things ‘right’ and take the time to plan it all out.

She felt both an urgency to get going and the need to wait it out and be patient.

The tension between ‘doing’ and ‘waiting’ …

This dichotomy – the tension between ‘doing’ and ‘waiting’ – is a common reaction to change.  When we are in a period of transition, between letting go of the old and creating the new, we can feel alternately pulled forward and back.  We may find our energies vary greatly, from bursts of creativity and excitement to the overwhelm of anxiety and trepidation.

Reflection on our past experiences has left residue, good and bad, which has taught us caution.  In addition to this, we are always being told that ‘patience is a virtue’.  We feel drawn to hold back and take things more slowly.

But is patience always the way to go?  What if you feel impatient because you’re not doing what you need to be doing?  How do you strike the balance between working with your passion and working with the space of ‘allowing’ and taking things at a steadier pace?

Establishing new businesses, projects and behaviours takes time …

When starting a new project or business, or changing a behaviour, we overlook that it may take time.  We want results now and we are working so hard that we want immediate delivery on the effort that’s being put in.

Maintaining momentum and enthusiasm during these times is key.  There will be ups and downs – some very high ups and some very low downs! – and we need to learn to roll with this.  Flexibility and resilience is the way through it all, maintaining the hope that it will all work out.

Patience then plays a role in keeping us on track.  It is a friend to us, helping us not to get too carried away and having too high expectations of time and of ourselves.

But … When does patience hold us back from embracing what we need to do?

There are times when being patient can hold us back from getting on, and it can be valuable to get impatient so that you keep going.  In this way, we can keep making the effort, keep buzzing with the joy of creating our new world.

When I’m on the brink of something new, I get impatient to be doing it.  I don’t want to be sitting back, planning, pondering – I want to be doing!  I am impatient to fulfill my promise, my purpose in the world.

We all reach that point, when standing still as we are is no longer possible or we’ll burst with the need to run!  That surge of energy which catapults us into the unknown, the new, the place of longing, is key to propelling us forward.

The way to balance the tension is to use the quality of patience to be kind to ourselves, but not to use it to tame our passion and enthusiasm.  Patience runs alongside our passion, ensuring we hold the vision and maintain the energy for our life plans and, that we cherish ourselves as we do so.

So … How do we handle the dichotomy?

The tension of ‘doing’ and ‘waiting’ becomes very apparent when we are on the brink of making major change in our lives.

One minute, we feel courageous and ready to hit the ground running, the next we’re stymied by the need to hold back.  It makes sense then to monitor ourselves closely during these times and question any hesitation we may notice in order to ascertain our motivations.

There is a simple process which you can follow to bring things into perspective if you find yourself holding back from getting into action:

  1. Take a moment for reflection.   (You may want to have a notebook to hand to jot down any thoughts you may have.)
  2. Stop what you’re doing, sit down and take a few deep breaths.
  3. Take a moment to think about the task you are about to undertake.
  4. Now ask yourself the following questions:
    • What is holding me back from completing this task?
    • Am I holding back to mask my fear of success, failure or judgement of this task?
    • Am I holding back to mask my need for this task to be perfect before completing it?
    • Am I holding back as a way to slow down the pace of change?
  5. Your answers to these questions will provide clues as to whether or not you are allowing caution to dampen your enthusiasm for completing the tasks ahead.
  6. Keep these questions in your head with each task you face.  Patterns will start to emerge as you reflect upon them and your answers will help you set the pace.

Remember …

Any significant change you make in your life is a courageous act.  So, be kind with yourself if you find that you’re holding back.  Positive change is change nonetheless and it has an equal impact in terms of adjustment.  We need to move at our own pace, maintaining the balance between the pull forward and the pull back.