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?


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