It’s important to build a life away from the office, and make your your identity is not inextricably linked only to your profession
Vasundhara Vyas, 40, quit her corporate communications job six months ago to take a break from work. Afterwards, she attended an event and introduced herself with just her name to another attendee. “He waited for me to complete the sentence, but I had nothing to add,” says the Ahmedabad resident. The conversation disturbed her, she explains. “But it made me realise that I must accept that I am beyond my work designations.”
Vyas’ discomfort at people feeling her response was “incomplete” is understandable. Observing friends over the years, particularly those above the age of 40, their identities appear fused with their jobs. Conversations centre around work, most do not have time for interests or skills beyond the office, and retirement appears daunting, because they wonder how to fill their days. It is good to take pride in work, but if one’s self-worth and identity are inextricably linked to professional success, what happens if your job is impacted by redundancy, retirement or other reasons? This can result in depression, and affect families, and more.
Enmeshment is a psychological term which describes the blurring of boundaries between people, and prevents the development of a stable sense of self. Similarly, enmeshment with one’s career can engulf individual identity.
After psychologist Divya Raghav Singh, 40, quit her job at a mental health NGO in Delhi in 2013 due to issues with the management, she found it difficult to find suitable work, as her daughter was just a few months old. “I realised that I struggled to have an identity which was more than what I did professionally,” says Singh, who has a private practice in Jaipur now. “When people asked me what I did, saying I’m a ‘housewife’ or ‘stay-at-home mom’ didn’t feel right to me. I never judged the women who made the choice to take on these roles, but it didn’t work for me. I felt I was not living up to my purpose, and life seemed meaningless.”
Success is often defined through professional achievement. Work becomes a single-minded pursuit for many, often at the cost of neglecting personal relationships and health. Younger working professionals seem more mindful to not let their jobs restrict their identities, but older generations generally prescribe to traditional measures of success.
“I have met very few people from my generation who have made their lives more than just about their jobs,” says Noida-based marketing consultant Shivali Suri, 49. “Being overworked and busy is a badge of honour which I feel Gen Xers need to get over!”
Easier said than done, especially for earlier generations with deep-rooted childhood behaviours which emphasised academic and professional achievement for survival. “This kind of survival thinking can bring in a set of behaviours, that is ‘blinders on’,” says Gurugram-based organisational psychologist Parmeet Kaur Manchanda. “We look at what we need to do to perform well at work, create income security, stay relevant, and meet life’s financial needs. The blinders do not allow for a wider perspective, like spaces for play, hobbies, or taking sabbaticals.”
“For earlier generations, hobbies weren’t seen as sources of income,” says Saswati Barat, founder-CEO of AIOU, a Bengaluru-based behavioral services and consulting firm, adding that there is a marked difference today, as seen even with how parents describe their children. “They talk about their kids’ varied interests—gaming, dance, and potential career as a musician. The expansion of professions has contributed to the larger formation of identity.” Manchanda agrees, highlighting how increased globalisation and easy access to information has allowed younger people to explore different interests.
Vyas’ communications career dominated her identity until she quit her job six months ago. “I used to often think that I am talking to hundreds of people through posts, articles, and videos, but my own social media pages are blank. Do I have nothing to say that is my own?” she recalls. Her break from work helped her explore new possibilities. Pivoting to a long-time love for cooking, she recently launched Curry Queen, a range of instant curry mixes, which she sells on WhatsApp and Instagram.
It is also key to not allow any single role to consume us. Singh recalls an introductory video she had to make for a driving holiday she was taking through three countries. “I realised all I had said was that I was someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and someone’s mom. I had lost my self. That was when I decided to expand my identity.” It has taken her many years to be able to see herself beyond just her professional or relational self. “I’ve reconnected with myself. I actively make time to meet friends. I went on a solo trip, am going for my first couple trip without children, and soon for an all-girls trip. I’ve started prioritising my health.”
Suri parted ways with her two-decade long career in tourism and hospitality during the pandemic, which led to some internal upheaval about her identity. “I was no longer so-and-so at a company. I felt uncomfortable initially, but also strangely liberated. I could be anything or anyone,” she says. Now as a marketing consultant, she enjoys varied opportunities. “I’m learning about different businesses, like e-commerce and interior design,” says Suri. “I love the experiences, because they are now enriching me instead of exhausting me.”
More organisations are also encouraging employees to express, and explore their identities beyond work. Manchanda has observed companies acknowledging the rich inner lives of their employees, and how this impacts morale, loyalty, and productivity. “Trainings, workshops, and dialogues are being conducted around empathy, emotional intelligence, people management, situational and person-directed leadership. Organisations are also offering opportunities to play sports, CSR work that speaks to their employees, health club memberships, and self-development budgets,” she says. As a corporate workshop facilitator, Manchanda has witnessed an increased demand for sessions on diversity and inclusion, managing work-life balance, and mental health. But, she still feels there is more to be done in this space.
Eggs in more baskets
Letting only work define you is risky. Barat says this can lead to burnout, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, and anxiety. She recommends clear boundaries between work and personal life, and having a routine to disengage from work. “Spend time with friends and family, and alone, doing things you enjoy,” she recommends. “One can also develop a better sense of self through practices that engross you fully. Like meditation, journaling, yoga.”
But exploring our sense of self does not mean rejecting our professional identity. “Do not reject this space, but add more ways of feeling worthwhile,” says Manchanda. She suggests nurturing sound relationships, joining similar interest groups, engaging in activities that make us feel good, and if need be, consulting a coach or therapist. “When we have a variety of sources from where we seek our value and self-worth, we are less likely to end up with all our eggs damaged because one basket broke.”
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.