“I’ve Lost My Identity”

For the past few weeks I’ve been working with a client who held a very senior position with a major entertainment company prior to his being let go last year. He had happily and successfully worked for the company for more than a decade, and could justifiably take pride in (and credit for) a large number of significant marketing / sales initiatives that produced impressive results. He came to me because he was unsure of what direction to take his career, and relatedly how to position himself in his various job-search materials. He genuinely felt that he’d “lost his identity”, and so was struggling with the direction to head in his next move.

After a couple of sessions it became clear to me that the key obstacle standing in the way of this gentleman’s ability to find the next step in his career was less about the uncertainty of which direction to move and more about the uncertainty of what he had to offer. His termination raised all kinds of issues about his actual worth, and those issues were weighing on him so heavily that they distorted his ability to see the numerous assets he could bring to a new employer.

The Distortion Caused by Unemployment

The distortion comes in part from his overidentification with his role in the workplace as the primary determinant of “who he is.” It’s hard to blame him for that overidentification: when we meet someone new, the first question asked of us will probably be “What do you do?” And, in most contexts, if someone is asked to tell about him / herself, the answer will generally begin with a description of occupation. The Protestant work ethic which was so integral to the first settlers of what would become the United States leaves its mark on us even today.

Of course the client mentioned above has numerous other non-occupational identity facets. He’s a husband. He serves on the Board of Governors of a major non-profit. He’s an amateur photographer. Et cetera. But he also has aspects of identity that are very much occupation related – IF he’ll own them. He’s a talented strategist. He’s an innovative creative thinker. He’s a superb mentor. He’s a wonderful teacher / trainer. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the talents you possess if you’re not engaged in using them, and don’t see a clear path to a place in which you’ll be able to use them.

Part of the answer to rebuilding a sense of identity lies in taking an honest inventory of your strengths. It can be helpful to have other people who know you well participate in this exercise. List personal qualities that you value (e.g. I’m an extrovert, I’m generous, I’m hard-working), skills and talents (e.g. I’m computer-savvy; I have a good ability to read other people; I’m handy); and accomplishments (I came up with the idea for a successful new product; I was instrumental in helping to put together a community garden); and roles you fill (I’m a Mom; I’m a football fan). Take a crack at this and then come back to the inventory a day or two later and add to it (new ideas will almost certainly have occurred to you in the interim). By focusing on your assets you’ll help counter the very strong sense of drifting that unemployment can bring. Then it will be easier for you to construct a persuasive account of what you have to offer an employer.

Finally, recognize that your view of your situation is distorted by your temporary lack of employment, and remind yourself of that consistently, referring back to those assets you’ve enumerated as a means of correction. Just like correcting your aim if you’re using a rifle whose telescopic sight is off in one direction, work to correct your vision of your identity and develop a more accurate picture.

Here’s a tip on how to respond to occupation-related questions when you’re not employed (“So what kind of work do you do?). Answer these questions with some version of a combination of what you used to do (“I was with Booz Allen working with the Department of Homeland Security”) and what you’re up to now (“Right now I’m looking to move into a more managerial role”; “I’m looking to take my career in a new direction so I’m taking stock and exploring several options”).