by Anna Velychko
Have you ever felt burned out, unmotivated, overworked, stressed out, or guilty about your work. Have you felt like you were sacrificing your personal needs for work, or lacking a sense of purpose? If yes, I hope that this article might bring you some clarity. The aforementioned feelings or thoughts could indicate that your sense of self is intertwined with the work you do; that the boundaries of the self and work are blurry or almost non-existent.
So, what is the self?
The self is the essence of a person’s psychological being. It consists of sensations, feelings, thoughts, and attitudes toward oneself and the world.
The self could be explained as the initiating center of our personalities – a psychological force that explains our development. Our development has stages, such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. To successfully move from one stage to the next, we need to develop self-awareness appropriate for each of the stages.
The Self and Stages of Development
For example, between the ages of 1 ½ – 3 years, children are focused on developing a sense of personal control and independence with the aim of gaining self-control without losing self-esteem. Or, from 12-18 years old, adolescents search for a sense of self to establish a personal identity within a societal context, starting within their family.
None of the developmental milestones can be bypassed. If interrupted or unmet, the feelings and desires appropriate to a particular developmental stage could surface at any time. They will be continuously coming up over and over again so the self can work through incompetence, confusion, and poor self-esteem. These emotions are best to be worked through at the earlier stages, but the cyclical nature of the developmental stages will give an opportunity to come back to them later in life too.
People work through the feelings and desires of past developmental stages by idealizing their external environments. The environment can be perceived as good, whereas the self may take on the badness in a form of criticizing and condemning itself for not being able to adjust to or tolerate is the environment. Given our increasingly busy schedules starting in childhood, filled with academic and extracurricular activities, there is little time or opportunity left to reflect and orient ourselves to our environments.
How the Self Merges with Work
When there’s no time left to reflect or develop self-awareness, you may begin to merge with “work you.” First, you may unconsciously tie your self-esteem to your grades as a child and adolescent, which makes you prone to seeing your true self through the lenses of the professional endeavors as an adult. Your dissatisfaction with work can become dissatisfaction with yourself.
Our Western culture that values sacrificial work, profitable capitalism, and consumerism cannot fulfill the milestone of actualizing the self because, by nature, these values are superficial and aren’t based on the real needs of the self-actualized individual, such as a sense of belonging, friendship, love, self-respect, and appreciation. Yet, sacrificial work shapes our ideas about what it means to be an individual.
Guilt might come up as a result of not feeling up to the work expectations while doing everything you possibly could. And when there’s a pause and the time to think opens up (such as during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic), this sense of guilt might intensify. Some people I work with would reflect on thoughts, “I am not doing enough”, “I don’t know what I am without my job”, “I don’t know what’s my meaning”, “I am so confused”…
Separating Your Work and Your Sense of Self
There are a few steps you can take to be present with and see yourself as separate from work:
Notice if you’re an active agent of change or a forbearing recipient.
Tools, such as emotional regulation through the awareness of emotions – noticing what you feel now and naming it, can help you separate yourself from work through goal-oriented, organized, and rational action. Regulation can also be cultivated through mindful awareness such as breathing and muscle relaxation; cognitive reappraisal – incorporating a new outlook on the situation, creating a pros/cons list, objectively evaluating the situation; developing self-compassion via self-care, positive affirmations, and writing gratitude reflections.
These tools are not there to help you passively tolerate experiences that are unpleasant and dissatisfying. To activate the self, one must master the skills of communication and emotional regulation. Implementing active and direct communication makes it easier to cultivate supportive relationships with your boss or colleagues, which make your relationships a source of strength rather than an additional source of stress. Emotional regulation through self-awareness and expression helps you construct your life in a way that makes you feel empowered and happy – not as a mere extension of the work you do.
Remember the positive.
When you get into a stressful situation, remember to name as many positive aspects of your life that you have as possible. Naming 10 things you are grateful for can help you build a habit of noticing, acknowledging, and feeling the positive. Be aware of your expectations and desires, as the culture of work may evoke a sense that “There’s never enough of ___”, or “There’s more you can get.” You might begin comparing yourself to others and never feel satisfied or experience more stress.
The parameters of a problem can become all-consuming during stressful times because the self immerses itself in the problem. In this symbiotic place, it’s hard to see the way out and challenging to notice the positive. Remembering the positive creates a supportive cushion. It connects you with inner resources that assist you with your good health, intellect, talents, relationships, and ability to nurture yourself.
Be your own cheerleader, or anticipate the external validation and recognition.
As Brene Brown said, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.” The fixation to be perfect doesn’t allow you notice the beauty of who you really are. Perfectionism keeps you in a loop of conviction that, in order to be loved and accepted, you need to be a particular way, and that anything less will be rejected and humiliated. Perfectionism doesn’t let you establish relationships in new enhancing ways, because it asks you to hide your true essence. Hiding your true essence means letting go of the vitality and aliveness of oneself.
By approving, accepting, and validating your own self, you can self-reliantly develop habits of complementing and being good to yourself. The best way to create a habit is not by changing the behavior, but by addressing the thinking associated with it. You can either change the way you treat yourself by yourself, or with someone you trust. That brings us to…
Open up to a trusted person, such as a therapist.
The capacity to orient oneself in the present moment requires a stable foundation. As we discussed, this foundation can be thrown off early in life by developmental hindrances or trauma. Shifts in cognitive and emotional development impact one’s understanding of oneself both inter- and intra-personally. Therapy can help you cultivate curiosity about your inner world, see how some external challenges could have internal causes, and see that the solutions often lay within yourself.
Through symbolic, exploratory and meaning-making use of therapy, you can reawaken yourself, create new meaning, and build a solid foundation apart from your professional endeavors. The client and the therapist enter into a relationship, which becomes a field for the exploration of the self in a new context – with a curiosity of the self the way it is, and not the work it produces. Creating a reflective space between you and the “work you” can help you create a life with meaning and purpose, and connect with your unique self that is not defined by your job title.