'Leaving My Job Was The Identity Crisis I Didn't Know I Needed'

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I was getting sick. Like, all the time. Pneumonia one month, an ovarian cyst that landed me in the emergency room the next. The onslaught of ailments felt never-ending, and—to add insult to illness—I couldn’t figure out the source. I ate clean, worked out at least five days a week, spent a decent amount of time outside, and had great relationships with my friends. What gives? I thought.

Throughout this difficult, confusing time, I learned to love an Oprah quote that spoke to my situation: “Difficulties come when you don't pay attention to life's whisper. Life always whispers to you first, but if you ignore the whisper, sooner or later you'll get a scream.”

My ailments, I’d later learn, were part of life’s scream.

Life was screaming at me that my identity—so wrapped up in my career—was in crisis.

As an ambitious woman, first-generation American, and first-generation college student from small-town America, that was a great thing–on paper. I was only ever praised by my peers, parents, and teachers for my perceived successes as a student and, later, by a wider audience, as a political reporter in Washington.

But what often lurks below that type of perceived success is the internal turmoil that comes with keeping up the facade. The truth I didn't admit was that anxiety consumed me. I was unfulfilled by putting so much time and effort into a job that didn't align with my values, causing me to lose sleep and lose myself in the process. I felt like some of the stories I wrote did more harm to politics than good. But you’d never know from the smile I easily flashed when people asked me about work.

If your identity is your career, like it was for me, it becomes deeply personal anytime something negative happens on the job. Some might not feel “good enough” if they're passed over for a promotion despite putting in long hours, while others feel constantly on edge because their manager doesn’t have their best interests at heart. Or, maybe you are one of the thousands of people who were laid off in the last few months, left to wonder who you are if not “Insert Job Title Here.”

There’s no shortage of “negatives” in any given job, even the so-called “dream” ones.

Worse, it doesn’t really matter what they are—if your identity is tied to your job, any negatives could take a serious toll.

It’s like a drug addiction, explains licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Naomi Bernstein, PsyD. Like an addict looking for their next hit, someone who ties their identity to their job is looking for the next hit of dopamine: a bonus, or a word of praise from their boss, for example. Those aforementioned negatives take on the same feeling as a withdrawal. “You end up in a ‘seeking mentality’ where you're constantly seeking the next thing that's going to give you that rush. And you sort of miss your whole life,” says Bernstein.

Meet the Experts:
Dr. Naomi Bernstein, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in Lynbrook, NY and co-host of the Betches “Oversharing” podcast.

Elizabeth Winkler, LMFt, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified meditation teacher based in Beverly Hills.

Dr. Kara O’Leary, PhD, is a clinical psychologist based in Washington, D.C.

Make no mistake: It is a privilege to be able to consider yourself an independent and career-oriented person and to follow a career that aligns with your desires. But like everything, this, too, has a dark side—and the implications can be dangerous. As you keep chasing that next dopamine hit, the stakes continue to rise. And then the wake-up call could come in the form of a scream.

Finally listening to life's scream allowed me to take back control—and begin living on my terms.

“The disturbances in our lives—the problems, challenges, traumas, whatever they may be—are our greatest teachers,” says Elizabeth Winkler, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified meditation teacher. It’s actually best to use those negative experiences to grow and ultimately become closer in alignment to who we’re supposed to be.

When I started my disentanglement “journey,” I was reminded of a moment nearly a decade earlier when I was a sophomore in college. Over coffee at a spot near campus, I cried to my mentor that I didn’t know what to do with my life. He looked at me and calmly asked, “What if it’s not about what you’re going to be, but who you’re supposed to become?”

I stopped just short of rolling my eyes at how trite it sounded then. And besides, like an addict, I had a one-track mind on how I’d get my next hit of dopamine; it was carefully funneled through my vision—and maybe the world’s vision—of success. I wanted a full-time job making a six-figure salary that came with recognition from my peers (which is what I eventually got).

But that semi-schmaltzy sentiment stuck. Now, as a 28-year-old, this advice has been my mantra in what will likely be a forever ongoing process of disentangling who I am from what I do.

“[Leaving a job is] a very challenging place to be,” says Winkler. But when you feel the world crumbling around you because you’ve left something that supports your ego, what’s actually crumbling is your ego, she explains. “And in the crumbling of your ego, you get to discover who you really are.”

Brooke Baldwin went through that ego-crumbling-self-discovering experience, and inspired me as I was going through my own. I felt so validated in my journey after speaking with Baldwin about her life after leaving her anchor job at CNN.

“My identity was inextricably linked to my job at CNN,” she tells me over email. When she left, Baldwin felt lost. “Who am I without this big fancy job title?” she recalls asking herself.

“After months of deep inner work, really learning to come home to myself—I’m still on that journey, by the way—I realized I’m even more f***ing amazing as ‘just Brooke,’” she says. “But it’s taken work to get here. I credit my huddle, especially certain friends who have also pivoted professionally, my spiritual practice, and my self confidence and self-belief.”

My inner work looked very similar to Baldwin’s. I started meditating in earnest after I left my job. After a long while—and a lot of therapy—I was able to start truly reflecting in my meditations on the characteristics that make up the person that is Sarah apart from the job I do as a journalist. I’m ambitious, sure, but I’m also resilient. I’m introspective, and I deeply value relationships with my friends and family, to name a few.

My values are the things that will never leave me, no matter what I choose to do with my life to earn money.

Taking stock of what you value as an individual, outside of being an employee, is important, but painstaking work. But if you're on your own disentanglement journey, you don't have to go it alone.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Kara O’Leary, PhD, provides a form of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, which acknowledges the existence of suffering in life and teaches acceptance of negative feelings in order to move forward. Ahead, these tried-and-true ACT methods can help anyone in a difficult work situation cope and come out the other side successful—in the true sense of the word.

1. Acknowledge and honor your feelings through mindfulness activities.

If you're new to the concept of mindfulness, basically, it's just a word to describe the act of taking a step back and observing the moment. The key here is to do it without any judgment, either positive or negative. For example, observe how you feel when you start your work in the morning versus when you end it, recommends O’Leary. You can even write those feelings down in a journal to really see and articulate the difference each day.

2. Connect with your whole self outside of the job.

Use what you learned from yourself in step one, and see if it connects to anything about who you are as a whole person. Ask yourself: “Can I take a step back and observe what's happening at this moment, and is this a part of a larger pattern for myself?” O’Leary suggests. For example, if you observed that you feel burnt out because your job demands your time outside of normal work hours, you might realize that feeling connects to your value of “balance” as a whole person.

3. Take ownership of your values.

O’Leary recommends using Brene Brown’s “Living Into Our Values” worksheet to answer the question: What do I want my life to stand for? In my case, this step was perhaps the most definitive. By allowing myself to step back and examine what it was that I truly valued in life, it opened the door to let me consider both career and life opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise, in order to really be “in alignment” with who I am.

4. Find yourself with intention.

Anyone can use an intention to keep their thoughts from spiraling and to focus their mind. The best way to utilize an intention is to become present to the current moment, says Bernstein. To start, observe any sounds or physical sensations, like the feeling of your feet on the ground. Once you feel connected to the “now,” you can say to yourself: “I will search for my identity in moments of gratitude rather than fear.”

Essentially, this means you’ll look inward to see who you are when you’re in a positive mindset. Take stock of what you’re grateful for, and then try to learn which values you can attribute to yourself. It may even be helpful to take account of those moments by keeping a gratitude journal where you can list out instances of personal strength.

For me, being fearful looked like holding on to a career that wasn’t right for me because I was scared of what stepping away from the safety of the “known” would look like. In my own exploration, I was able to envision a life and career that centered around some of the values I identified with: service, vulnerability, spirituality, to name just a few.

5. Set goals that help you achieve your values, not “success.”

After you've done the inner work outlined in the above steps, start setting small goals to show up in ways that are consistent with those values, O’Leary says. If you value family, take time out of the busy day to schedule a phone call with a loved one. If your value is service, begin helping a friend in need or researching local volunteer opportunities.

In my own never-ending journey, that's also meant being flexible in how I define my identity and constantly continuing to give myself grace. I don’t have to stick to those arbitrary rules I made up for myself or thought that society wanted me to follow. My identity will continue to change and grow as I go through life. I know who I am because I no longer care what I’m “supposed” to be.

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