Why separating our self-worth from our work can help our health and careers

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Many people link their self-worth with a particular aspect of their life.

For some, it may be their relationships, hobbies or appearance. For others, it may be their possessions or values. For a lot of people, however, their sense of self-worth is based almost entirely on what they do professionally.

Being proud of your job and enjoying your work is rarely a bad thing and in fact, it’s something many of us aspire to. But it’s important to remember that there are limitations. If you become so wrapped up in your ‘work’ identity that any setbacks affect your self-worth and mental wellbeing, it can be a major problem.

So why should you try to distinguish who you are — and your worth — from what you do?

“The danger of your self-worth being dependent on your work is the fragility it introduces to your wellbeing,” says Ben Douch, a psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member. “How you feel about yourself becomes contingent on the success of your work — ‘as long as I am seen as competent, receiving approval, and comparing favourably to others THEN I will feel good’. Your work becomes everything, your identity, and that’s a fragile place to be.”

READ MORE: How to cope with stress at work

There is nothing wrong with gaining pleasure from work, seeking and savouring achievements, or generating meaningful experiences. And separating your self-worth from work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim high or be passionate about what you do. Instead, Douch explains, the key is to recognise you are more than just your work.

“By tying who you are to what you do, you can find yourself on a treadmill of continuously striving to feel good through competence, comparison and approval,” he says. “Success in work can certainly boost self-esteem, but it’s not something which will last. The more you get, the more you’ll need.”

One consequence of this striving is the potential for stress, exhaustion and burnout. According to a recent Gallup poll, two out of three employees experience this state of chronic stress — impacting both physical and mental health, as well as leading to detachment from work.

“Something which can stealthily creep up on you through headaches, sleeping difficulties or a poor immune system,” Douch says. “The irony here is in how the striving to maintain your self-worth, to feel confident, can potentially lead to depressive or anxious symptoms and ultimately a reduction in self-confidence.”

Untangling what you do from your sense of worth can also help push your career forwards, too.

READ MORE: Why enforced fun at work is detrimental

In part, this is because you create an opportunity to build your resilience. So if you do experience a knockback that is outside of your control — a redundancy, for example — you’re more likely to be able to pick yourself up again.

“Resilient people have an inherent sense of trust in themselves, and are able to take a broader perspective of their lives,” Douch explains. “This form of psychological flexibility cannot be attained through narrowly placing your worth on an external part of your life. Instead, try investing time in practices that have been shown to positively impact resilience and wellbeing.

“With the intention to separate who you are from what you do, you may find yourself being more disciplined with what - and how much - work you take on,” he adds. “This process of setting boundaries with yourself, and others, will benefit your confidence and develop trust in yourself.”

READ MORE: Are night shifts really so bad for your health?

You may also find that by linking your self-worth too closely to your work, other areas of life were left unattended. “Perhaps relationships, play, or relaxation – all areas key to enriching your wellbeing,” Douch says. “This balanced approach to life will greatly reduce the likelihood of any burnout; something which may adversely impact your career.”

It’s also important to remember that you won’t be working forever. A health problem, an economic downturn or unexpected shift in the job market can put an end to your career and lead to a major identity crisis. Even retirement may destroy your self-worth if your identity is tied to your job title. If you've always measured your self-worth by what you do, your mental wellbeing is likely to take a big hit when your career ends.

“And if there was any further motivation needed, it has been well reported that one of the top five regrets of the dying is, in fact, ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’,” Douch adds.

A lesson from the future for us all.