Précis of Abraham J Twerski
Rebuilding your self, when you’ve lost your job, home or life savings
ISBN 978-1-59285-832-3 / Getting your identity from your job
When we meet a new person, we are most likely to introduce ourselves in terms of what we do for a living. Usually, we assign a certain level of status and comfort to various occupations. This means we see ourselves, and other people, as having worth primarily in terms of the career they have. Unfortunately, this identification with one’s job, and it becoming our entire identify, prevails in our culture. People introduce themselves by what they do, rather than who they are. We may refer to ourselves as human beings, but many of us function as human doings, and if the doing is lost, one feels they have lost everything.
This has happened because our culture has brainwashed us. While money and material things are important, they have taken on disproportionate significance in our culture. Because we invest so much of our ego in what we do and what we earn and what we own, we may feel that we have lost the respect of others when we are unable to earn and spend money.
Many people have their identity in being the successful sales manager, the busy entrepreneur, the super-accomplished career woman and homemaker or in the luxury car in the driveway or the impressive mansion. But this is hardly a lasting identity that comes from within. What happens if one sells the car or if it is repossessed? Does ones identity go along with it?
One of the reasons that we tie our identities to our careers and bank accounts is the influence of bottom line thinking – which gives us an easy way to measure success according to our financial status, but prevents us from realising our true worth. The problem with bottom line thinking is that the pursuit of the bottom line is insatiable. Instead of fulfilling oneself, which can result in true happiness, a person pursuing bottom line results will never be satisfied, but always need more financial reward. This kind of person will also never be happy with who they are or have become, but always be looking to outside sources of happiness. Remaining stuck in the mindset of the bottom line means that we remain dissatisfied and just as we expect too much from our career, we can expect too much from material things.
Finding your true identity
But there can be more, and there really is more to life, than what we do or did, and what we earn. If you have true self-esteem, losing your job should not destroy you. And if it does, then you may have too much of your identity in your job or your money. If you believe in your self-worth, you will be able to realise that as important as it is to provide for your loved ones with material things, it is even more important that you provide them with yourself.
When you are going through a hard time it is important to find your true worth. A person can use a time of trouble to recover a genuine identity, one rooted in esteem not for what one does or has, but for what one is.
You are a unique person with intelligence and sensitivity. You have the ability to love, to be considerate of and help others, to be happy and share in others joy, and to commiserate with them in their grief. You have the ability to choose between right and wrong, to act morally and ethically. You have the ability to think about a purpose and goal in life and you have the ability to work on making yourself a better person. You have the ability to control your anger, to forgive others and to apologise if you have offended someone. These are features that define you as a human being and distinguish you from other living creatures. These traits give you value as a human being and are not lost if you lose your job.
Self-esteem is a significant determinant of human behaviour, however, many people have a self-esteem problem to some degree. If a person feels worthy, they can cope with many of life’s challenges. Every person has a self-image and thinks of themselves in a certain way. Each person is convinced that their self-image is accurate and is reality. In relating to other people, a person relates according to what they believe the other person will see.
Having a job and being financially secure greatly enhance one’s self-esteem, and when this is jeopardised, one’s self-esteem may plummet. When this happens, a person’s mindset and outlook can become dark and bleak. This is why paying attention to self-esteem is so important when one loses their job. So how can you maximise self-esteem? Self-esteem is made up of three principal components: belonging, worth and competence.
Belonging refers to a feeling of being significant, wanted and needed. The opposite of belonging is a sense of insignificance and isolation.
People recognise their worth when they feel worthy of other people’s attention, admiration or validation. People also need to feel that they are using their life in a worthwhile way. Generally people feel worthy because of what they do, especially when contributing to others.
Competence is the third ingredient of self-esteem. Competence is the sense of mastery – that we have the skills to get the things we need in life. For many of us, what we do at work is an expression of our competence. The loss of a job can feel like a deprivation of the very thing that makes us feel competent. A blow to our sense of competence makes us feel bad and we tend to forget all our other skills and gifts. When we are in a negative mode, we tend to focus on our mistakes and kick ourselves for what we have done wrong. No one goes through life without making mistakes. It is important to know how to handle mistakes so that they don’t bring you down.
As time passes you may be met with other opportunities. If you are too hard on yourself and have a negative attitude, you may miss an opportunity. This is why self-esteem is so important in everything we do.
Responding to Crisis
Each person is different and we each react to the crisis of a job loss in a different way. This may depend on the stakes of a job loss depending on one’s age, family, finances, location, career path and so on. How we react to a crisis can also depend on the type of support a person has and the types of experiences, fears and expectations one brings to a loss.
We are generally aware of what we feel and think in our conscious mind. But we also have a sub-conscious mind which is many times the size of our conscious mind and saves everything that we experience in our whole lives. While the conscious mind operates according to the rules of logic, the sub-conscious mind does not operate according to logic and does not mature with age. Experiences from our past that are saved in our sub-conscious mind can have an impact on how we feel about a present crisis. Reassurance from others, even if logical or realistic, may not be effective in calming the subconscious mind, which is where anxiety originates.
Of all of life’s events, only a few things generate as much anxiety as losing a job. In addition to the challenge of supporting our self and family, loss of a job is a severe blow to the ego. It is only natural to seek relief from anxiety, but we must do so cautiously. We live in an age of little tolerance for delay and when we are anxious we may seek relief fast, leading us to think that a drink or tranquilizer will do the trick.
One of the safest and healthiest anti-anxiety habits to foster, no matter what your financial circumstance, is to exercise. Exercise strengthens the heart, increases lung capacity, burns fat, regulates blood sugar and boosts the effectiveness of the immune system. Over and above these important functions, exercise is a mood elevator, by releasing endorphins and enhancing the mood lifting neurotransmitters. Gardening and other hobbies can also be superb stress relievers.
Everything in life has a purpose and when it is used for the purpose for which it was designed, it will serve its function in life. However, if you have unrealistic expectations of something, making excessive demands of it, your life will fall out of balance. This is the case for people who have staked too much of their identity in their career or material things. If one has demanded that a job or stock portfolio answer the question of who am I, then of course one will react with fear and anxiety with the answer is taken away. Just as exercise and hobbies can reduce anxiety, so can the restoration of balance in our lives. The true purpose of work is primarily to provide us with a livelihood. While there is also an emotional component when we take pride in our accomplishment and productivity – we need to keep our work in its rightful place in our life.
When a person loses their job, their perception of the world may be distorted by the loss, which causes them to see the world as dark and to overlook opportunities. Telling them that things will eventually change for the better will probably not make them feel better – something other than logic is necessary to correct their misperception.
Love between a husband and wife, parents and children, and friend to friend can lift this heaviness. This is the love that can lift the screen of darkness from one’s eyes and the heaviness from ones heart. Simple logical argument may not change our perceptions, but true love can do it. True love is powerful and may be the only thing that can counteract the illogical negative feelings of shame and failure.
When facing crisis and anxiety during a hardship, the important thing is to never despair. Despair is our worst enemy because it takes away every bit of motivation to survive and recover. And it destroys any hope of a better future.
Gratitude is one of the best ways to avoid despair. While there is no denying the severity of the hardships we face, we can still find daily enjoyment and gratitude. Learning to practise gratitude is a part of the way we get up when we have been knocked down. We start to realise that there is more to us than just our economic situation. We are a son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, father, mother, husband or wife, and none of these identities are altered by our adverse economic conditions.
Getting comfortable with who you are
You need to remember that losing your job does not change the unique features that define you as a human being. You remain a unique person with unique gifts and talents. Taking the time to identify your unique gifts, talents and strengths will help you rebuild your sense of self-esteem so you are ready for new challenges that come your way in the future.
Make a personal inventory of what you are good at and the things that you are not good at. No person can be good at everything. It is when we are good at something but don’t recognise it that we cause ourselves unnecessary hardships. Low self-esteem occurs when one is unaware of the strengths they possess. Making a list of your personality assets and limitation can help you to gain a more accurate self-image. Then review your list with a close friend and get an objective opinion of your self-image.
Many people give up on themselves because they do not know who they are. When they discover who they really are, they gain a self-respect that allows them not only to go on with life, but also to achieve happiness.
We live in a world that loves power. Dr Rachel Naomi Remen said, we live in a culture that values mastery and control, that cultivates self-sufficiency, competence, independence. Losing your job can often feel like a loss of power – such as the power of your positions, power over subordinates, power to structure your time and schedule as well as economic power to buy what you want. Losing your job can deliver a crushing blow to our feelings of power. These feelings of powerlessness and loss of control give rise to fear and anxiety and the desire to blame others and envy what they have. If you feel this way you need continued involvement with new actions and thought patterns to change your attachment to your job, wealth and home. At times like these we need to rethink our values. While job and financial security remain a high priority, we should realise that we must look elsewhere for true happiness.
Finding happiness in the self
When we ask the question, without a job, who am I? We should be able to answer that “I am a human being who can choose and determine how I face and cope with adversity. I may have lost my job, but I did not lose myself.” This can be my answer only if I have a sense of self that is independent of the prevailing social values. Losing your job can cause you to rethink your values, and through this process you may attain and retain a valid identity.
Sometimes painful circumstances can reveal what we need most. The pain of losing one’s job can help reveal an underlying illness that we need to heal in order to be truly happy. Our routine lives, before losing our job, may have been such that we never had adequate cause to pause and reflect on whether we were really living to the fullest. The personal upheaval of losing a job and economic wellbeing may bring us around to assess our lives, not only by material possessions and physical activities, but also in our relational and spiritual terms. This may be the silver lining to a very dark cloud.
To lose a job is one thing, but to lose a sense of self is another. When we are working at our job and our routine, we may be so absorbed that we do not have time to think about ourselves or who we are outside of our job, and we allow our job to define us. Don’t be lured into limiting your identity to your job or financial status. You are more than that. Take the time to discover who you are without you job.
It is also important that when we get a new job, you don’t relapse into the delusion that we can control our economic well-being and avoid making true changes in our lives, rendering us vulnerable to repeat our negative reactions in a subsequent crisis.