The current situation is creating a great deal of dissonance for many of us, not just because of the scale of the COVID 19 crisis, but because the new way of operating is challenging our definitions of self and challenging our previous (often irrational) ways of being and feeling. I recently spoke to an executive who, despite being a high performer and checking all the boxes for “hard-working professional,” was unceremoniously laid off after 25 years of blemish free employment. The financial loss was almost secondary to the emotional trauma. Those of us “white collar” workers who are still employed, or employed in name only, are mostly at home and somewhat discombobulated by the change. All the normal markers of our professional lives have been turned upside down and the ways we have been validated and have validated ourselves are in flux or simply gone.
On the other hand, the reality is that much of how we have traditionally thought and behaved, particularly as it relates to our professional identities, was causing great harm. One of the fortunate ironies of the present reality, is that for many of us, it presents an opportunity, even if a forced opportunity, to reassess very important issues that we were previously “too busy” or too compromised to acknowledge.
Unfortunately, most of us have been acculturated to even attach our very self-worth to our work behaviors and accomplishments. Talk about a set up! By its nature, our work is transient and ultimately dependent on others. Not a particularly great dynamic for something as essential to our mental health and wellbeing as identity and self-worth! Many of us have made a Faustian pact with our work (and our employers) that demands continuous, high-level commitment on our part, with a specious (and no guarantees) return on investment over the long term. A job loss, for example, can cause serious financial stress, but it can only cause trauma if we have an unsustainable dependence on work for identity and self-esteem. We have been tricked into identifying with what we do rather than who we are!
See if some of these examples sound familiar:
- Having a perpetual sense of urgency
- Fearing that even temporary “low performance” could cost us our jobs
- Confusing busy with productive
- Exhaustion as a status symbol
- Overachieving as professional validation
- Working long hours as professional validation
Not only are those simply the wrong things on which to build one’s identity or self-worth, they aren’t even necessarily rational for professional success. For example, a sense of urgency can be valid and productive, but not everything is urgent! Overachieving can be rewarded and mutually beneficial, but it’s also a trap, because, by definition, you can’t always overachieve in the same way that everyone can’t be above average!
Here are some potential, much more sustainable alternatives
- Having a perpetual sense of mindfulness
- Achieving fewer, more important things
- Self-care and compassion as a status symbol
- Working fewer hours with higher purpose
Thankfully, the current situation, as truly difficult as it is in many ways, is also an opportunity to liberate ourselves from a host of self-imposed, and ultimately harmful, patterns of thinking and behaving. Not only are many of the things we have traditionally enslaved ourselves to bad for our sense of wellbeing, they aren’t even that great for professional success and they certainly aren’t sustainable over a lifetime! Maybe the biggest silver lining of the current crisis is that we can now give ourselves permission to be smarter and healthier, committing to thinking and behavior that provides purpose and human connection rather than unsustainable and unhealthy “bargains” that slowly drain us of spirit.
For those of you who are continuing to work out in the real world, delivering supplies, taking care of the sick, keeping the lights on, stocking shelves, etc., thank you. We appreciate the risks you are taking on our behalf and are truly grateful.