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Untangling Your Sense of Self From Your Professional Identity

Career accomplishments don’t always translate to life satisfaction.

Not everyone has what it takes to be a highly accomplished professional. You have undoubtedly worked hard, applying grit and determination to get where you are. But have you ever stopped to consider the real cost of your success?

5 traits that set apart the few from the many

You may recognize in yourself one or more of the traits identified by research as characteristic of people who experience career success:

  1. providing high-quality service
  2. being an exemplary employee
  3. embarking on career growth
  4. having positive personal attributes
  5. being internally satisfied

These character traits are consistently found in high-achieving professionals who boast particularly successful careers. Taking pride in having high standards translates to providing a high-quality service. Being an exemplary employee denotes reliability and dependability. Embarking on career growth assumes self-confidence and ambition. Positive personal attributes and being internally satisfied usually go hand in hand with being personable, hard-working, and easy to get along with.

The same factors that drive your success can keep you stuck on the treadmill

Unfortunately, the unwavering commitment to provide high-quality service and fierce determination to push yourself to achieve professional accomplishments can also work against you. The pressure to sustain unreasonable performance metrics is demonstrably linked to measurable increases in anxiety. Intense scrutiny and pressure to perform, even if self-imposed, lead to longer working hours and a gross work/life imbalance. As you invest disproportionately in your professional identity, you can easily fail to nurture your own identity and neglect nurturing important interpersonal relationships. You are, or should be, independent of your professional persona. You should be able to develop deeply meaningful family, romantic, and friend relationships while reaching your potential.

The double-edged sword of professional success

Family socioeconomic status and expectations play important roles in educational and occupational attainment. Becoming wealthy is often aspired toward as the ultimate goal, and it's applauded and celebrated when attained. Professional success is traditionally associated with comfort and happiness, and the perception of freedom that financial prosperity provides. What is not considered, often, is the cost to ourselves of a relentless determination to succeed.

The professional success/personal failure phenomenon

In many cases, career success is actually perceived as a major cause of personal failure, both by highly successful individuals themselves and by those around them.

While professional excellence is often personally fulfilling, when a disproportionate amount of time is invested in your professional success, your scarcity of time available for recreational outlets and personal relationships reinforces the polarization of your identity. The "Type A" personality traits common to managerial and leadership success are also linked to feelings of personal failure, disappointment, and alienation, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

When the professional dream doesn’t match reality

The life dissatisfaction that can accompany professional success is often the result of dissonance between expectations and reality, conflicting demands, feeling out of control, a lack of opportunity for external fulfillment, and developmental life changes that prompt reevaluation of life priorities. Consider these examples that illustrate the phenomenon:

  • Paula is a highly accomplished attorney who left private practice for the public sector. As she moved up the ranks, she found that more and more of her time was spent on bureaucracy and virtually no time was available to advocate for the issues that brought her to leave the private sector.
  • Bill is a successful COO at a technology company. He finds himself pulled in conflicting directions – employees who need him to ease up a bit, clients who have long-term needs, and a board of directors that sets metrics focused on their desire for a lucrative exit. In the meantime, his children barely see him and he desperately wants greater connection with his wife.

Professional success often has its own Catch-22 predicament. When the demands of the role dictate how your time is spent, career achievement can feel like a trap. With the passage of time, you more acutely feel that you're losing out on opportunities to create or enjoy your family, and that you're missing key milestones or important events because you are just not present for the most important people to you in the world.

The real cost of professional success

Having a successful career is valuable, but only insofar as it serves you, not the other way around. Take a moment to pause the treadmill you’re on and consider this:

  • If who you are is enmeshed in what you do, then who are you when you step away from your role?
  • Deep personal fulfillment in life comes from having strong relationships that only flourish when you make time to invest in those relationships.
  • The cost to your physical and emotional health is real. If you knew in advance that a skewed work-life balance was going to induce a heart attack, wouldn’t you reorder your priorities?

In the process of gaining academic training and building a career, it’s normal to identify with the values and perspectives espoused in that chosen career. If you become a partner at a top firm you will likely adopt many of the habits and life choices of the other partners. But is this who you are? By all means, take pride in your professional success. At the same time, take stock and consider who you are. Decide what is truly important to you. Make a plan for the changes you need to make to live your life. You can consider how to achieve peak performance while paying attention to your relationships, your family, your values, and yourself.

© 2023 Dr. Fabiana Franco. All rights reserved.


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