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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Loss of Identity

The answers to the following two questions will tell us a lot:

  1. Who were you the day before you lost your job?

  2. Who are you today?

If the answers to those two questions are not exactly the same, then you've got some work to do. If you answered the first question with something like, "The purchasing manager at ABC Company" and the second with something like, "An unemployed person from Springfield," you've lost your identity.

If, however, the answer to the first question was, "A nurse and a mother of two," and the answer to the second question was, "A nurse and a mother of two," then your self-definition is still intact. One of the things that licenses do is to enable individuals to continue to hold on to their identity when they're not working. An accountant is still an accountant as long she has her CPA license, even if she is not currently employed or doing any business as an accountant. A loan officer, however, a function that requires no licensure, might not call himself a loan officer once he is no longer employed in that activity.

We all know that many licenses don't actually qualify a person to do what they end up doing. For instance, many attorneys are not actually practicing law, but they can still refer to themselves as attorneys as long as their bar dues are paid.

Let's take a hint from this distinction and work on rewriting the answers to those two questions. When I ask you, "Who were you the day before you lost your job?" put the answer in terms of what you were doing for your employer—not the status that your employer gave you. One strategy that employers use to encourage people to be productive and stay around is to find titles that will feed their egos and give them status within the organization. If you were handed one of those titles and you bought into it, you forgot that it was a rental contract. Believing that you actually owned it will cause you to have an overall harder time dealing with the loss of your employment.

Some settings within our society have taken this to the extreme. In the military, for instance, a rank or title is carried even when the job goes away. In that setting, being stripped of your rank is many times more devastating than being stripped of your position. Think about how much emphasis you placed on your rank or title in your previous position. If it was a great deal, you'll need to make sure that you include that in your grieving process.

As you wean yourself from its importance in your life, a new title should emerge that feels even more important. Give yourself the license to be who you really are. As you find the role that you will seek to play in your next productive activity, give it a name. Tell yourself that's who you are. If you were the purchasing manager at your last employer and what you really did was design purchasing strategies, then you might call yourself a Designer of Strategic Purchasing Plans. Now you know and I know that this new status that you've picked is not going to have a license anywhere. It may, however, have some sort of professional designation attributed to it by a trade association that you might seek to achieve. If it doesn't, then it's just your own self-defined profession. Today you are still that person and you own the title.

Just because you're seeking your next customer/employer, it does not mean that you have changed who you are. This is the very first step in designing an effective job-search program. Knowing who you are and what you are good at is essential to being able to convince your next customer that they should pay you to do it for them. Instead of thinking of yourself as an employee who waits to learn what your employer has in store for you next, you become the designer of your own economic activity.

This is a concept that makes sense as you see people go out into the business world as consultants. They define their role, their title, their job, and then locate customers who can use their services. Even if you are more comfortable seeking a specific relationship as an employee, this perspective on your role in the economy is very positive. It gives you a solid sense of self-esteem that will be projected onto prospective employers or customers.

Even if you choose to take a position outside your optimal field, you will still define yourself as who you are, but as working in a different capacity at the moment. A physical therapist who takes a job as a waitress does not become a waitress. She is a physical therapist, working as a waitress. When she secures her next career position, she is a physical therapist, working as a physical therapist. She can say this with little hesitation because she has a license on the wall that says she is a physical therapist. Give yourself a license to be who you are. Let it describe you to yourself and to others. Your identity is yours alone to control. An employer cannot give that to you nor take it away.


Allowing anyone else to define your identity is dangerous. Pick a definition you like and run with it. Make sure your job title is an adjective modifying your identity, not a noun defining it.

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