Is your kerja your only identity?

I am officially unemployed starting Labour Day tomorrow, ironically. Not the best time to be unemployed, but this was a resignation that had been planned pre-Covid-19.

I am keeping myself busy with side projects in the meantime – and during one such project meeting recently, I found myself stumbling to answer the question, ‘Let’s introduce ourselves’.

Now that I am no longer affliated with my previous organisation, I was not sure how to describe myself at all.

“Hi, my name is Roshinee and I am currently unemployed, I guess? Also, I like media stuff”.

Definitely not the most eloquent moment from myself, but it brought up the question afterward about who I am when I am not professionally employed by an organization.

Who are you if you are not the lawyer, recruiter, manager, student, engineer, writer, etc that you are in your professional capacity?


According to psychologists, this blurred boundary between one’s profession and their identity is termed as ‘Emmeshment’. This is not necessarily a good state to be in as your individuality gets eroded when your career label takes importance over it.

I and some of my ex-colleagues can recognize this – our identities become so intertwined with our intense workload, that we tend to overlook other important aspects of our life such as our social life, health and playtime. It is no surprise then that people who have this emmeshed work identity tend to burn out faster because they want to fulfill the expectations set up by this supposed identity of themselves.

This mindset can also be a little dangerous should you be laid off unexpectedly. Let’s say you are not working at Company X anymore which had been so central to your identity, what are you when you are without it? This is where you might see a lot of people turning toward substance abuse or negative habits whilst in search of a new foundation of self.

That one time I was a therapist, and just that

I am not unfamiliar with emmeshment. In my first job as an ABA therapist for kids with autism, my whole life was occupied by therapy, commuting to and fro from the client’s home/school, and then restarting. With the exception of my then-partner, I had little interaction with my non-therapy life.

I was happy to carry the label of a ‘therapist’ and therefore, willing to take on all the intense workload needed for the role – even though it came at the expense of my mental health. Halfway through my contract, my then-partner unexpectedly broke up with me and my mother passed not two weeks later.

I returned to work after 3 weeks of compassionate leave – as my kids needed me (I told myself). I would resign in 4 months – after battling with the fact that I could not cope within this role anymore. Even if the circumstances were beyond my control, I still felt like a failure over having to leave my kids behind so I could go take care of myself.

Ultimately, I feared what that would make me when I don’t have the label ‘therapist’ anymore. A free-loader? Failed therapist? The fresh grad who could not even stay an entire year at her first job?

Thankfully, my psychologist who I was seeing at that time reminded me that, no, I am not a failure. It is just a bad season of my life. And just like any season, it too will pass.

I would learn that I was a full person after all, even without the professional label. I had a two-month break between my resignation and my next job. Within that time, I was able to redevelop my sense of self.

I drew, I sang, I wrote. I connected with my friends who I had sidelined due to my job for the previous 10 months. I was able to perform in theatre again and even traveled to Singapore and Russia when the opportunity arose. I also continued my therapy sessions and found out so much about my personal mindsets and values.

I had no professional affiliation, yet I had all these friends, creative interests, and values all along. I just kinda lost the time to nurture them all this time.

I had unemmeshed myself before, and I trust that I can do it again.

How to check if you have an emmeshed identity

Psychologist, Janna Koretz suggests that you ask yourself these few questions. I have simplified them for you here:

  • How much do you think or talk about your work, outside office hours?
  • Do you state your job title/organization when you describe yourself?
  • How quickly do you bring up work when in conversation with someone?
  • Do people comment you work too much or that you are at the office a lot?
  • Do you engage in hobbies/activities unrelated to your work?
  • How distressed would you be if you are no longer working in your current profession?

If you are interested in reading more into this, you can read Janna’s article on the Harvard Business Review here, where she also lists out five strategies on how to unemmesh yourself.

Anyways, I hope all of you will have a lovely cuti tomorrow! Though it is a bit hard to distinguish work days and holidays nowadays, I hope you still reschedule some down-time for yourself for some needed rest and reflections.

Take care, kawan-kawan!

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