The Illusion of Finding Worth in our Work

“… if a person makes the error of identifying self with his work (rather than with the internal virtues that make the work possible), if self-esteem is tied primarily to accomplishments, success, income, or being a good family provider, the danger is that economic circumstances beyond the individual’s control may lead to the failure of the business or the loss of a job, flinging him into depression or acute demoralization.”

― Nathaniel Branden, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem


I can admit that I have definitely made this error in my own life, and have felt the negative impact to my sense of self-worth after an incident where I felt like I had failed to perform well in my work, or a period of time where I was struggling to even find work.

It is easy to move into our adulthood without a clear sense of what our values are. Even if we have done the work to identify important values for ourselves, we can still lose our sense of connection with them.

Our world is filled with stories and labels that continually direct us to view ourselves as our work or the product of that work: The self made person, the dedicated team member, the benevolent supervisor.

These concepts elevate the story that what you do and how you do it bring all of the purpose and satisfaction you need to live a good life. But what happens, then, when you aren’t? When you have bad days, or dips in your effectiveness, or larger forces simply take your job away? Who are you then?

You become someone without a purpose, without proof that you you have worth, and your feelings and thoughts begin to reflect that. I know mine did, when I mistakenly fused with my identity in my working role, and used that to hold myself up emotionally. Learning to grow in my understanding of my values, and reassessing that understanding every now and again, has helped me to decrease how much I think of work as something that I should use to appraise myself.

When I instead choose to consider myself through the lens of my values, I am able to have a constructive conversation about the ways that my thoughts, feelings, and actions line up with my values. I can ask myself “When have I put intention and effort into being compassionate?” or “What have I done that felt like it contributed to my belief in a greater sense of equality in society?

Even if I fall short in my evaluation, the end result is an internal narrative that I have power within. Maybe I haven’t been as patient as I would like to see myself being lately, and this is a good reminder to find small ways to work at that. Struggling in values is, in truth, a natural consequence of having values in the first place, and is part of a story we have about growing toward our ideal versions of ourselves in life. There’s a lot more hope held in this journey than there is in paychecks or promotions.

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