By Robert Giannicola, ACC. That’s a question I’ve been asking several coaching clients. Why? Well, after having a few coaching sessions with them, I realize that as accomplished as they are, they have lost their identity to their work.

A common issue I notice about young adults who work hard at their job is that they are very successful and have dedicated most of their time to be successful in their careers. They go beyond the 9 to 5 job. They are living their work day-in and day-out, relentlessly, to the point where they cannot think of anything else. I’m not talking about burnout. I’m talking loss of identity.

Let me give you a couple of examples. The names have been changed for privacy.

John, 26, is a successful sales account director who recently got a promotion. They offered him the opportunity to move to the East Coast to assume a new role as the director of a team of forty. He is highly qualified and has managed smaller teams before. As proven in the past, there is no doubt that he will succeed. As we meet for our sessions every couple of weeks, I get to know more about him and the pressure this position is adding to his life. Stress, sleepless nights, long days, and poor health habits are the norm. Occasionally, he would go to the gym or exercise. On weekends he would catch up on essential chores, although he dedicated Sunday evenings to planning the week and dealing with e-mails.

Heather, 31, is a highly accomplished manager in the biotech industry. She has years of experience and has built a reputation for bringing top results. She is highly qualified and manages a team of fourteen. She meets her numbers and goes beyond, month after month, year after year. With this, she has gained the reputation of being highly organized with high standards for herself and her team. A strong and confident leader, she has a vision, is astute and ambitious. On her days off, she’ll spend a few hours to take care of her house and self, but will be only minutes away from her e-mails and working on company management objectives.

Both clients completed a 360 survey. Here are some of the points that were shared by their teams.

  • Q: How often do you schedule a time to think?  
  • A: Once a month or never.    
  • Q: How often do you struggle to manage your emotions when things get tough?  
  • A: Twice a week and daily.    
  • Q: In what areas could she/he improve management skills?  
  • A: Handling stressful situations, being more patient, being calm, monitoring his attitude and reactions, and not being so emotionally overwhelmed. Before reacting, allowing himself time to digest and then formulate proper responses. Understand how your mood can affect the rest of the team. She should take the time to listen more.   

Now, let’s not forget that individuals are often brought to coaching because they are high achievers that the companies want to keep employed. What they need are “adjustments” because their behaviors and attitudes are affecting their relationships with their peers, reports, customers, and the organization. 

What strikes me each time is that as they are engaging with coaching, it comes with a list of observations that either HR or upper management have identified about them. While they are all valid goals, at the root of all this are two main points that are not being addressed:

  1. The impact of unreasonably high demands and goals imposed by the companies  
  2. How over-achievers who have lost their identity to their careers are damaging their work relationships 

Addressing number one is not my goal today. But the second is what I frequently encounter, particularly with younger workers.

That is when I ask them the question: “Who are you, John?” – “Who are you, Heather?”
Usually, they meet me with silence and a deer in the headlights stare, followed by “What do you mean?”
So I rephrase: “Who are you without using labels, roles, or job achievements?”

More silence, but they believe they know the answer and then start listing things like: “I’m a director, manager, I have sold millions, I have two degrees and seven certifications…”

 “Nah…!” I interrupt. “That’s not what I’m asking. These are your awards, labels, and achievements. I would like you to tell me who YOU are without all that. You, John, you, Heather?”

They pause. I can sense the struggle there.
As I wait in silence, slowly, the words start coming out: “I’m determined, I’m passionate, I’m funny, reluctant, self-doubting, loyal, …”

We are getting somewhere.

Then I ask, “How often do you think about that?”
Answer: “Uhmm, never really.”

The discussion ensues with more points and realizations to questions like:

  • What do you consider to be your role in this world?  
  • Who are you now? Who would you like to become?  
  • What is the real you, without all these attachments? What if we would take them all away?  
  • How do you feel about yourself?  
  • How do others make you feel about yourself?  
  • What do you notice about all that? 

They slowly realize that their identity is attached to their careers, achievements, successes, and failures, but nothing much besides those. They are feeling high when they achieve a goal and low when they fail. They understand how addicted they have become to the external validation that comes from their projects, their jobs, and their need for recognition. There is a dependence built around all those. If a project is successful, they feel successful. If a project fails, they feel like a failure.

All this causes pressure and stress, which, compounded with the lack of self-awareness and care, will trigger poor behavior, adverse emotional reactions, and difficulties connecting with others or themselves.

Usually, after this conversation, there is a long pause — a heavy pondering. I remain quiet as they shift on the chairs, going from a forward-leaning position to sitting back. They exhale, and in that realization, say, “Wow, I can see that. So now what?”

Here, I have them look at the list of behaviors they initially decided to work on and ask: “How many of these behaviors are triggered by what we just discussed?”

They realize that most of them stem from that. They feel that situations could have been handled better if they didn’t put so much pressure on themselves. Then we’ll start identifying ways to overcome this.

After answering the initial questions above, here are a few steps we talked about that you can also consider:

  1. Don’t lose yourself in your career: While I admire the achievements that these people have accomplished over the years, if it comes at the cost of their mental and physical health, as well as a loss of identity, is it worth it? As you go through your job, remember to pause and take time to exercise, spend time alone, and ponder life. Who are you? What do you like? How are you affected by things? And what can you do to grow your mind and spirit?
  2. Let your mind flow: A mentor coach once told me: “If you put a person in front of a lamp post and ask them to talk to it for one hour, they’ll come to a lot of realizations on their own.”  Spend time alone and daydream; think things through. If you do it while walking, it’s even better, as research has shown that walking enhances creativity. Write a journal. Go for a drive or a solo hike. If you still feel ambivalent, start small. Maybe walk to work, or when on the bus, get your eyes off that cellphone. Just look out the window and let your mind flow.
  3. Do something with your hands and body: Get out of your mind and into your body. Garden, paint, fix something, create, build, design; you name it. As you do this, you’ll get a chance to free your mind from thoughts and let it wander. Observe what you sense, what thoughts come to you, and watch them without judgment. See how it might liberate you from recurring views. Observe realizations appearing in your mind.
  4. Those e-mails can wait: If it’s your day off, then make it a day off. Don’t feel the urge to check your e-mails or do that next piece of work. If you find yourself pulled to it, most likely, it stems from an addiction and identity attachment trying to lure you into what is comfortable. Breaking those habits will be a challenge, especially if you sit at home around your computer. If you feel the urge to do it, find ways to distract yourself immediately. Over time, it’ll get more comfortable.
  5. Nourish your mind and get inspired; read: If you want to understand better what you are going through and how you got to specific behaviors, how to change them, why you do certain things, and who you are, then read. There are thousands of books that will help you understand yourself, from leadership books to self-help, about human behaviors, the mind, and all subjects of emotional intelligence. The most successful leaders have read them, and so can you. 

Ultimately, this is all up to you. You can read this blog, get coaching, and realize what is happening, but not do anything about it. If you don’t take care of yourself, the world will come knocking again.

From personal experience, if you don’t deal with this stuff now, it will hit you even harder later. That pile of dirt will be even bigger and harder to work through. So don’t wait. Start small, start with something.

As Michael Singer writes in his book The Untethered Soul, “Life itself is your career, and your interaction with life is your most meaningful relationship.”

Now you get to choose. The ball is in your court.

To learn more about who you are and why it’s critically important, schedule a consultation with Roberto.