Losing a job can make you question who you are

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No matter how good your work-life balance or the richness of your hobbies and interests, you inevitably base part of your identity on your job. When you meet a new person, you might introduce yourself with your profession. When you apply for car insurance, your premium is based on the risk your job title suggests that you present. And for some of us, the main time we assess our skills and strengths comes at our annual appraisal – and so our employer’s view of us merges with our own.

All of this means that if you lose your job, you lose part of your identity with it. That can be easy to overlook in the immediate aftermath of a redundancy, as you navigate the financial and emotional turmoil that comes with losing your income. But it’s important to acknowledge, as it can influence the next steps you decide to take.

Different people will react differently to that loss. For some, it might be freeing – perhaps you felt constrained by the demands of your work, to the extent of modifying your personality when around your colleagues. Being forced to find a new job where you can be more yourself can be a relief.

But it can also be bewildering, particularly if you’ve been with your employer for a long time. A workplace’s culture can shape who you are both professionally and personally. Without that environment, how will you change?

While this month’s careers section focuses on people who have been made redundant, they aren’t the only ones who might find themselves needing to reassess who they are. Consider the PhD researcher who gives up on their planned research career after too many failed postdoc applications; the employee who works for years to get their dream job, only for it to turn out to be a toxic nightmare; the retiree who struggles to find something to replace the rhythm of the working week.

In all cases, support from other people can make a big difference – as recently demonstrated by the chemistry community rallying around to help those affected by a mass redundancy at Pfizer. What’s particularly heartening about this is how enthusiastically those who have been made redundant are helping each other. They see how valuable their colleagues are. While part of that value comes from their technical skills, it also comes from who they are as people. All of their personality traits, motivations and interests that made them such good people to work with will also make them great colleagues in whichever workplaces they join in the future.

Despite the negative connotations of losing a job, it doesn’t make you a failure. It doesn’t make you anything. However, it does give you an opportunity to explore what you want to make of yourself. Who do you really want to be? It might even turn out to be who you were all along.