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The Now, The New & The Next in Careers

How to Resolve Identity vs. Role Confusion to Advance Your Career

28 Dec 2020 9:28 AM | Anonymous

By Marie Zimenoff
Career Thought Leaders & Resume Writing Academy

Who you are is separate from what you do. Your value is separate from your work performance.

Some people confuse these two ideas. When they confuse their identity and worth with their roles and performance, they can confuse feedback to be a jab to who they are, instead of a simple correction of what they have done or the role they are playing.

To resolve this confusion, it is important to understand the idea of identity versus role in our adult working life. This expands to different types of career where people’s performance becomes a part of their identity.

Ego identity

Psychologist Erik Erikson introduced the theory of psychosocial development in the 1950s.

One of the elements of Erikson’s theory is the ego identity, which is our sense of self. It develops through interactions with others and is constantly changing due to our experiences. Although we might think of different definitions for ego, in this context it is who we are in terms of our personality and how we show that personality to the world.

This interacts with the development of our careers. What is our identity going to be in terms of our interests, both related and not related to careers?

Who you are versus what you do

A few years ago, a sales coach had me do an exercise to list what I valued about myself. The first things that came to mind about myself were I am a mother, business owner, and trainer. I did not realize that what I was really defining were roles, not what I valued about myself. I was confusing my roles and my identity.

It is likely that we all fall into similar patterns, especially under stress. To break the pattern, come up with a separate list of who you are and what you value about yourself across all your roles. For me, my qualities were like being strategic, thoughtful, and compassionate.

-       What is your identity separate from what you do in the roles that you play?

-       What does that look like?

-       How can we start to build our identity to be separate from our roles?

The problem with over-emphasizing feedback

When you feel you are on a rollercoaster every day in terms of how you feel about yourself, many times it is because your role and your identity are intertwined or perhaps confused. You do not feel good about yourself unless you have done a good job, which in most cases is a subjective judgment by someone else.

We are looking for positive feedback, letting it over-inflate our value and encourage us to take actions that may not be the most important to take. We take negative feedback to mean we are not worthy, letting it drag us down and stifle motivation. When you are caught up in a feedback loop and focus on external validation, you eventually spiral down.

When someone tells you that you did a good job, like when you close a sale, you get that positive reinforcement. Your identity goes up and it is great that you are riding high for a little while. Then, when it does not go well, your identity and self-worth suffers. You lose motivation and struggle to act.

How to get out of the feedback loop

To get out of the feedback loop, think about what is important to you and have a solid vision of who you are and your intrinsic value – those deeper qualities that you bring to every role. Stay connected to that identity in a more tangible way. Instead of just writing it down once and forgetting it, really think about it every day.

-       Am I living the identity I want to live and not getting caught up in these roles that I want to play or what other people want me to play?

-       Am I acting in alignment with my values of who I want to be?

None of us are perfect at work. However, we can be more effective. Connect feedback on your performance with who you are and what you value about yourself on a day-to-day basis, so you can maintain your identity stability. How would you measure your performance today based on these values? Were you the person that you want to be today?

Confidence or ego problem? Arrogance or self-pity?

People who are confident do not have to puff themselves up. Those who are arrogant are not really feeling okay about themselves. They have large ego needs and they are defensive when people are attacking their role. They take it as an attack on their identity. Conversely, others use pity to get other people to help them fill that large gap.

Giving feedback to people’s role and not to their identity

As a leader, when giving feedback, it is an important thing to consider that you are giving it to a person’s role. Am I coaching them for their role, but building up and reinforcing their identity? You are going to give much better feedback and get much better performance from people when you are not critiquing their role. Brené Brown also emphasizes this in her parenting book on how to give feedback to our loved ones.

We are all precious human beings

When you look at yourself and others, think about the babies (or puppies or kittens) and how precious they are – they do not need to be better. They have authentic expressions of what they feel, what they are, and who they are. You would not say they are not worthy human beings because of any behavior (performance). We may have room to grow in our roles and behaviors, but as humans, we are all valuable.

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Hi, I’m Marie Zimenoff,

CEO of CTL...

I’m a passionate advocate for career industry professionals and a decades-long practicing career coach myself.

I’m so glad you’re here.

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