It makes me nervous when somebody asks me what do I do. I am inclined to respond with: “I am a teacher”, but this answer leaves me unsatisfied. Why? Because I am afraid to be reduced to my profession, and by starting the sentence with “I am” it creates the belief ( in me as well as in others1 ) that I am identifying with my profession.
I am vs. I work as
It is said that especially those who are working in a field of prestige tend to use “I am” instead of “I work as…” and that this choice of words is connected to a strong sense of occupational identity. My parents, who are both doctors, can surely join this club and their concerns regarding my self-made lifestyle don’t make me feel more confident about what I am doing.
But, in this article I don’t want to swim around in the soup of suffering under parental influence and learning how to free yourself from other peoples expectations.
No, let’s talk about the problem of identifying yourself with your profession and how to describe identity:
What is identity?
Identity is a concept we learn about through interactions with others and self-reflection.2 It relates to our self-image, self-esteem, and individuality.
“A person’s identity is defined as the totality of one’s self-construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future”P. Weinreich
It is not only what we do for work, our gender or ethnicity alone, but all the aspects of our life, including our thought processes, that make each of us different to any other person in the world. We can take away that even though identity owns an aspect of continuity, as we are recognising ourself as the same person as yesterday, our identity changes between moments in time.
And that there is an undeniable influence from others upon our identity: We can’t control how others perceive us or the boxes that are created by society.
Realising that identity means so much more than just our profession, rather, it’s everything we are and we want to be, and that identity can change over time – ultimately, can give us a huge sense of freedom.
Identity is just a concept, a way of perceiving ourselves. One of these things that help us to structure our way through the overload of life. To have a sense of who we are. [ oh no! Now we are encountering an even bigger question]
To keep it short and to come back to the initial question:
Why is identifying yourself with your profession a problem?
Firstly, because we are so much more and indirectly, using insensitive language we might start to overemphasise our profession. Secondly, if we limit our identity, by starting to believe that this is who we are, we are building a construct upon an unstable foundation. Any conflict regarding our job could then take the ground beneath our feet out from under us. What if we lose our job or start to realise that we don’t like our job?
De-emphasising our profession when it comes to our identity puts off a lot of pressure, rather supports a process, instead of an outcome orientated view. Giving space for loving ourselves in a wholesome way, and exploring all the other talents we have.
- 1 Weinreich, Peter (1986): The operationalisation of identity theory in racial and ethnic relations
- 2 Eriksson, Ylfa (2014): “Being” or “Doing” a Profession: Work as a Matter of Social Identity
- 3 Critical Media Project (2019) : Why identity matters
- 4 Picture by @mimi thian