Job satisfaction: How it shapes identity

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After several difficult years following the collapse in oil prices, Norway’s job market is picking up again. Nicola McCaffrey, a clinical psychologist based in Norway’s hard-hit “oil capital” of Stavanger, has helped clients tackle the pain of a job loss and thus pondered the importance of just how much our work can mean to us. She shares some thoughts here:

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“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  – Confucius

Dr Nicola McCaffrey, a clinical psychologist in Stavanger, cautions that our jobs are only part of our identity. PHOTO: Anne Lise Norheim

When someone asks us “‘what do you do,’” we nearly always reply with our occupation. Work, for many of us, is much more than a job. It is the defining aspect of our life and thus of our identity. It plays a significant role in determining how we see ourselves and offers insight into what is important to us.

Through our work we find financial security, identity, status, self-worth and intellectual stimulation. For many of us, it is through our job that we can define ourselves and work out our place in the world.

“Without my job I don’t know who I am,” is a phrase that has been uttered on more than a handful of occasions in the comfort of my office. Indeed it can be one of the most challenging aspects I work on with clients who have lost or been forced into changing their jobs, over and above any financial worries. This loss provokes an identity crisis much greater than the loss of the job itself.

Identity more complex
One of the things I have come to understand, however, is that our identity is multi-faceted, fluid and dynamic. Identity is much more complex than we recognize at first glance. We do not just have one identity, we have several.

If we take the time to consider and reflect, we might recognize that as well as our work we can also identify as a friend, a spouse, a sibling, a son or daughter, a parent, a member of a sports team or religious community. We may recognize that we feel and act differently in these roles and relationships than we do at work. The passive daughter, for example, can become an assertive leader at work.

Our identities at work are not static either. They move and change over time. I myself have been a shop assistant, a waitress, a student, a graduate, and a clinical psychologist. At each stage my ability to adapt and develop my career identity has been crucial to my well-being. While we like to eliminate uncertainty in our lives, at some level we have to manage uncertainty, especially in today’s volatile and ever shifting job market.

Today I identify myself as a therapist but tomorrow I may be faced with having to change jobs. So what happens to my identity then?

Critical sense of self
How we see ourselves, narrate our lives and share our story, is central to the issue of our identity. When we tell ourselves “I am a people person, not a numbers person,” or “I’m good at starting projects but not so great at seeing them through,” that can become part of our belief system and we can use such statements as a platform on which to build our identity in the workplace.

If you have the unfortunate experience, however, of an involuntary job change, you will need to examine those beliefs and that sense of identity to see how grounded in reality they are. You will be required to ask yourself how helpful these beliefs are and consider personal change. We can change our beliefs, behavior and emotional experience at any time through experimentation, practice and conscious self-discipline.

In an age where career progression may lead us into new environments and sectors, it is ever more important to challenge our sense of self and explore whether you can create a new experience of your identity by changing the beliefs you hold about yourself, other people and the world at large in order to develop and expand your career options. Ultimately it is you who defines who you are. You are only your job if you let it be so.

Dr Nicola McCaffrey, who has written earlier for newsinenglish.no, is a clinical psychologist who’s been working in private practice in Stavanger since 2012. An expat herself, she has special insight into the challenges faced by those who’ve moved to Norway for professional or personal reasons, and she caters to the English-speaking international community in Norway. McCaffrey has a doctorate in clinical psychology from The University of Glasgow, has been qualified to work in the UK since 2008 and is authorized to practice in Norway through Statens Autorisasjons Kontor (SAK). McCaffrey is also a member of the professional association, Norsk Psykolog Foreningen. Visit her website at www.nicolamccaffrey.com.