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Identity Crisis: When Work Supersedes Life

when work supersedes life“What do you do?”

The question lingers in the air.

The correct, albeit somewhat evasive answer: “I’m a lawyer transitioning into my next career phase. Currently, I am writing for Psych Central; you should check out my articles.”

The questioner pauses; I manage a nervous chuckle. The followup question is unspoken. Rattling inside his brain, he wonders why I would choose passion over profit.

In the United States, work defines us. It is our identity, providing structure and socialization. It provides a sense of accomplishment and, for the fortunate few, a sense of purpose.

For the unemployed or underemployed, and I have been there, the well-meaning ‘What do you do?’ inquiry invokes dread, even self-loathing.

But you are more than a business card or a 401(K). Case in point: I am a lawyer, but I am an intrepid traveler, a snarky journalist, a cackling prankster, and a loving nephew. The latter titles are more important than any glossy business card.

Work does not nourish our emotional needs. I know. I graduated from a top-tier law school; I was on the fast track to a high-falutin position in a pressurized legal setting. But I wanted more than money; I wanted something purpose-driven.

I am not alone. Among the economic elite, there is a growing sense of disillusionment and bitterness. Look at the spate of Wall Street suicides. Here is a particularly chilling quote:

“His work did not leave much time for enjoyment but that’s the nature of the assignment that he chose. … at a time when he was under stress he probably resorted to illegal drugs, causing this incredibly poor judgement, is probably the best I can say,” a despondent father lamented.

The all-consuming quest for the next raise and loftiest title can pervert your identity. At its worst, the keeping up with the Joneses mentality leads to addictive, self-destructive behavior. Don’t let it. Status is more than a six-figure salary or swarm of sycophants. It is how you handle these accoutrements and then having the self-awareness to recognize if or when these accoutrements are jeopardizing your emotional well-being.

I am fortunate; I have mentors who balance work demands and life responsibilities. Work is a fundamental part of their identity. But family and relationships trump. In their personal and professional lives, they are pillars, before, during, and after the 9-to-5 grind.

Understandably, we covet work success. We crave our colleagues’ validation; we cherish our close-knit working relationships; we boast about our latest work accomplishments. But work success is far different than life success. Ask any high-powered corporate executive drowning his sorrows in a hotel bar.

So when the inevitable Nosy Parker prods you with the standard “What do you do?” question, here is a cheeky, and healthy, response:

“I focus on personal investments, namely myself and my loved ones. I do have a stock tip: take stock of what is most important.”


Sorkin, Andrew (1 June 2015). Reflections on Stress and Long Hours on Wall Street. New York Times. Retrieved from


Identity Crisis: When Work Supersedes Life

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Identity Crisis: When Work Supersedes Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Aug 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.