If you love what you do, it’s all-too easy for it to consume your identity—especially if your career is demanding and fast-paced. You find yourself checking email after hours, and thinking about work. All. The. Time. You find yourself falling asleep with a laptop in your bed.
It’s also all-too easy for work to consume your identity when money is at stake. For instance, therapist Erin K. Tierno sees clients in New York City, where in order to survive financially, they must prioritize work—“because there will always be another person eager to fill their position.”
It’s common for young professionals to feel so emotionally drained by their work that they have zero energy to dedicate to dating, hobbies, friendships and everything else, said Lauren Canonico, LCSW, a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in New York City.
For many people work—and overwork—is comfortable. What isn’t comfortable is what resides outside the office walls. Because inside there are clear-cut steps, structures, systems and goals, while other areas of life don’t adhere to a rulebook.
“There’s no magic number of dates to go on before you find the one. No set amount of difficult phone calls with your mother before she ‘gets’ you and understands what you need from her,” said Canonico, who offers affirmative counseling and therapy to adults and teens, and clinical consulting services to individuals and organizations.
“Life is much grayer and murkier, which is scary—particularly when your capacity to tolerate discomfort is all used up during your work day,” she said.
But letting work define you is problematic. When they’re not at work, Canonico’s clients describe feeling anxious, overwhelmed, lost, stuck and disconnected from themselves.
Licensed mental health counselor Diane Webb noted that when people don’t nourish their passions, they report a lower sense of who they are, a surge in depressed mood and a sense of emptiness. Some of Webb’s clients describe feeling like a real-life version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Below, you’ll find a range of tips to help you figure out who you truly are outside of work, and as Webb said, “give your life a richness that is full of things that enlighten you, teach you, thrill you and soothe you.”
Wander your city. This is what Tierno prescribes to clients who can’t find anything they’re interested in outside of work. Tierno is a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Online Therapy NYC, where she specializes in helping dynamic, intelligent, driven, busy people to connect in healthier, more fulfilling relationships through online therapy.
That is, explore your city without any agenda. The only rule is to pay attention to what piques your interest. Because that’ll likely point you in the right direction.
“If your eye catches a spectacular piece of pottery in a shop window, let yourself go inside and spend some time looking around. Could this be the fledgling stages of a ceramics hobby?”
After you’ve gathered some data on what you might be curious about, give yourself several months to explore these interests, Tierno said. For instance, you might take a local class in wheel-throwing.
Don’t be surprised if you feel some discomfort: “[T]hese muscles have never been used before, or at least not in a very long time,” Tierno said. You might be used to being in charge and being seasoned at work. Try to embrace the unfamiliar, and focus on the process.
Set boundaries. Many people don’t have strict boundaries between work and home. Understandably. As Webb said, “People now carry their ‘office’ with them all day via their smartphone and other devices.” Maybe you actually work from home several days or every day. In other words, our home is no longer the place we exclusively relax and leave work behind.
Canonico stressed the importance of having a dedicated workspace to give yourself some concrete separation, if possible. Maybe that’s an office, or a desk in your living room or the same corner of the couch or kitchen table (depending on how much space you have). She also suggested changing clothes as soon as you get home (or perhaps stop working), “to ‘take off’ the day”; and not checking email or working for at least one hour after waking up and two to three hours before bed.
Boundaries are critical when you’re just starting your career, too. You might be tempted to work long hours and be available to your clients all the time. However, Canonico said it’s best to set boundaries right away. This way, “your clients and colleagues [don’t] have to ‘unlearn’ having 24/7 access to you. It’s easier to loosen as you go than tighten along the way.”
Other examples of boundaries include: not responding to work-related matters on weekends, and requesting another team member if you’re feeling overworked or overburdened, said Webb, who has a private psychotherapy practice in Clifton Park, N.Y., and pens the blog The Peace Journal about helping people develop emotional wellness as a lifestyle choice.
Your “boundaries with work should suit your work environment, the needs of your position and your individual needs to have the best result.”
Revisit old hobbies. Reflect on the activities and hobbies that you loved as a child, teen or young adult. Then carve out time to practice them. According to Webb, this might be anything from sports to hiking to baking.
Revisit relationships. “When someone’s work life takes precedence, their personal relationships often start to suffer,” Webb said. This is why she recommended refocusing on your relationships with a partner, kids, friends and family. Spend quality time with them. Have real conversations without interruption.
Create space to just be. “We have to intentionally create space for our true selves to emerge, which means holding time for ourselves to just be,” Canonico said. This is also a helpful way to practice tolerating discomfort.
Canonico shared these examples: You might spend 20 minutes in the morning drinking your coffee or tea, without any digital devices, or spend Sunday afternoons by yourself. Notice what thoughts and feelings arise. Where does your mind go when there’s no task or structure?
If you do need some structure, Canonico suggested finding writing prompts or doing Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.
Meet like-minded people. Check out local meet-up groups, spiritual centers or adult sports teams, Webb said. Think about other places around potential passions, such as book clubs, art clubs and non-profit organizations. Experiment with new experiences. This might include anything from trying watercolor painting to taking a dance class to participating in National Novel Writing Month, Canonico said. Even if you end up not enjoying an experience, that’s still important information. “There’s no such thing as failing when it’s an experiment.”
Tierno’s clients are initially fearful that their work success will suffer if they focus on other things. However, she finds the opposite is true: “[P]eople’s work lives actually flourish when they dedicate time to rounding out their life experience. That fulfilled person brings far more energy and curiosity to their work life, and is a heck of a lot more interesting to talk with at the company holiday party.”