How I Overcame Career-Related Identity Loss

career related
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One of the first things that we ask people we meet is “What do you do for a living?” This question can lead to an awkward silence, especially if you recently lost your job — or worse, your identity. I’m not talking about identity theft either.

Career Beginnings

Ever since high school, I always wanted to become a physical therapist (PT). It was a burning desire to help people recover from their injuries so they can return to caring for themselves or their families. In 2014, I finally achieved this dream after 7 years of rigorous study. To add to the thrills of graduation and passing my licensure exam, I was accepted into a competitive residency program at a non-profit outpatient clinic. While residencies for PTs are completely optional, I had the career goal of furthering my education to become an orthopedic clinical specialist and this residency was designed to provide me with the training to achieve this goal. However, my passion to drive my career forward began to fade along with a large piece of my personal identity.

Initial Experiences

The last thing I expected fresh out of school was to be told I was not good enough. These words came from one of my residency mentors. I recognized the residency was made to groom me to become a better PT. However, it was unclear to me at the time that my mentor’s teaching style was poorly aligned with my learning style. I figured I would continue to work hard regardless and eventually, it would pay off. Despite my efforts, all I received was negative feedback, insults, and even threats. This lead me to feel incompetent, intimidated and powerless by my mentor’s mere presence. I now realize that I needed more guidance and positive feedback. Most importantly, I needed to talk to someone.

When things are not working, speak up rather than waiting for things to get worse.

Instead of focusing on the details of how he made me feel this way, let’s focus on some dynamics on why my first professional experience made me feel so lost and how you can learn from my mistakes. To do this, I will refer to a model called The Wheel of Life.

The Wheel of Life

The wheel of life is a concept originally created by Paul J. Meyer. He is considered the pioneer of the self-improvement industry. Many have made modifications to the areas of life measured in this model. The one that I like best is Zig Ziglar’s modification which considers intellect, social, family, spiritual, physical, financial, and career. As you might expect, each area of this pie has the potential to affect the other.

This is what mine looked like at the start of my residency. 

My wheel of life at the start of my residency

You can see that I was heavily focused on my career. As the residency progressed, my focus shifted even more towards my career and studies. Of course, this took from other areas of my life such as spending time with my friends and family and spending little to no time in the gym.

As my life began to be thrown out of balance, I was poorly equipped to deal with the stressors to cope with unexpected events at work.

The unhappiness from my job began bleeding into other areas of my life. I began to isolate myself to avoid my mentor at work. I became agitated at home and I could no longer resolve familial issues with a cool head. I stopped working out altogether, became underweight and borderline hypertensive. To add money to the mix, public service loan forgiveness became more uncertain in my situation and I began to worry about my 6-figure student loan debt! 

My wheel of life while working in a toxic environment

Not only was I questioning my career, intellect, and financial stability, I was questioning who I was and who I wanted to become. I felt like I was stuck in a void with no answers and was just trying to survive. It wasn’t long before I felt useless to everyone around me. This was the most dangerous feeling I ever had.

The Fix

My outlook drastically changed after being involved in a hit and run while walking to work. The van tossed me into the air and miraculously, I only ended up with a few bruises and a broken leg. This accident made me realize how valuable my life is. It is not defined by what I do and no job or person has the right to tell me otherwise.

I took control of my situation and sought professional help to figure out what was wrong with me. I also reached out to family and friends to discuss my feelings and difficulties at work. They already knew something was up and was willing to lend a helping hand. I don’t know what took so long for me to reach out to others, but the support provided me with clarity. It wasn’t me that was the problem, it was the toxic environment at work. 

This led me to leave the residency and determine that no amount of career success or loan forgiveness is worth my happiness. I transitioned into a skilled nursing facility (SNF) to build up my confidence back up while paying my loans down. Changing jobs also came with a 10% pay raise allowing me to be more aggressive paying it off.

Currently

Fast forward a couple years later, I transitioned from a SNF to treating patients in their homes. I have learned to love my career again and enjoy the good people I work with. I have developed a better work-life balance, paid off over $100K of student debt  and now I am pursuing financial independence so I can allocate my time and energy to other passions and spending more time with loved ones.

As you can see below, I am living a more balanced life now as I live a life that is defined by much more than my career.

My identity restored and priorities rebalanced

The Lessons I Have Learned

You Are Good Enough

Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. My mentor told me I would fail without his supervision. He couldn’t have been more wrong. I am now thriving in my current position and am making a difference in my patients’ lives. I learned that when people are unjustifiably mean or unsupportive of you, it is likely more of their problem than yours. Spend less energy focusing on the negative people and more energy focusing on the people who matter to you.

Diversify Your Purpose As You Would Your Money

You don’t have to be a financial advisor to recognize how important it is to diversify your investment portfolio. The same can be said of where you spend your time and energy. Even if you are lucky enough to find meaning in your career, find purpose and develop goals outside of your career. This will help during times of uncertainty such as job-loss and retirement.

Ask For Help

No one knows what is going on in your head. Even though I was screaming for help inside, I was too proud, and in a way, too oblivious to ask for it. Prolonged sadness can lead to serious problems. If you have lost interest in doing things, feeling down or hopeless, seek help immediately. Also, there is no shame in reaching out to friends and family.

Own Your Future

My favorite quote I have hanging on my wall goes something like: “Life does not get better by chance, it gets better by choice” by Jim Rohn. Bad things happen to people all the time. While it may not be your fault, it is your responsibility to find ways to better your life. 

We All Have A Unifying Purpose

The most important thing I learned is to shift my focus from my career to my relationships and experiences. I learned that I am so much more than a physical therapist. I’m a husband, brother, son, uncle, reliable friend, exercise enthusiast, financial fanatic, blogger, amateur photographer, perpetual learner and so much more.

I believe our unifying purpose is to be the difference in all the lives we touch throughout our life. So make others laugh, make a positive impact on those who matter to you, and most importantly, create memories and experiences you won’t forget.

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