What Happens to Your Identity When You Lose Your Job

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

You’ve probably heard of impostor syndrome — the nagging anxiety that you’ve somehow fooled people into thinking you’re a qualified, competent human, when really you just stumbled into your circumstances by virtue of pure dumb luck. Sometimes, that feeling can even carry over into what you choose to call yourself: You may spend a zillion hours a day at the hospital as a medical resident, for example, but you still don’t yet feel like a real doctor. You have the magazine business card, but it still feels weird to introduce yourself as a journalist.

But impostor syndrome has an opposite, too, one that can be just as damaging to your self-esteem: What happens when you do feel like you belong in your job, so much so that it’s become a core part of your identity — and then your job goes away? As a study recently published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior and highlighted by the Association for Psychological Science blog recently explained, researchers found that job insecurity can cause people to lose some of their sense of self.

For the study, a group of 377 people with full-time jobs — a roughly even split between blue- and white-collar workers — filled out three rounds of a survey over the course of six months, answering questions about their overall well-being, how they felt about their jobs, and how confident they felt that they would be able to keep them for the foreseeable future. And the more the volunteers felt their job was in jeopardy, the researchers found, the more their well-being declined — along with their job performance and their identity as an employee. As APS explained:

When somebody’s employment is secure, their social identity as an “employed person” may not explicitly come to mind very often. However, when the loss of a job becomes more salient, people may start to become increasingly aware of being identified as part of an alternative, stigmatized out-group: the unemployed … It’s possible that diminished life satisfaction may be related, at least in part, to how people’s social identity changes in the face of job insecurity.

“People who perceived their job as more insecure were also more likely to feel less ‘belonging’ to the employed working society,” the study authors wrote. “They defined themselves less as employed people.” No matter how you feel about your specific job, in other words, you still feel like a working person so long as you have it — and if it goes away, so does that piece of how you understand yourself.

What Happens to Your Identity When You Lose Your Job