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Don’t Lose Your Identity When You Downsize Your Job

Pursuing a passion and working fewer hours sounds like heaven. But first, you have to come to terms with the new you


by Kara Baskin

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Finally, the moment you dreamed about for years—you left your old job to embark on a new endeavor. You’re passionate about your new gig, and best of all, having shorter, more flexible hours will open up your time. Something unexpected happened, though. Your identity shifted once you left the office, and now you feel completely unmoored. Kathy Robinson, founder of TurningPoint in Boston, explains how you may need to re-center yourself, even in the midst of positive change.

“It’s a huge step to give up what’s known and familiar for something unknown,” she says. “No matter how long you’ve dreamed of a change, it’s impossible to anticipate the slight panic that hits almost everyone who’s actually made the jump out of a full-time situation into something different. Our culture identifies people so closely with the work they do that when you shift that identity, especially for something with fewer hours or more flexible demands, you can feel like you’re out of sync with yourself and others who are still in the rat race,” she says. 

Here’s how to navigate surprising feelings of doubt after pressing Start on a long-wished-for change:

Allow yourself time to “detox” from the old situation. “Despite the emotional lift that often comes with starting something new, accept that loss and anxiety can be a normal part of leaving something behind. Those feelings will taper off in time,” Robinson advises.

Develop better habits. “Stress and unhealthy behaviors go hand-in-hand with a modern, full-time work life. Think about what you can do to heal: Have you been putting off an exercise program? Are there hobbies you’ve wanted to try but never could? Are you accustomed to eating lunch in five minutes between meetings? Slow down and create a new pace for yourself.”

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Set appropriate limits and create structure. “In a full-time world, we often let others dictate our schedules or pull us into unwanted activities [Think of those meetings that used to just ‘appear’ on your calendar.] When you’re master of your own schedule, looking to others for meetings or direction is a hard habit to break. Now people might think you have all the time in the world. That may be one of the reasons you started down this path, and if it is, great! Even if it’s not, make a list of the kinds of activities you think you’d enjoy and stick to your guns,” she urges. Don’t let people pull you into unwanted obligations just because they think you’re available.

Find new peers. Robinson says the biggest challenge is answering the question, “So, what do you do?” and having pangs for the status your old job conveyed—or feeling you need to defend your choice to people who are envious or surprised. “Even if you network with your former colleagues or friends who support your decision, you may find that they can only meet on nights or weekends, leaving your daytimes without the contact you crave. You will need to build a new tribe of people who are fellow part-timers or business owners, so that you have someone who’ll go for a walk, brainstorm strategy, or grab a cup of coffee with you at 10 a.m., helping you stay motivated and connected,” she says.

If you start to second-guess your decision, remind yourself why you did this. “Back when you were in a full-time role, you didn’t have options. You couldn’t go to yoga at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning; you may have missed out on classes you wanted to take that conflicted with work; you may have been paying for your home and family but not gotten the flexibility to see either during daylight hours,” she says. “Think about how much richer you’ve made your life now that you get to spend more time with people you love. Your new balancing act becomes how to blend both personal and work interests, staying engaged on both fronts.” 

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If you’re really struggling with your identity, she says, take stock: “What’s in this very moment that you’re happy about? What are you happy to have left behind? What are you looking forward to? Even better: Find someone else who’s escaped the full-time grind and go out at 2 p.m., when movie theaters are empty and you can pick whatever seat you want.”

Photo Credit: Paul Bradbury/Getty