Who Are You at Work? Finding Your Identity

If you’re still playing the "good girl," "best friend," or office crisis manager, it’s probably time to get unstuck so you can start moving forward.

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Identity Crisis: Breaking Out of Stale Roles

Get fit. Get organized. Get a better job. Sound familiar? Along with "Be a better person," "Get out of a rut at work" is one of those resolutions that has a way of showing up year after year on midlifers’ New Year’s lists.

Before you tune up your resume to switch companies or even fields, ask yourself, "If I move to a new place, will I simply run into the same old me?" Jobs come and go, but our work styles and habits — even admirable ones — have a way of sticking with us and getting us stuck.

One of the best ways to diagnose the problem is to look back to the traits you developed in girlhood. Personally, I have a lot to choose from, starting with my can-do reflex and terrier-grip persistence. But the childhood quality that put me in the corner office was my compulsion to feel responsible for everybody and everything. On the plus side, I ended up in jobs with lots of authority. But I also dug my own ditch of workplace anxiety: sleepless nights, tossing and resenting. ("Why is it always on me?") It wasn’t until I delegated some power to my staff that I was able to shift from worrier-in-chief to partner.

A workplace persona — and the frustrations built into it — can take many forms. Do you find yourself continually cast as the office mom, thanks to your nurturing, team-building talent? Are you relegated to life as the detail diva because you’re so good with numbers, even though you crave a leadership role?

However eager you are to move on, it can be surprisingly difficult to break out of such roles. Often, there are hidden dividends: We’re comfortable. Colleagues like us this way. We may secretly enjoy being everyone’s favorite office historian or go-to rescue artist. And we may reap more tangible rewards: pay, perks, title. But being pegged can stall us, bore us, and deplete our self-respect.

It may seem simplest just to abandon ship, and sometimes that’s the best approach. But you don’t want to give up hard-won knowledge and contacts. Meet some women who had the courage to look in the mirror and get out of their ruts while preserving what they value.

Let Go of Your Fears

Margaret A. Gomez had struggled with her shyness for years. Even as she made her way up in her field, human resources, she knew that her behavior often sabotaged her aspirations. Working at one advertising firm for 12 years, she rose from executive assistant to vice president and director of human resources. But, like many successful people, she often feared that she would be "found out," that she wasn’t really executive material, and wouldn’t advance further. Although she tried to change her style, she says, it was hard: "It’s like being in a family that knows you in a certain way."

Her moment of truth came some years ago at a business function, when she ran into a senior executive she had once worked with. "He’d always had a very strong presence," Gomez says. She found herself acting subserviently around him, even though he wasn’t her boss anymore. Determined to change her patterns, Gomez began to take action. She carefully observed people around her to see how they presented themselves. She took communications courses and received the certification she needed to move up in her field.

As she found new ways to operate, Gomez noticed that changes were percolating. "It was like little time-release capsules going off inside me," she says. One of her best tactics: When she met someone new, she would remind herself, "They don’t know I’m an introvert. I’m free to create who I need to be to get the job done."

Gomez held several jobs in corporate human resources, but found the most satisfaction in using those skills to run her own coaching and recruiting business. Lately, the fears that once dominated her, Gomez says, have dissolved into a sort of white noise in the background. She feels more relaxed and has seen herself shine. "I walk right to the edge of my fear," Gomez says. And she encourages other people to do the same. She recently gave a speech titled "Unleash Your Inner Tycoon."

Changing Yourself & Seeking Support

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