Taking things personally at work is a common issue that many professionals face. While being passionate about your job and feeling a deep sense of responsibility can be positive traits, it's also easy for your work performance to become too intertwined with your self-worth. This can lead to unnecessary stress, anxiety, and even burnout over time.
Today we will explore how to approach work situations with greater objectivity, clarity and emotional balance. Learning to separate your self-identity from your professional role is an important skill that allows you to navigate your career with less suffering and more sustainability.
First, we will provide an overview of why people tend to take work so personally and the downsides of this tendency. Next, we will outline five recommended techniques to stop equating your value as a person with your job performance. For each strategy, we will expound on the advice and provide tangible examples of how it can be applied in real work settings.
Implementing even a few of these tactics can help you engage in your professional role with more level-headedness, resilience and proper perspective. With less of your self-esteem on the line in every project or interaction, you will be freed up to accomplish great things and advocate for yourself at work from a grounded place.
Why We Take Things So Personally at Work
There are many reasons why it's common for people to closely associate their self-worth with their careers. For starters, we spend a huge portion of our lives at work. The average American works close to 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week. With that much time immersed in our professional responsibilities, our job becomes ingrained as a core part of our identity.
Additionally, performance reviews, promotions, raises and bonuses provide concrete validation of our skills and capabilities. We yearn for positive feedback from managers and recognition for jobs well done. High performers often tie their sense of achievement closely to exceeding expectations and outperforming peers.
However, this excessive personalization comes at a cost. When every mistake feels like failure and each constructive criticism wounds our ego, it takes a heavy psychological toll. Defensiveness, anxiety, resentment and sadness accumulate when our self-esteem relies too heavily on external measures of success at work.
This chronic stress leads to burnout and emotional exhaustion over time. Meanwhile, companies suffer from lower creativity, innovation and collaboration when employees are mired in constant self-judgment rather than focused on shared organizational goals.
Fortunately, with intention and practice, there are ways to gain more separation between your personal value and your professional endeavors.
How to Stop Taking Work So Personally
1. Adopt a Growth Mindset
The first technique is to cultivate a "growth mindset" about your abilities. People with fixed mindsets believe talents and intelligence cannot be improved -- you either have them or you don't. Conversely, a growth mindset recognizes that even our deeply ingrained traits and capabilities can be developed incrementally over time through effort.
With a fixed mindset, we harshly criticize each failure as a personal shortcoming. With a growth mindset, we are resilient in the face of challenges, viewing them as opportunities for growth. Setbacks become constructive feedback to learn from rather than data points about your self-worth.
For example, let's say you gave an important presentation at work that did not go as well as hoped. Your manager provided feedback that your delivery seemed under-rehearsed and your slides were text-heavy. With a fixed mindset, you would berate yourself: "I'm such a bad public speaker, I'm doomed to fail." With a growth mindset, you tell yourself: "I have room to improve my presentation skills and just need to put in more preparation time."
2. Separate Your Emotions from Your Actions
Another powerful technique is to build the skill of separating your emotions from your actions. Human beings are wired to closely tie feelings to behavior. But this instinct can be overridden with conscious practice.
Start to notice when criticism or failure triggers difficult emotions like anger, anxiety, defensiveness or dejection. Then, make an intentional choice to pause before reacting. Say to yourself "I am feeling x emotion, but I do not need to act from that place." This creates space to choose more constructive responses aligned with your goals.
With our presentation example, when your manager critiques your performance you may initially feel embarrassed and inadequate. By consciously acknowledging "I feel hurt, but I will not lash out defensively," you can instead reply with "Thank you for the feedback, I will focus on improving my public speaking skills for next time." Your emotions are valid, but your reaction remains professional.
3. Reframe Personalization as Commitment
Also consider reframing the tendency to personalize work as a reflection of commitment, passion or investment as opposed to a sense of self-worth. The goal is not to be detached from your job, but to shape personalization into a healthy form.
Ask yourself, "Is my dedication to high performance coming from care and concern versus fear and self-judgment?" For instance, you may desperately want a project to succeed because you know it will help the company and set your team up for future wins. This form of personal investment is positive. However, if you are only worried about looking competent to earn a promotion, your motivation is less productive.
4. Strengthen Your Sense of Self-Worth
Expanding your identity outside of work is also tremendously helpful to gain perspective. Strengthening community ties and nurturing personal passions bolsters your self-confidence from non-work sources.
Make time for hobbies that have nothing to do with your job. Set meaningful goals in other areas like physical fitness, travel or learning a new skill. Cultivate relationships with people who know you in other contexts besides professional. This diversifies your sense of purpose beyond career achievements.
5. Practice Mindfulness
Finally, mindfulness meditation helps separate fleeting emotions from your core identity. By repeatedly bringing your focus to the present moment in a non-judgmental way, you train your mind to observe feelings without attaching excessive meaning to them.
This builds the "observer self" that can watch your perfectionistic inner critic fuel performance anxiety without identifying with its narrative. Mindfulness has been proven to reduce reactivity, lower stress and boost emotional intelligence - all crucial capacities to navigate work with less personalization.
Taking things too personally at work is common, stemming from desires for achievement and external validation. But self-worth that rests too heavily on professional success comes at a detrimental psychological cost over time. Fortunately, strategies like adopting a growth mindset, separating emotions from actions, broadening your identity outside of work, and practicing mindfulness can help.
Implementing even a few of these techniques promises greater clarity, resilience and fulfillment in your career journey. You will be empowered to show up as your best self at work knowing your inner light is not on the line with every project outcome or manager appraisal. While caring deeply about your contributions, you will have the wisdom to let go of self-judgments that do not serve you or your organization. Your industry knowledge, skills and collaborative spirit will be free to shine bright.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.