“So what do you do?”

For someone who doesn’t like small talk, these words feel like a knife in the ribs. The ‘job small talk’ isn’t just a nuisance for those who get frustrated about having to give a snappy description of their job, while trying not to bore everyone. There’s something more pernicious about the world of work that can affect anyone, and that’s when you let your job define your self-worth.

We let our jobs define so much of who we are, and how much we value ourselves. As a result, when we tell people what we do, there may be an underlying feeling of shame, embarrassment, inferiority or failure. How to avoid this?

Not being defined by a role

There’s no shortage of reasons that someone can come up with that will justify why their job devalues them as a person. Maybe you’re a graduate doing a job that doesn’t require a degree, or a job not relevant to your degree, or an uncreative and uninteresting job, or a pointless job, or a corporate job, or a dead-end, low-paying, low-skill job (a McJob). You may view yourself as a mindless drone clicking and typing away without achieving anything of value.

Girl thinking

A pervasive problem is letting job dissatisfaction or social attitudes turn into ugly self-judgment. It’s the elephant in the room in social situations where a group of people are reeling off their job title, responsibilities and company they work for. Someone the same age as you says that they’re an author, about to publish their second book. And suddenly you feel you haven’t achieved anything that’s worth talking about.

The issue here is not so much that you’re not where you want to be in terms of your career, and that someone else’s career points this out to you; it’s that you’re letting a role determine whether you think of yourself as worth knowing, likeable, interesting, compassionate, creative etc. Bear in mind that someone can write and publish a book and still be an absolute nightmare socially.

You aren’t at fault for letting a job define who you are. In a highly competitive society, we all get entangled in the game of pursuing self-validation through our job. This may explain why competitive countries, such as the US, have such a high incidence of mental health issues.

Indeed, low self-esteem or self-worth can lead to, or be a symptom of, a mental health problem. It is crucial, then, to develop a sense of self-worth that does not depend on your career in order to avoid adverse effects on your wellbeing.

Developing a stable sense of self-worth

A stable sense of self-worth is essential to living with peace of mind, resilience and general wellbeing. If your job becomes too tightly tied up with your self-worth, then how much you value yourself becomes unstable, since if you end up doing something completely different or even losing your job, then it’s as if you lose a part of yourself.

This is especially true with unemployment. Being unemployed is a mental health risk, not just because it can involve a lack of routine, fewer responsibilities and increased isolation, but also because we so strongly depend on having a job to make ourselves feel valuable.

Being unemployed can be tough. However, whether it’s the job you have or the job you don’t, these labels don’t have to define you. You can always believe that you are capable of using your talents and achieving, of making positive contributions in society and deserving to be fulfilled in life.

In terms of building up and maintaining a stable sense of self-worth, it’s important to understand how you view yourself. If you have a voice in your head which constantly puts you down, there are ways to silence that inner critic.

If you’re being harsh towards yourself, then don’t shy away from cultivating self-love. Sounds like airy-fairy rubbish? Self-love doesn’t mean over-indulging yourself with exaggerated positive affirmations. It involves treating yourself compassionately, as you would a friend or loved one.

It’s also important to analyse yourself as objectively as you can. Take note of your actual strengths, experiences, talents and what makes you feel fulfilled. This will help you to see how you underestimate yourself. And, as much as you can, take a detached view of those voices from other people (e.g. teachers, parents, friends, spouses, the media) who comment on what you should do, such as what career path is best for you.

Above all, don’t be afraid to stand up for your own preferences and live the kind of life you want to live.

Sam Woolfe writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching career starters with graduate jobs. For everything from marketing internships to graduate jobs Manchester, click here.

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