We often ask it without thinking when we meet new people: “What do you do?” For those of us who are driven toward professional success, we answer with great enthusiasm. In many ways, our jobs are a huge part of our identities. This tends to be particularly true for people interested in self-improvement.
There’s nothing wrong with identifying strongly with your profession and being proud of your work. Professional excellence is a great virtue. But there’s a danger lurking here. It is all too easy to lose your true self to a representation of yourself that is your job title or duties. You aren’t Mary or John; you are Mary, regional manager, or John, senior teacher. This is what is called self‐objectification.
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Objectification of other people is obviously problematic. It’s damaging when people are reduced by others to, for example, physical attributes through objectifying stares or harassment. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that when a person becomes “an Object of appetite for another,” then “all motives of moral relationship cease to function.”
Physical objectification is just one type. Objectification at work is another, and a dangerous one. In 2021, researchers measured workplace objectification. They found that it led to burnout, unhappiness with one’s job, and depression. This can happen if a boss treats her employees like nothing more than disposable labor, or even if employees see their boss as nothing more than a provider of money.
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It’s pretty easy to see why we shouldn’t objectify others. Less obvious but equally troubling is when the objectifier and the person being objectified are one and the same—when you objectify yourself. Humans are capable of objectifying themselves in many ways—by assessing their self-worth in terms of their physical appearance, economic position, or political views, for example—but all of them boil down to one damaging core act: reducing your own humanity to a single characteristic, thus encouraging others to do so as well. In the case of work, that might mean deciding on your own self-worth based on your pay or prestige.
Just as social media encourages us to self-objectify physically, our work culture pushes us to self-objectify professionally. Americans tend to admire people who are busy and ambitious, so letting work take over virtually every moment of your life is easy. We know many people who talk of almost nothing besides their work, who are saying, essentially, “I am my job.” This may feel more humanizing and empowering than saying, “I am my boss’s tool,” but that reasoning has a fatal flaw: in theory, you can ditch your boss and get a new job. You can’t ditch you.
Self-objectification at work is a tyranny. We become a terrible boss to ourselves, with little mercy or love. Days off provoke guilt and a sense of laziness, which is a way we condemn and belittle ourselves. To the question “Am I successful enough yet?” the answer is always “No—work harder!” And then, when the end inevitably comes, when professional decline sets in or we have a setback to our careers, we are left bereft and desiccated.
If you are a self-objectifier in your job or career, recognize that you will never be satisfied as long as you perpetuate this behavior. Your work should be an extension of you, not vice versa. Two practices can help as you reassess your priorities.
First, put some space between your job and your life. Maybe you have been in an unhealthy relationship in your past but only recognized this when you had a break from it, whether voluntary or involuntary. Space provides perspective.
Use this principle in your professional life. To begin with, the main goal of any vacation you take should be to get a break from work and spend time with people you love. As obvious as this may sound, that means taking your vacation, and not working during it at all. Related to this is the ancient idea of Sabbath-keeping, or taking regular time away from work each week. In religious traditions, rest isn’t just nice to have; it is central to understanding God and ourselves. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day,” the book of Exodus says. “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” If God rests from work, maybe you should, too. But such a practice doesn’t have to be religious, and it can be done in a lot of ways besides simply avoiding all work on Saturday or Sunday. For example, you can take a small Sabbath each evening by avoiding work and dedicating all your activity to relationships and leisure. (That means no checking your work email.)
Next, make some friends who don’t see you as a professional object. Many professional self-objectifiers seek out others who admire them solely for their work accomplishments. This is quite natural, but it can easily become a barrier to the formation of real friendships, which we all need. By self-objectifying in your friendships, you can make it easier for your friends to objectify you.
This is why having friends outside your professional circles is so important. Forging relationships with people who don’t have any connection to your professional life encourages you to develop non-work interests and virtues, and thus be a fuller person. The way to do this goes hand in hand with recommendation number one: don’t just spend time away from work—spend it with people who have no connection to your industry. And if your job is taking care of your family, this principle still applies. You need to have relationships with people who see you as more than a provider and caretaker.
Maybe challenging your self-objectification makes you feel uneasy. The reason is simple: we all want to stand out in some way, and working harder than others and being better at our jobs seems a straightforward way to do so. This is a normal human drive, but it can nonetheless lead to destructive ends. Many successful people confess that they would rather be special than happy.
The great irony is that by trying to be special, we end up reducing ourselves to a single quality and turning ourselves into cogs in a machine of our own making. In the famous Greek myth, Narcissus fell in love not with himself, but with the image of himself. And so it is when we professionally self-objectify: we learn to love the image of our successful selves, not ourselves as we truly are in life.
Don’t make this mistake. You are not your job. Take your eyes off the distorted reflection, and have the courage to experience your full life and true self.
From Build the Life You Want by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by ACB Ideas LLC and Harpo, Inc.
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