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unwinding the work-identity spool

Almost 2 years ago I left a more traditional, full-time, salaried role in the social work field. The pandemic and benefits of remote work factored into my decision to leave, but I had also started to reflect on how my identity was wrapped up in my work and the amount of time I spent fixated on productivity (shout out to the amazing book, How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell). It felt like a quick unraveling as I had been rooting more into anti-racist and equity learning and work around that time too. It forced me to confront a difficult truth: just because my work/identity was in the social work field, that didn't exempt me from the deeply ingrained cultural messaging about striving and "playing the game" to advance my own material interests. This was also layered with my growing understanding that social work as a field emerged as a field to only mitigate the harshest effects of capitalist society and not as a rallying or reckoning point to dismantle it.

Leaving the superstructure of my public sector role created space for me to both continue exploring the systemic thinking and how I wanted to shape an identity that wasn't overly embedded in work - all while still living "on the grid" and necessarily seeking out and engaging in income-generating activities. Deciding to work for myself, both as a contractor and in my own private practice, certainly didn't remove me from the social work field and all the forces mentioned above, but it gave me more agency. I had to decide for myself how, when, where, and for how much I would sell my labor. I had to come to my own understanding of what constituted enough.

As with most things in life, understanding my relationship to 'enough' has proven to be and unending and non-linear journey. When I first started making preparations to leave my full-time role, I understandably obsessed over the material aspect of enough. Constantly crunching numbers and tinkering with my contract availability with a simmering fear that I wouldn't be able to pay my bills. Thankfully, that time never came, though my income did decrease (and increase and decrease again and evened out and on and on and on). Riding those waves forced me to confront the scarcity messaging capitalism instills in us all, especially when it comes to thinking about the future. Earn more, spend more, hoard more. What you have now is not enough, what you have now will not support you then. Circumstances change, of course, shit happens, of course, but I started to see more and more how I was living for and thinking about then instead of now.

Being in the then, it turns out, had become another major part of my identity and personality, not just professionally but personally too. I have always prided myself on being a planner, being organized, and forecasting my future steps as they aligned with the traditional (white supremacist capitalist) ladder (or I prefer the productivity-death escalator). Cliché warning, but as I started to recognize that distortion rearing up, I felt more able to come back to now, and all that I have, now, which is actually pretty fucking beautiful and abundant. I still get into that distortion and ride away into terror about money and lack sometimes, but it's less now. And that part of my identity is sloughing off in bits and pieces. I'm kind of a mess now by my old standards. I'm less organized. My vision for the future is much shorter. But I'm calmer. My stomach is no longer in near-constant discomfort. I walk more. And I'm in a near-constant state of gratitude for the minutiae of my days.

The 'enough' of intellectual and emotional fulfillment has been an interesting parallel process. I chose the social work field and getting into the mental health/supportive/care work space because I felt it was closely aligned to my values for compassion and justice. I still feel that alignment, but what I have noticed in myself, and in the clients I partner with, is that so much of the hardship and emotional suffering people bring to coaching is caused by the (1) external and harsh conditions wrought by capitalism (mainly the exorbitant cost of living compared with stagnant wages and the razor thin margins that dynamic creates for the average person, but there are so many others!) and (2) the internalized pressures of productivity as worth and all of the false binaries and ever-growing dread that a scarcity-based economic model yield. If in my work, I am helping people cope and navigate these areas, am I just further enabling capitalism's reign? Or am I helping people get loose from the constant narratives of urgency and lack that are driving their anxiety and depression? Neither? Both? I think it's probably both, maybe, hopefully. Which brings its own shift for my identity and how I think of myself as a helping professional and the field as a whole.

My grip is releasing on this work as an identity. It's what I do, not who I am. I do many things, social work/coaching being one. I am humbled and eager to get the opportunity to speak with people about their lives and I aim to be supportive and helpful in thinking about their path forward, but I don't forget that we also have collective power to challenge this way of life. My identity feels more grounded in that idea: in being an imaginer of different ways of thinking, doing, and being, and cultivating that in the present. If I can be of service to others in their imaginings, and we can both be well and move in those hopeful directions, that sounds like a fairly lovely way to spend time.

If you made it all the way to the end, thank you! This thinking has been maddening and joyful to tease out. Next week I'll be back with a bit about how supporting myself and others in their imaginings can sound/feel and how I think about the dreaded thin line with toxic positivity in this work.

I'd love to hear from others about how you are exploring identity or authentic self outside of a work or capitalist framing. Take care!

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