Psychologists use the term “enmeshment” to describe the situation when boundaries between people become blurred and individual identities become unimportant, eroding one’s sense of self.
Many vets I counsel have become enmeshed not with their partners but rather with their careers. “What am I if not a vet?”
You know how it is. You’re introduced as “X the vet”. It’s an immediate ice-breaker. We’re so easy to talk to because we’re full of stories about the most unusual type of animal we’ve ever treated, and so on.
A particular confluence of high achievement, intense competitiveness and culture of overwork has caught many in a perfect storm of career enmeshment and burnout. Over the years, we’ve found that these issues interact in such complex ways with people’s identity, personality and emotions that it often requires full-on psychological therapy to address them successfully.
A culture where staying behind after work for hours late into the night is considered the norm, and leaving on time is a bit weird, doesn’t help us to have a life outside of work where we can exercise our non-vet identity.
Maybe our job is all that we see of value in ourselves. This belief is further cemented by our families who are so proud we graduated as vets and by strangers at dinner parties who are in awe of how interesting our jobs are. However, constructing one’s identity around a career is a risky move although it may feel very comfortable for very many years.
What if you get the sack? Especially from a big corporation making it especially difficult to get another post. What if you become disabled or unable to continue your specialisation due to physical problems? What if you need to move geographically and you’re middle aged? Who wants a middle-aged vet when we can have such good new grads?
No matter how it happens, becoming disconnected from a career that forms the foundation of your identity can lead to bigger issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance use and loneliness.
So how do you know if your identity has become enmeshed with your career? Ask yourself how often do you think about work when you’re not at work? How do you describe yourself on Tinder? How long after you’ve just met someone do they know what you do for a living? Where do you spend most of your time?
If you are concerned that you are unhealthily enmeshed with being a vet, maybe try to extend yourself out of that enmeshment, although it takes some bravery.
You don’t need to run a marathon to get exercise. Maybe just walk and run more without having to achieve anything. We’ve been high achievers ever since the 11+ exams. Give it a rest. Running and walking mindfully vastly increases their benefits.
It has been shown that the optimum number of close friends associated with good mental health was three to five (Dunbar, 1992). Reaching out to three to five friends who are not vets can help us to become a bit less enmeshed with the job.
We all know the narcissists out there who crave attention and reaffirmation, who are out canvassing for popularity six nights a week desperate for the masses to adore them and boost their sense of self. The people who send a party invite to 110 of their closest friends on WhatsApp so each of their friends can see how many friends they have. This is a concerning sign of poor mental health.
So, reconnect for sure. But again, like not running a marathon, we don’t have to build up an impressive portfolio of friends in a competitive fashion just to clock up the numbers.
Look beyond your job title
Consider reframing your relationship to your career not simply in terms of your company or title, but in terms of your skills that could be used across different contexts. For example, many psychotherapists who burn out on seeing clients find that their skills translate well to human resources management or guidance counselling.
While identifying closely with your career isn’t necessarily bad, it makes you vulnerable to a painful identity crisis if you burn out, get laid off or retire. Individuals in these situations frequently suffer anxiety, depression and despair. By claiming back some time for yourself and diversifying your activities and relationships, you can build a more balanced and robust identity in line with your values.