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How Not to Be Your Job

written by Sherif Arafa April 20, 2016

Sherif Arafa is an editorial cartoonist, self-development author, public speaker, and dentist by degree. Arafa holds an MBA in Human Resources and an MS Degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of East London. He left dentristry to focus on using his books and cartoons to augment well-being awareness, foster open-mindedness, increase tolerance, and oppose extremism. LinkedIn profile. Sherif's articles on PositivePsychologyNews are here.

Sigmund Freud once wrote, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” The implied balance is not easy to maintain, as many people suffer imbalance between social life and work. Work has become our default case, while any other activity can be practiced during increasingly scarce leisure time. Preoccupation with work alone may result in burnout and dissatisfaction with life in the long run, let alone isolation and poor social relationships. What would be the benefit of earning money and succeeding at work only to lead a lonely life?

Researchers point out that work really helps us achieve happiness, but only when we have a real life outside work.

So, what is the genuine reason behind our inability to maintain balance between work and life?

Sometimes it can be financial difficulties or inability to manage time, but let us address the issue from a different angle that suggests solutions from a psychological perspective.

Who are you?

Every person plays several social roles. So you, for instance, may be a child, a friend, a lover, an employee, a neighbor, and a client. You may also be a father, a manager, a student, and an athlete at one and the same time. Each of these roles requires a specific way of thinking and dealing with others. Hence the way a television anchor reads the news is different from the way he speaks to his wife. None of us deals with our children in the way we deal with our friends. Nor do we deal with strangers the same way we deal with work colleagues.

But what does this have to do with the topic in hand?

Scientists maintain that some people deem that they only have one primary role to play and hence spend most of their time and effort to achieve success in that single direction. Sometimes the need to see themselves as successful employees takes so much energy that they allow the rest of their personalities to dwindle.

People can suffer an internal conflict between the desire to play an important role and the desire to play other roles that they may see as contradictory or less important. For example, people may see themselves more as a “senior manager” than as “loving spouses” who make their partners feel happy with them, or as “distinguished parents” who make their children enjoy their company, or as “dutiful children” who keep caring for their parents!

Such people may suffer internal disharmony when they spend a long time at home, since this forces them to keep playing a role they are unaccustomed to play or that does not form their own identity.

Well, how to overcome such a problem?

Dear reader, let’s think together: What would happen if you are disconnected from your job or studies right now? Who would you be then, and how would you spend your time? How would you see your roles in life beyond the context of work/study, and who are the important people to you?

“You are not your job” ~ Chuck Palahniuk

Here, scientists recommend several things that can be summarized as follows:

  1. Avoid isolation and maintain a social life beyond your work environment: Stephen Covey says that when people on their deathbeds recall sweet memories of their lives, they would not remember a successful meeting, a good deal, or a promotion they got at work. Rather, they would remember sweet moments they spent with their lovers or their friends or playing with their children. So consider how much time you spend making such memories.

    Do not make your life bound by the walls of the company where you work. Do different things, visit new places, and change your habits to get out of the circle of repetition.

  2. Exert more effort to keep playing different social roles:
    Make a personal commitment to invest enough time and effort to play each social role well. Do you really seek to be a good grandchild? A dutiful child? A loyal friend? An ideal lover? A nice neighbor? Have you forgotten that you play all these roles? Perhaps you want to bring some of them back within the focus of your attention.

    At first, this may not come automatically. It can require effort and commitment to remember to practice to get used to it.

  3. Reduce inter-role conflict: Think about the social roles in your life and view them all as diverse roles that enrich human experience, not as conflicting roles that stand between you and your objective. Enjoy practicing every role and perceive the extent of its importance and the necessary psychological needs they satisfy in you.

    Write down these roles. Then write how you imagine yourself practicing each role in the best possible manner.

  4. Administrative measures: If you are a business owner, researchers recommend that you develop policies that help employees maintain life-work balance to increase job satisfaction and productivity. Such policies include the following,
    • Conventional measures, such as encouraging employees to take all their vacations and facilitating sick and childbirth leave.
    • Unconventional measures, such as flexible work hours, job redesign, provision of childcare and elder care services, stress reduction training programs, allowing work from home in case there is no need for employer’s presence at office (for what matters is achievement of work and not locking up the employer at office!).

The Robert de Niro-starring movie, The Intern addresses the life-work imbalance problem, reaching a direct conclusion that you need to commit to the job to the last breath even making your family a lower priority, and that your family should agree to that for the purpose of maintaining your personal happiness.

However, it seems that psychologists and management scholars have a different opinion!



Amdam, G. V. (2011). Social context, stress, and plasticity of aging. Aging Cell 10(1): 18-27.

Bloom, N., Kretschmer, T., & Van Reenan, J. (2009). Work-life balance, management practices and productivity. In R. B. Freeman & K. Shaw, International Differences in the Business Practices and Productivity of Firms (National Bureau of Economic Research Conference Report) (pp. 15-54). University of Chicago Press.

Greenhaus, J. H., & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of Management Review, 10(1), 76-88. Abstract.

Greenhaus, J. H., Collins, K. M., & Shaw, J. D. (2003). The relation between work–family balance and quality of life. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 63(3), 510-531. Abstract.

Guest, D. E. (2002). Perspectives on the study of work-life balance. Social Science Information 41(2): 255-279. Abstract.

Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. F. (2001). Social ties and mental health. Journal of Urban Health, 78(3), 458-467.

Sirgy, M. J., & Lee, D. J. (2015). Work-Life balance: A quality-of-life model. Applied Research in Quality of Life,, 1-24. Abstract.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Balance courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt, Hiking.org
Time to play with others courtesy of Poughkeepsie Day School
Walk by the water courtesy of mikecogh
Home office courtesy of Nicholas Erwin

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Judy Krings April 20, 2016 - 3:23 pm

The concepts of “wholeness, contexts of commitment and self-compassion” popped up for me. So did re-framing and vulnerability, to allow yourself to BE in more than one human scenario. The more YOU are YOU and accepting of your diverse reality, the more you can feel lone with yourself. This sentence resonated with me the most: “Think about the social roles in your life and view them all as diverse roles that enrich human experience, not as conflicting roles that stand between you and your objective.” Many thanks for reflection. Thanks!

Jade May 20, 2016 - 7:58 pm

I find with enough time and distance you forget anyway and forgiving is unnecessary. Thinking about my own life, there have been a few who were extremely toxic to my wellbeing, and I would certainly never forgive them as forgiving would feel very much like condoning their actions. However, my every thought is not occupied by these people nor am I consumed by negativity over them. It does not disturb my life in any way – I can compartmentalise like that. In fact my lack of forgiveness towards these people in my past takes nothing away from me at all, because with enough time and distance their significance fades away. I can live with not forgiving these people; it’s filed away somewhere in the back of my mind that they don’t deserve forgiveness and won’t be getting it, and the thought of that is actually very emotionally satisfying. No, I am not tortured by my lack of forgiveness at all.

Bren Murphy July 13, 2016 - 6:33 pm

Good one Sherif,
I meet people who lose themselves in their job title everyday and it takes some letting go and releasing to unpack the glue that keeps someone identifying as a role instead of a unique personality. Finding healthy and meaningful connections outside of your work setting is a great starting place. As is referring to yourself not by your job title outside of work hours!!


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