Work Is Life: A Psychologist Looks at Identity and Work in America

Work Is Life: A Psychologist Looks at Identity and Work in America

by Ilene Philipson
In a discussion of the growing problem of work-life balance in American culture, Dr. Philipson shares the stories of clients whose overidentification with work ended in disaster.


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“Sure, I love my family, but nothing will ever take the place of my job!”

This was our first meeting and "Patti" was sitting in my psychotherapy office explaining to me that her life was over. She felt her boss had betrayed her; she had left work on disability; she no longer had an identity.

I wasn't surprised. Over the course of the past seven years I have met with dozens of women and men who seek out psychotherapy after feeling betrayed at the workplace. For them, work isn't what they do for money; nor is it an important part of their lives which provides them with a sense of purpose. Work is their life. And when it ends, they are devastated, feeling as though they are aliens or exiles from a society that increasingly values commitment to and identification with work over all else.

The new work order—spearheaded by the high-tech companies of Silicon Valley—is creating total company cultures that offer engagement, a shared sense of purpose, exhilaration, and interpersonal connection that is increasingly absent in people's families and communities outside the workplace. As divorce, geographic mobility, social fragmentation and the decline of neighborhood, community and civic participation grow, more and more of us are turning to the workplace for the satisfaction of needs formerly filled by family, friends and neighbors.

We Are Family

This trend is hard to resist. As workplaces become campuses offering gyms, free food, parties, sports leagues, chess clubs, and massage therapy, it is not surprising that more of us like spending long hours at work. In the absence of countervailing institutions that sustain and protect us, or that provide a vision of how life should be led and for what purpose, corporations offer a sense of belonging and personal identity. Company logos and slogans that surround employees and pervade our culture often are all people can identity with, claim as their own. Supervisors become parental figures to dote on and please; coworkers become one's community, and the corporation feeds our unmet longings with countless exhortations that "We Are A Team!"; "We're Number One!"; "We Are Fam-i-ly!"

The catch in all of this, of course, is that the people who control "the family" can lay us off, change our jobs, fire our supervisors, or make things so unpleasant that "divorce" feels preferable to the ongoing emotional abuse we often feel at our workplaces. And if we invest all of our energies, time and emotional needs in our jobs, there is often little to fall back on when work ends.

"Patti" knows this all too well. As a 39-year-old black mother of two who lives with her boyfriend, a high school math teacher, Patti spent much of her early life on welfare. But in spite of her modest beginnings, she has been able to complete college, buy a home, and work as a bookkeeper in a growing biotechnology firm. This position has been her favorite. The company emphasizes "team spirit," and her boss, a vice president, repeatedly talks about the company being "one big family."
The company's unofficial anthem is “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, a song that is played at company picnics and parties.
The company's unofficial anthem is “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, a song that is played at company picnics and parties.

Patti's boss, Bill, always struck her as an extremely ethical, fair-minded man whom she often turned to for advice about problems at work. Although she did not believe Bill favored her, she did think he respected her and always was extremely laudatory in his evaluations of her work. Because she admired Bill and trusted his judgment so completely, Patti made him the executor of her will. "He sort of reminded me of Marcus Welby. When he was around, you knew things were gonna be okay."

After three years working at this company, a new computer system to handle accounts receivable and accounts payable was introduced. Patti found the new system difficult to work with and believed it was much worse than the previous system. She voiced her concerns to Bill and was surprised that rather than welcoming the feedback, he seemed annoyed. Gradually her boss's calm, benevolent mien changed. He became more critical and sharp. As Bill's impatience with Patti grew, her ability to work with the new computer system floundered. She often stayed after work trying to make up for how long it took her to process accounts on the new system during working hours. She increasingly got headaches and began seeing her doctor for what was later diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. When Bill asked her for a report she had not completed, she states that she felt herself "sinking. It was like my identity was being taken away. I could tell he thought I was a fuck-up."

Finally, Bill came into Patti's office one day clutching a handful of her billing statements, his face red with rage. "Are you the person for this job? Are you the person for this job?" she reports his shouting at her. He threw the papers at her and stormed out the door.
“That was it; I knew that was it. It was over.”
“That was it; I knew that was it. It was over.” Patti has some amnesia for what happened next, but is able to recount that she found herself at a hospital emergency room that evening complaining of numbness and tingling in her arm.

Patti's doctor immediately took her off work and referred her to me for psychological assessment. When I met with her, Patti was clinically depressed, with slow mentation, dulled to the activity around her. "I have no identity. My work was everything and I blew it. It's over." During the next few months, Patti grew distant from both her boyfriend and children. Although she repeatedly acknowledged that her family was worried about her and she felt some guilt in connection to this, she insisted her "other family, my work family is gone." Bill had been her main conduit to that "other family," and his unhappiness with her seemed to sever the tie that bound her to the larger community of the company family. Patti recounted that her anxiety about learning the new computer system had been fueled by her belief that if she were unable to master it, her employment with the company would end. "And that would be it. No more having a reason to get up in the morning." Curiously in this equation Patti's children, boyfriend, or recent purchase of a home did not seem to beckon her out of bed.

“They Made Me What I Am!”

On the surface, my new patient, "Lionel," appears quite different from Patti. A tall, lean man of Irish descent with a wife of 20 years, a step-son and a home in the suburbs, Lionel has worked for one of the oldest Silicon Valley corporations for 27 years. His is a true American success story: rising from mailroom worker to manager in marketing, Lionel has ridden the wave of the high tech revolution. Because he has never worked for any other employer, his emotional dependence on his job transcends any feeling he has had for another person. "They made me what I am. Without their faith in me I'd probably still be working minimum wage.

I love my wife, but I owe my company everything.
I love my wife, but I owe my company everything."

At his workplace, every employee, including the CEO, occupies a certain level on a scale of 1 to 100. Within each level, an employee is ranked on a 1-to-5 scale according to job performance. Lionel became obsessed with levels and rankings. He was a "59"; his supervisor was a "63," and Lionel hadn't seen any advancement in three years. Therefore he continually ruminated about how to advance his career "to leave the fifties." When a new job within another division became available, Lionel applied. Although he admits he wasn't truly qualified for the job, he pressured the division that was hiring to give him the position. "It was my ticket. I'd automatically be a 63."

Once in his new job, Lionel was overwhelmed. He didn't understand the operating system and was too afraid to ask questions, fearing that those who had hired him would immediately see him as what he thought himself to be, a fraud. He struggled, developed chronic neck and shoulder pain, and found himself increasingly irritable with his family. For the first time in his life he exhibited "road rage" as he sat in his car, commuting two hours each way to the corporation that "made him who he was." Three months into his agony, Lionel was sitting in a team meeting with his new supervisor, a man 15 years his junior with an MBA from a prestigious business school. The supervisor stared at Lionel for what seemed to be an eternity and then, according to Lionel, asked him for a report in a voice dripping with sarcasm. Lionel began to hyperventilate, had to leave the room, and rushed to the company nursing station in a full-blown panic attack.

Lionel is now off work on short-term disability. He feels he cannot return to his workplace because he is humiliated. Lionel believes there is no other job for him despite having an outstanding resume. The rage at his new supervisor whom Lionel feels shamed by is palpable. Lionel states that he can identify with men who go to the workplace and kill supervisors and coworkers out of feelings of betrayal: "I know I'd never do anything like that so you don't have to worry that you have some loon on your hands, but I get it. I never could understand that kind of thing before this happened to me. . . . What? You're just suppose to sit there and take it?"

Despite significant differences in gender and race, Patti and Lionel share the feeling that severance from the world of work is exile from life itself.
They both looked to their workplaces for feelings of emotional security, self-esteem, and belonging.
They both looked to their workplaces for feelings of emotional security, self-esteem, and belonging. In return for providing what these employees experienced as self-sustaining environments, Patti's and Lionel's employers benefited enormously from having workers who worshipped their companies, worked long hours, and would do virtually any task in order to elicit their supervisors' approval.

A Radical Notion: Work is Not Life

Emotional recovery for Patti, Lionel and others like them is not easy. While Americans are devoting increasing amounts of time and energy to their work, no social institutions, frameworks of meaning, or even words exist for a "divorce" from a highly valued job. The empathy that is commonly available and considered socially acceptable when a romantic relationship fails is considered inappropriate if not absurd when applied to a work relationship.

The “divorced” employee often has little more than the advice columns in newspaper business sections to turn to, and these routinely tout the virtues of “flexibility,” “marketability,” and treating oneself “as a business.”
The “divorced” employee often has little more than the advice columns in newspaper business sections to turn to, and these routinely tout the virtues of “flexibility,” “marketability,” and treating oneself “as a business.” The overriding sentiment is simply "get on with it; send out those resumes; only the weak or psychologically impaired could remain emotionally attached to a job."

To counter this disregard I began running a group therapy program seven years ago for clients who feel they have been betrayed at work. The groups function to support and normalize people's experiences, underscore how jobs alone cannot provide identity, and demonstrate how boundaries and limits must be set so that employers do not become pseudo-parents to be pleased.

Ultimately the task for any participant in group is to find connection, esteem, identity and a feeling of aliveness outside of work even while satisfying some of these needs on the job. "Putting all of one's eggs in one basket"—investing in one sphere of life to the exclusion of all others—diminishes what a human being can be and portends emotional devastation if that one sphere fails. Admittedly this task is an arduous one given the sorry state of family and community life for many Americans. But to cede our emotional lives to corporations whose ultimate goal is always profit and power is an act with unparalled political and psychological consequences.

The betrayed workers I have listened to for the past seven years have tried to do what so many of us in this country seem to be attempting to achieve on a daily basis, that is, satisfy unmet emotional needs through our jobs. Perhaps these women and men tried a little too hard, had a surfeit of needs, too few internal resources to begin with, untempered naivete, too great a belief in the American dream of success and salvation through work. But they are on a continuum with most of us who choose longer hours, take fewer vacations, and wake up and go to sleep at night thinking about our jobs. If under the rubric of "group therapy" these exiles from the labor force can learn that there are other ways of connecting with people who are not coworkers or supervisors, I believe I will have accomplished something.
I will have helped them see that work is not life—surprisingly an increasingly radical notion at the beginning of the new millennium.
I will have helped them see that work is not life—surprisingly an increasingly radical notion at the beginning of the new millennium. 

Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.
Ilene Philipson Ilene Philipson, PhD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Oakland, CA and a sociologist at the Center for Working Families at UC Berkeley. Her new book, Married to the Job, will be published by Free Press in 2002. She previously wrote On the Shoulders of Women. Dr. Philipson can be reached at