Being emotionally invested in your work is like a double-edged sword. Your drive and passion propel you to perform. But being too emotionally tied to your work can become a huge drain and weight to carry. So how can you tell if you’re too emotionally invested in your work? The author outlines four signs to watch out for — 1) You take criticism personally; 2) Work follows you home; 3) You’re a people-pleaser; 4) Your identity is your job title — and offers strategies to regain your confidence and perspective.
My client Luis loved his job. His assignments were interesting, he enjoyed his coworkers, and was paid well. The only problem was that Luis would get so emotionally invested in his work that it began to cloud his judgment and affect his well-being. Once on a Friday afternoon, his boss called a last-minute meeting to discuss a project that was behind. Even though many of the reasons the deliverable was late were beyond Luis’s control, he felt like correcting the timeline landed solely on his shoulders. Luis worked all weekend to get the initiative back on track, sacrificing sleep and time with his family.
Many high-achievers can relate to Luis’s situation, because being emotionally invested in your work is like a double-edged sword. Your drive and passion propel you to perform. Caring deeply about your performance provides satisfaction and meaning. But being too emotionally tied to your job can become a huge drain and weight to carry.
In the age of remote work and blurred boundaries, there’s less and less separation between the personal and professional. It’s no wonder, then, why our careers are such a defining aspect of our identities. While there’s typically nothing wrong with devoting yourself to your organization’s success, problems arise when work controls your feelings and actions.
So how can you tell if you’re too emotionally invested in your work? Look for these signs that it’s time to pull back:
You take criticism personally.
Maybe you’ve found yourself feeling angry, insecure, or demoralized after getting bad feedback. You may find yourself sidelined by a comment from your boss for days, or perhaps you become so preoccupied by other people’s opinions that you avoid engaging altogether. When someone criticizes your work, it can feel like a confirmation of your worst fears — that you’re not good enough.
Before you jump to conclusions, separate criticism of your work as a product from criticism of you as a person. Try this exercise to objectively make sense of what’s been shared with you: Grab a sheet of paper and create four columns. First, write down exactly what was said. Next, list everything you feel is wrong about the feedback, such as inaccuracies and blindspots. In the third column, switch gears to reflect on what could potentially be useful. Is there an insight that could improve your workflow or skills, for example? Finally, commit to next steps. Perhaps you need to schedule a follow-up conversation to clear the air, make a correction, or simply let it go and move on with your day.
Work follows you home.
Emotional over-investment in your work can lead to overcompensation. That is, you may work more in order to feel good about yourself. You may try to prove your worth and provide value by accomplishing more, which can be antithetical to giving yourself a break when you need it. You may also struggle to “turn off” at the end of the day, allowing work to bleed into your personal time, as well as your mind, even while you’re off the clock.
You’re not proving your dedication by always being “on” — rather, you’re undermining your success. Change your mindset to view decompression as a prerequisite for your performance, not a reward. Likewise, put in place habits to disconnect from work. This could include:
- Setting an alarm that prompts you to wrap up
- Completely powering down your devices so you avoid the temptation to log back in
- Writing your to-do list for the next day, or choosing another transition ritual to ease into downtime
You’re a people-pleaser.
People-pleasing means you have a tendency to put others’ needs ahead of your own. Like Luis, you may feel a huge sense of responsibility to be the hero who fixes and rescues situations. People-pleasing can also manifest as absorbing the emotions of others, changing your opinions in an attempt to keep the peace, or avoiding asking for help because it may make you appear weak or incompetent.
You think you’re generous and helpful because you’re agreeable, but not if it comes at the expense of your mental health and the quality of your relationships. Overextending yourself isn’t healthy, nor does it allow those you work with to take initiative and exercise accountability.
Self-awareness is always the first step to creating change. So pay attention — when do you find yourself taking on more than your fair share of the workload or responsibility in a project or relationship? In particular, look for areas where you feel an outsized sense of resentment, meaning you feel overworked, underappreciated, or otherwise not recognized for your efforts. Resentment is a strong emotional signal that you’re suppressing your needs, and it can guide you toward specific situations that need to be addressed.
Your identity is your job title.
If you don’t have any self-concept beyond what you do for a living, that’s a precarious place to be. You may live in fear of losing your job because your entire sense of self-worth would go along with it. Low self-complexity — or linking your identity to a singular aspect — is connected to higher emotional reactivity and less resilience to stress.
A little psychological distance from your work can go a long way to boosting your well-being. That doesn’t mean quiet quitting or otherwise disengaging, but rather that you distinguish who you are from what you do. Ask yourself, “Beyond my being a leader or manager, who am I to the people I care about?” Do things you enjoy outside of work to build a sense of mastery and proficiency beyond your job. Following a period of severe burnout, one of my clients took up flower arranging as a creative outlet. Another began studying space physics, while another recently began volunteering with their local animal shelter. Each of these activities developed their sense of self and gave them identities to lean on when work didn’t go as planned.
Remember, your job is something you do. It’s not the totality of who you are.