As I flirt with the shadows at the edge of a mini-breakdown, largely driven by a work issue, I’ve been reflecting on why it has affected me so much. The situation is bad, sure, but a lot of work can be like that and I haven’t gotten to my venerable age with my whole professional life being one big group hug. So why has this particular one (and I won’t go into the details, that’s not the point), rocked me so much? I looked at my partner the other day and said with complete surprise “I’m really struggling”, in the manner someone might say “I appear to have been shot”. It doesn’t feel like something I should be experiencing.
I think partly it arises from having spent so long (27 years!) at one institution, and become very publicly associated with that place. Inevitably your sense of identity becomes entangled with that institution, even if it’s only in your own mind. If you shift employer every 4 years or so, then you perhaps develop a more robust identity centred around your own narrative, rather than one entwined with a single university (I’m guessing here, as I haven’t had that experience obviously).
This is not a criticism of my employer, rather a recognition that I have allowed myself to bind my own identity too firmly with it. Then when something goes wrong, as is probably inevitable at some point over a long career, it becomes not just a work issue to be resolved, but an identity crisis. As Sarah Jaffe has written, work won’t love you back, and we should disentangle myths of a labour of love. Brenna Clarke Gray writes from a feminist perspective about how the university cannot love you, because it is not centred around care. While I agree with both of these analyses, they’re not quite what I’m getting at here, although they are part of it. There is care, particularly from colleagues and more formally through union support and official processes. They can’t be expected to know and protect your sense of identity however, that’s down to you. Like some deluded incel I may be guilty of mistaking a friendship between myself and the institution as something more significant.
Watching Posey and Teilo race around wrecklessly in the forest, your identity is like a new puppy, you’ve got to be careful with it, and not put it in perilous situations, for its own good. It’ll eat up anything.