The era of self-expressive work

It was about seven years ago that some newly articulated ideas about romantic relationships entered our collective psyche—in particular, the idea that many adults today expect the world of those relationships.

In his 2017 book The All-or-Nothing Marriage and a popular New York Times op-ed by the same name, social psychology professor Eli Finkel traces the historical journey in the U.S. from “institutional marriage” to “companionate marriage” to today’s era of the “self-expressive marriage.” In this kind of marriage, he says, Americans seek nothing less than “self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.”

Psychotherapist Esther Perel has talked about this same trend. In a 2018 interview with the New Yorker, she was asked why “the couple” has become such a central unit in modern society and why we now expect our romantic partners to fulfill so many needs.

Her reply: “Because never in the history of family life was the emotional well-being of the couple relevant to the survival of the family. The couple could be miserable for thirty years, you were stuck for life, you married once—and, if you didn’t like it, you could hope for an early death of your partner. Marriage was a pragmatic institution. You need to have it, but, once you’re in it, it’s not a great thing, and certainly not for the women.”

She continues, “And then we added romantic needs to the pairing, the need for belonging and for companionship. We have gone up the Maslow ladder of needs, and now we are bringing our need for self-actualization to the marriage. We keep wanting more. We are asking from one person what once an entire village used to provide.”

On her own blog, she describes it this way: “The idea that we lose ourselves in the presence of our partner is deeply ingrained in the modern perception of love, particularly in the United States. As almost all of our communal institutions give way to a heightened sense of individualism, we look more frequently to our partner to provide the emotional and physical resources that a village or community used to provide. Is it any wonder that, tied up in relying on a partner for compassion, reassurance, sexual excitement, financial partnership, etc. that we end up looking to them for identity or, even worse, for self-worth?”

Let’s try something, just for fun.

Replace “partner/person” with “employer,” “love/marriage” with “work,” “family” with “organization.” Cross out (I hope) the idea of “sexual” excitement. There’s no obvious substitute for “couple,” but that’s part of the issue.

I’m thinking about these parallels because I’ve worked with many people who have what I would dramatize as a somewhat tortured relationship to work. They earnestly try to bring all of themselves to their literal or figurative places of work in return for the chance to be all they can be and be valued for who they are. They give everything in search of validation that what they’ve given up is worth it. They fit themselves in so that they might be brought into the fold; but they also want to feel special and be singled out. They seek a kind of unconditional regard that would be a safety net for taking the risks inherent in continued learning and growing. They mine for clues to their self-worth in the gritty language that work speaks: role, responsibility, and reward. They look for work that amplifies their values, projects their desired identity, and safeguards their standard of living.

To misappropriate Eli Finkel’s turn of phrase, it strikes me that they seek “self-expressive” work: a site of self-actualization and fulfillment; a means to prosperity and stability; a safe place.

Work that makes us feel alive, whole, and, yes, loved for who we are: is that too much to ask? When so much work today seems to ask everything of us, is it any surprise that we ask everything of it in return?

No surprise, I’ve had one of those “tortured” relationships. I don’t regret any of my high expectations (and neither should you). They were rooted in desire, and I believe that what we desire is a powerful impetus for reflection and change in our lives. My passionate desire for something different—including a different relationship to work, and a different feeling towards and from work—is what gave me the courage to leave “corporate America” (as if it’s a monolithic entity).

But I can see now that finding “better” work is not a complete antidote. Yes, as a so-called solopreneur, I essentially created my own place of work, and, yes, I’d like to think that I can craft a more enlightened and humane workplace for myself than an organization with a headcount of 170,000 could ever do. Yes, the practice of being and growing as a coach reflects who I think I am and what I think I stand for to an astonishing degree.

Even so, I have re-learned the lesson that, no matter how fulfilling it may be, I cannot expect my work alone to be a perfect shortcut to the destination of a life that feels aligned and well lived, nor can I burden a single role or LinkedIn headline with the weight of my public persona and consider it done. For now, I ask myself, maybe not counting the LinkedIn headline thing, is it close enough? Does it meet or exceed my expectations? Do I? I do?

Love is not “a permanent state of enthusiasm,” says Esther Perel. The same must be true for work—perhaps especially for the work we love most.

It’s another way to arrive at the truism that the answers and feelings you’re looking for are not out there. They’re in here. Somewhere down deep, we already know it’s not fair to assign to our work the task of making us feel whole. Neither one job nor one relationship could ever do all that work, the work we must do within ourselves.

If any of this rings true for you, I might wonder:

  • What is the work you’re expecting your work to do in your life?
  • To borrow a powerful concept from Pam McLean and Michael Hudson, what is the unspoken psychological contract between you and your work?
  • Who or what enforces that contract?
  • What inner work is tugging at you?

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