A Job is Not a Person

Sometimes I idealize people. For example, as someone who cares about social justice and the arts, I often assume the best about organizers, writers, people who work in social justice-related nonprofits, etc. I tend to think that people whose careers involve fighting oppression or writing beautiful essays will possess corollary qualities, like deep self-awareness, a knowledge of how systemic oppression manifests in their interpersonal relationships, and a general compassion for those around them. My idealization reminds me of how some people I know idealize therapists as like, super emotionally intelligent, all-knowing seers of the human soul.

As a therapist who’s seen a few therapists for my own mental health, I’m here to tell you that some of us suck at our jobs. For example, the second therapist I tried out after moving to the Washington D.C. area literally made me doubt whether therapists do more harm than good in the world. When I talked about my struggles, he often spoke for longer than I did, and he way over-shared about his own life. At one point, when I said something about the racism I experience as an Asian American, he literally said that as an Italian American, he also knows what it feels like to be racially oppressed in America. After a couple months I dumped him, and I had to take a several-month break from therapy before cultivating the willpower to search for someone else.

Even beyond this example of someone sucking at their job, in my early 20s I have learned to stop glorifying people across all types of professions. Throughout my life I have always valued compassion for others as well as cultivating fulfillment without romance and romantic attachments to men. I therefore assumed that pretty much anyone who works at a social justice nonprofit, as an organizer, or as a writer should by some weird projective, transient property also possess these values which I hold dear to my heart. But throughout the past couple years I have encountered organizers and people who work in social justice nonprofits who actually are pretty poor communicators or just avoid addressing their internal issues, which leads to messy relationships. And I’ve met anti-hunger activists, feminist therapists, and teachers who are obsessed with romance and would be totally unmoored without their romantic partners. These people still contribute a lot to society, they just also possess qualities I find off-putting.

When I reflect on why I used to feel so surprised that holding a certain job does not mean someone will therefore be a perfect human, I think about my Asian cultural upbringing as well as the prevalence of capitalism. Under capitalism, we are taught that our value as people is tied to our productivity and our careers, that we should monetize our hobbies and always grind, always hustle. As the son of Vietnamese immigrants who worked super hard to achieve economic security in America, I got the message from my mother as well as from broader society that you very much are your career, that people with prestigious professions (e.g., doctors) are the most impressive. For me, these messages translated into some internalized notion that I should very much judge someone by their career, that someone’s job dictates a whole lot about their character outside of their job too.

I’m learning to question and refute this problematic notion of judging people based on their jobs. Yeah, sure, there may be a correlation between holding certain jobs and possessing certain characteristics. But as any beginning Psychology student would say, correlation ain’t causation. My two best friends are two of the kindest, most thoughtful, radical, communicative people I know and neither of them are full-time organizers, therapists, or writers. Also, the ability to even secure white-collar jobs like being a therapist or artistic jobs like being a writer are so often determined more by someone’s privilege than their character anyway. And, someone can hold a social justice-oriented job and still perpetuate white supremacy culture, as I have observed very closely through my time in academia.

stopchrissy iconic tweet about men being garbage

I would like to thank Twitter user @stopchrissy for literally, and I mean literally, summing up my relational experience with people I used to idolize in one tweet. To the thousands of people who retweeted and favorited this: let’s pour our love into ourselves and fly free from those who don’t deserve us.

As a Vietnamese American who grew up within a wealthy public-school system and attended a relatively prestigious public Ivy for undergrad, I’m interrogating my classist and ableist tendency to evaluate people’s characters through their jobs. Do you have any tendency to judge people based on their jobs, and how do you feel about that whether you do have that tendency or not? What can we do to counteract the capitalist, elitist, and ableist notion of judging people based on their jobs? Also lol I don’t intend to scare people from going to therapy by sharing one of my more negative experiences, please check out this article if you’re interested in finding a therapist who knows their stuff in regard to social justice and also please try out more than one therapist if you see a therapist and the therapist is mediocre. Until next post!



Filed under Personal, Society

11 responses to “A Job is Not a Person

  1. !! Yes, yes, yes!! And this is something that you touched on in a previous comment – “Under capitalism, we are taught that our value as people is tied to our productivity and our careers, that we should monetize our hobbies and always grind, always hustle.” While I had definitely thought about the capitalism of worth through career/achievement, I’ve never thought about it in broader strokes (where people in positions of activism/publishing/humanitarian work can be problematic, uncompassionate, or misunderstanding/limited in their world view).

    I like to think that I don’t have a personal tendency to judge people for their career/job (I tend to be good at pinpointing someone’s interests quickly and getting into that), but I do sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that others in or associated in my field (architecture) worry and care about the same things that I do. I read about and care deeply about issues like gentrification, social justice and equality, urban planning and revitalization, and global economics, and I’m prone to seeing the real-life effect of these things and launching into discussion. But (especially in the Bay Area), the reality is the jobs with interesting details, clients who care about good architecture and construction… you need money, and usually an exorbitant amount. And for all the donations and fundraising and charity work I know my clients are doing, I know that they could do more and better with their money (but obviously not my position to say). So then it brings up the question about the accessibility of good architecture, whether it’s necessary to invest in good architecture if it leads to better long-term housing (especially for low-income housing, I think the answer is yes, but the initial cost is usually higher), and etc. I get really frustrated and uncomfortable with this impasse.

    Also, still in the process of trying to figure out if my therapist is a good fit for me, so I appreciate the linked article! Hope you’re doing well!

    • Thank you so much for dropping by with this thoughtful comment! In a lot of ways I feel like the only people we can control are ourselves, so I’m glad to know that you’re thinking deeply about issues like gentrification, social justice and equality, urban planning and revitalization, and global economics within your work! At the same time your comment does make me think more about like, how much can we expect from people who are living within a broader system of capitalism – like how true can any of us be to our core social justice values when we live within a system that asks us to compromise so we can survive. Like, I know I talk the big talk about social justice and definitely act in ways that align with those values, yet I know there are ways I could do better or try to actively combat my privileged identities. Really appreciate your presence and voice on the interwebs and thanks again for your mind and sharing its contents with me.

  2. Interesting entry – is there a regulatory body that sets and enforces standards, provides training and support and certify therapists?

    It’s a tight balance trying to figure out how you can make enough to cover basic living expenses, paying off student loans, mortgages (if you can afford one), transportation and saving for the future. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the headaches and the pressures that came with my job. But I knew that was the price to pay to make a decent living. A friend of mine had a nice 6 figure job but got laid off. He doesn’t miss the job, the long hours and the pressures. He has no idea what he wants to do but just wants a nice, comfortable job to pay the bills.

    And while I was living a corporate life, I ran across some MBAs who were selfish, stupid and obnoxious. My best manager was someone who only had a high school degree. The caretaker of my condo is an ex engineer who lost his job years ago. He is just a wonderful man who helps everyone. Anyways … I’m getting a bit long winded here. But yeah, people shouldn’t be judging others by their work.

    Have a great week Thomas!

    • Hi Matt, thank you for this thoughtful comment and for sharing all these different tidbits! It helps me put things in perspective and also reminds me about how money is oftentimes something that undergirds our lives and can cause stress – as someone from a more privileged class background (and as someone who kind of sucks at anything in life that’s realistic and not about people’s emotions) I sometimes tend to forget. Love your main point about not judging others by their work. I appreciate your patience as I grow and unlearn problematic ideas!

    • Also just realized I didn’t respond to your first question – yes, there is a regulatory body, though there’s a wide variety of quality after that initial process, especially in regard to issues of race, social identity, social justice, etc.

  3. x

    i really appreciated how you reflected on people’s job, how people’s occupation have been impacted by society’s prejudices. Most people have to be linked with their jobs, but I think jobs and titles could be one of the most misleading ways to know about a person. a long time ago, for some strange reason I have to be in a party hosted by a childhood friend. in a room full of lawyers, I found 99 percent of the people in the there were white, loud lawyers from the top firms in new york. i observed and listened for a little, since I have nothing else to do besides being awkward and bored. I will never forget that most boring night in my life. I told my therapist about that trip and the party. she said “I’m sorry you had that experience.” I can’t help laughing out loud. But it was definitely an experience. I believe there are good, kind people in any line of work, just as there will be entitled, unkind people anywhere. It’s not about what they do all the time. And it’s only part of who they are.
    I’m so glad I realized this a while ago. In my early twenties I was that kind of jerk; I decided i would only date people with “good jobs”: like engineer; doctor; etc… And i’ve learned my lessons in a hard way. But I also agree that this toxic way of thinking starts really young, and was learned from family education,in my experience.
    Even today, I can see that in my culture things still pretty much work like this. People judge people by their jobs, and women compete their husbands by comparing their titles… I’ve seen it so often when people asked about my workplace and generally decide who I am within seconds.
    I’m not sure how this will change, but I decided I won’t be close to people with that kind of value 🙂 people can be interesting or not, kind or unkind, easy going or difficult, assholes or not (sorry about the language::), but I totally agree that people are not their jobs!!!
    Hope you have a nice weekend

    • Awwww Xin thank you for sharing your story of growth with this and your perspective! I appreciate your entire comment though this part particularly resonated: “I believe there are good, kind people in any line of work, just as there will be entitled, unkind people anywhere. It’s not about what they do all the time. And it’s only part of who they are.” It’s a bit embarrassing that I didn’t come to this realization before and at the same time I’m glad people like you are holding me accountable for making my beliefs more compassionate and equitable, so that they take into account how someone’s job does not define them. It’s empowering to hear that you are making an active choice not to associate with people who judge people primarily based on their jobs and that you have recognized that bias within yourself in your 20’s and that you’ve worked to counteract it. Also it sucks that you had that experience being at that gathering with all those white loud lawyers, yikes. Hope you’re doing as well as possible with everything going on and sending warmth and strength your way!

  4. I tend to judge people by their jobs in a slightly different way! I had a bad therapist early enough on (she thought my struggles with performing femininity came from a place of gender dysphoria instead of a place of unremitting abuse and negative connotations of being female through my early life to 20! and once told me to cheer myself up by going and buying some clothes), and when I met Matthew I “read” his job as a computer analyst in a massive international bank and living situation in central London as code for “he will be a complete wanker” (which he wasn’t: I also read his shirt as fancy when it was £4 from a random shop, so clearly still biased even when meeting him after talking for weeks!). I know some amazing nurses and teachers and bin lorry operatives and have to work to get over my distrust of police officers! I think I got this, though, from the influence of my lovely non-grandma Mary, a bastion of left leaning knit your own muesli in my village! I was also never going to succeed enough to please my family and worked as a busker, a data input person and a telesales person which took away any feelings that people doing that stuff were likely to be less valid and different from people who did high-level or social justice jobs (OK, I met some tools who worked for the union etc early on, too). So I have to work against my own prejudices when I meet therapists and police officers and bankers!

    • Thank you Liz, for sharing your perspective and how you’ve navigated feelings of trust and mistrust throughout your life. It sucks that you had that experience with your therapist and I feel like it’s courageous that you were able to still seek out therapy later on despite that negative time with that therapist. People are so complex and cannot be captured by just one facet of their life like a job, when jobs themselves are attained (or forced upon someone in some ways) through a myriad of factors as well. Hope you and those you care about are staying as safe as possible and sending lots of warmth and strength your way!

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