Dealing with Job Loss

‘You are what you do.’ Really? Isn’t there more to life than just our jobs?

For many people, the problem isn’t how much they work, but how they define themselves in relation to their work. If you ‘are what you do,’ then you’ve reversed the order of things. You’re serving your career rather than letting your career serve you. Not healthy! Even the simplest job exists to offer you fulfillment (hopefully), and income to do other things that make you happy.  If, in fact, the standard of mental health is to find inner peace, then living for your career can’t be healthy. And only you can choose whether to drive your career, or be driven by it.

A job loss is very stressful. If you live exclusively for your job, then losing it can be almost like a death. And if you are, indeed, ‘what you do,’ it’s a catastrophe and can represent a loss of self. A writer on says, ‘Job loss can have a profound effect on your emotional well being. There is a typical cycle that most people experience. This cycle includes denial, anger, frustration, and eventually adaptation. ‘being separated from one’s job is extremely difficult. Many of us closely identify ourselves by what we do for a living. When the job is taken away, we can lose track of who we are and even why we are.’ A particular episode of the TV show ‘Frasier’ dealt with the neurotic radio psychiatrist losing his job — and subsequently his whole identity — after being laid off. It was very amusing, but it was also engaging and true-to-life.

Most people have a natural desire to feel productive. Some do it for themselves, while some do it more for others. (That’s a separate discussion!) But nearly everyone wants to feel useful. That’s why retiring can be a crisis for many people. The issue is more than just ‘having nothing to do;’ that usually clears itself up after a while. The real problem becomes, ‘I don’t feel useful.’ Relationships and emotional health can suffer until the retiree finds a new way to feel worthwhile.

Like an unexpected death, losing your job prior to retirement can be sudden and devastating. Though traumatic, it can also present the opportunity to muster up the courage to try something different (since you really have no choice anyway). If you erroneously defined yourself as worthwhile because of your work, you now have the opportunity to recognize that you can actually be a worthwhile person who happens to work. Your mistaken self-talk might have sounded like this: ‘I must be worthwhile! Look at my career accomplishments.’ Accomplishments do say something about you, but it doesn’t logically follow that the virtuous traits and qualities that gave rise to those accomplishments suddenly disappear simply because of a change in economic conditions.

One victim of job loss, writing on, states, ‘Coping with job loss can create an identity crisis. I lost the career I had held for more than twenty-five years due to a serious injury. Because of my resulting limitations, I could not get another job. While employed in my field, I experienced such pride and satisfaction. I valued my education, my experience, the longevity of my career, and my capabilities. Now it was gone.’ Well put! But here’s what he’s missing: He didn’t achieve career success and satisfaction by chance. He made his success happen. He has to move forward and ask himself, ‘What traits, attributes and virtues made me successful?’ By being specific, and then applying those traits to new avenues and endeavors, he will discover that his talents are intact and ready to be applied again.

Some might say, ‘It’s too hard to think this way!’ But you built the career that you’re now sad about losing. If you possess the strength of character to have built an occupation worth grieving over, then you surely have the ability to start a new one. It’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s all in your thoughts and attitude.

Americans in particular tend to assume that things will remain good and will only get better. That’s a healthy outlook (and in short supply nowadays), but it’s also important to NOT feel entitled. This is probably more true for very successful people, because in a sense they have more to lose. But if you feel entitled to success simply because you have had it up to now (however earned it might have been), then you’re setting yourself up for unnecessary pain if things don’t go your way.

It’s not healthy to wrap your identity and self-worth around a particular job or career. Instead, connect your self-worth to the attributes and virtues that got you that job in the first place. Tie it to the desire to feel productive, creative and needed. These desires and traits go with you from career to career, through good times and bad. They’re your stability. Tap into them and put them to work for you.