Chances are good that you or someone you know has experienced this very scenario. Once the initial shock subsides, job loss can bring up intense feelings of anger and sadness. In terms of emotional distress, being let go from a job is similar to dealing with divorce, serious illness, or even the death of a loved one.
Our financial security is threatened. Self-esteem and confidence are shaken. Relationships become instantly severed. Hopes and dreams may be shattered. Our sense of loss can be significant regardless of how much we actually liked the job.
While we generally expect people to mourn the death of a loved one, we typically don’t give people permission to grieve job loss. As a culture, we expect people to dust off their pants and move on with their lives. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. These clichés are embedded in the collective consciousness of our society. Unfortunately, they ignore the fact that we often need to move through the darkest of nights before we can come into the light.
Nancy Hunnicutt, career transition counselor with the Larimer County Workforce Center notes, “Our jobs and careers make up a large part of our identity. When you lose a job, you also lose an important piece of yourself. Ironically, we then expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and move on as if nothing has happened.”
According to Hunnicutt, “There is still considerable shame and stigma attached to being laid off or terminated. This makes it difficult for many people to reach out for emotional support. We often feel as if something is wrong with us unless we bounce right back from difficult work experiences. There are many different emotions that people experience when they leave a job – even if the change is self-driven. It is important that people find a way to deal with these emotions before jumping back into the job market.”
That rarely happens. Most people feel a sense of urgency about finding a new position. Without missing a beat, they begin updating their resumes and polishing their online profiles. Who can afford to waste precious time dealing with emotions when the light bill needs to be paid?
Hunnicutt advises, “While it may seem counter-intuitive, it is actually more effective to slow down and give yourself time to process your feelings. Resist the urge to rush into the next opportunity. Your job search efforts will fall flat unless you grieve the loss you have experienced.”
One reason for this is that we remain stuck in the past when we don’t take the time to process our feelings of anger and sadness. We have all encountered people who reach out to network and then spend the entire time complaining about their situations. It is unlikely that you will uncover many job leads or build meaningful relationships until you can get out there and meet people in a positive manner.
According to Hunnicutt, “Job searchers also carry unfinished business into the interview. This is especially obvious when the recruiter asks the candidate to explain why they left their last position. If you have not worked through your feelings, there will be no hiding that chip on your shoulder.”
So, job searchers beware. Your residual anger and sadness tends to ooze out when you least expect it. Recruiters and hiring managers can easily detect emotional baggage. They quickly turn their attention to candidates who are forward-facing, upbeat and emotionally stable.
Hunnicutt facilitates support groups for people in career transition due to job loss. She sees a real transformation take place when people are given the opportunity to talk through their experiences in a supportive setting. “It is extremely therapeutic for people to find an environment in which they can voice their true emotions rather than say what they think others want to hear. We need to resist the urge to bury our feelings. As a society we need to give people more opportunities to process the grief associated with job loss.”
If a support group is not available or if signs of depression are present, one-on-one counseling may also be beneficial. If you are working with a career counselor, avoid getting strategic about the job search process until you are feeling emotionally strong and centered. Hunnicutt also encourages clients to make self-care a priority. Resist the urge to isolate. Eat well, exercise and plug some fun activities into the calendar.
Other suggestions include journal writing to express your feelings and allowing yourself a certain amount of time each week to grieve. Write about your story with all the gory details and emotions. Then take time to prepare a brief, forthright and positive “Reason for Leaving” statement that you can share with employers or networking contacts.
You know you are ready to begin networking and job searching when you can look back at your experience without reliving the pain. You will notice that you are gradually spending more time imagining the future than dwelling on the past. You will no longer feel stuck and you will be open to new ideas and opportunities.
As the grieving process moves to a final stage of acceptance and recovery, Hunnicutt notices that many people are often finally able to admit that the lay off or termination was a blessing in disguise. “Perhaps it was the necessary push they needed to move on to a better situation. Or maybe it may have afforded them time to care for family or to envision a new career path.”
Time heals all wounds. The key word in this cliché is time. Give yourself the time you need to move through the cycle of grief after a job loss so that you land happily in the next chapter of your life.
Carrie Pinsky is a Fort Collins-based career and HR advisor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.