It was a Saturday, my plane landed, and I was all set to relax during a short weekend getaway, when an email came through on my phone. I'd lost my job. I showed it to my boyfriend in the seat next to me. "These things happen," I said, smiling and putting my phone away. "It's probably for the best. Let's enjoy our trip." I praised myself for being strong and accepting the situation. In reality, I was in complete denial that I just lost a job I loved.
Fired picture from Shutterstock
It seems cliche, but when dealing with a tragedy or a crisis, most of us experience some version of the five traditional stages of grief. We're all different, so we all experience them differently. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who identified these stages, said they're not necessarily experienced linearly, and some people might not experience them at all. They're just broad, common stages people go through when grieving. And that isn't limited to death and divorce — it can apply to losing your job too.
Recognising those stages can help you cope. When I lost my job, understanding my thought process helped me deal with my emotions and manage myself professionally.
When you're in denial, take time to reflect
When I was in denial, I refused to believe anything bad had happened. When my mum asked if I was okay, I laughed it off. "Why wouldn't I be okay?" I said. "This is probably a blessing in disguise. It probably happened so I could land a bigger, better, higher-paying job." It seemed helpful to tell myself that, but in doing so, I was also refusing to accept the loss.
For others, denial might be insisting that an employer will reconsider, or that the loss is only temporary. There's a great Frasier episode that addresses this very topic. When Frasier is in denial over losing his job, he convinces himself it's actually a blessing, because now he finally has time to write an operetta, of all things. A paper from the American Chemical Society explains the purpose of denial:
Denial functions as a buffer, initially protecting you from strong emotions, such as anger, and allowing you to continue functioning. If you anticipated your termination, you may feel relief at no longer having to work under stressful conditions.
Sure, losing your job may give you more time for hobbies. Your employer might very well reconsider, and something better probably will come along, eventually. But that's not the point. The point is: when you're in this stage, you're emotionally rejecting the loss to protect yourself. Denial may be necessary, but it can become a problem.
For example, if you're in denial, you might not even bother looking for a new job, because you're rejecting the issue altogether. Or maybe you're in financial denial, and you continue to spend money on fancy meals and luxuries even though your income has ceased.
As psychologist Dr. Melanie Greenberg points out, self-evaluation is important during this time. You want to be honest about your feelings and the cause of your job loss. Over at Psychology Today, she suggests:
Awareness is the first step to change. Be willing to face the problem, but don't dwell on it 24 hours a day. This will just make you feel worse. Think about it enough to understand what you feel and the best way to respond, then focus on something more positive. Research suggests that avoiding thinking about or dealing with problems actually creates more stressors, a phenomenon known as "stress generation(link is external)." For example, if you don't open the envelopes with your bills, you will end up getting calls from collection agencies.
Financially, you also want to make the right money moves after a job loss: build an emergency budget, call your creditors, look for assistance, and so on.
It's tempting to clam up when you're in this stage, too. I avoided friends because I didn't want to hear them tell me it was going to be okay. I told myself I didn't want to burden them with my problems, but in reality, I didn't want to face the truth and reflect on it. You're protecting yourself, after all, and admitting the truth to others can make you feel vulnerable.
But as we've said before, it's important to put yourself out there when you're unemployed. That might mean attending networking events, asking colleagues for job recommendations, or just volunteering.
Minimise stress when you're angry
Once reality sinks in, it's natural to feel angry about losing your job. You might be mad at your employer, your former coworkers, the economy, or yourself. Hell, you might be mad at anyone and everyone around you. Career site The Ladders says this is the time to look for support:
Surround yourself with family and friends who understand your challenge. Perhaps seek professional counseling or guidance from your minister. There are also many community job search support groups available. Seek them out and participate. As your outward anger subsides, you start to move into the next stage.
Of course, you want to make sure this support is productive. If your venting turns into dwelling, this can backfire.
Writing about your feelings can be helpful, too. I kept a journal during my job loss, and it helped relieve stress and also pinpoint my anger so I could avoid taking it out on everyone around me.
Financial strain can make things worse, so avoid any rash money decisions that might stress you out later. For example, you probably don't want to borrow from a retirement account or ignore your creditors during unemployment, and you definitely want to avoid debt traps. These all have consequences that can add to your stress and fuel your anger.
Keep guilt at bay in the bargaining stage
At one point during the bargaining stage, I actually convinced myself that if I dressed better, the universe would throw me a bone. "I don't dress the part," I told myself. "How can I expect to get a great job if I wear jeans and a t-shirt all the time?" I figured if I focused on my outward appearance, my career problem would heal itself.
In that Frasier episode, he does the same thing. He convinces himself that if he were more supportive of his fans, his career problem would heal itself. "I've been a bad celebrity," he concludes. Of course, his fans had nothing to do with him losing his job, just as my dress code had nothing to do with my client's budget cuts (I worked from home, for crying out loud). This was just bargaining in action.
There's nothing wrong with self-improvement, but ironically, it can get in the way when it's misdirected. Maybe I do need to dress nicer, but the time spent focusing on my wardrobe would have been better used looking for a job or going to a networking event.
Like any of these stages, it's important to experience bargaining so you can move past it. However, when you're in this stage, you're often really hard on yourself, and that can do a number to your self-esteem. You make yourself feel unnecessarily guilty. To keep your confidence intact, CareerPlanner.com recommends an exercise. Think about every job you've had, then ask yourself three questions:
- What did I accomplish / achieve / get done? What am I proud of?
- What did I learn about myself or what new skills did I learn?
- Who did I help and how?
Once you have a few things on your list, pick out the ones you're most proud of, then write about it. Tell a story about it, even if it's just a paragraph.
This serves a valuable purpose: it keeps guilt at bay, because it's focused on your accomplishments . Those accomplishments are also grounded in reality.
If the job loss was amicable, you might also consider asking for letters of recommendation from your former boss or coworker. This is helpful to have on hand, professionally, but it can also boost to your confidence and nix any feelings of guilt.
This isn't to say you're perfect and you have no room for improvement, but in this stage, you're trying to bargain your way out of reality, so that improvement is often misguided. More importantly, it can make you feel guilty, so that's something to keep in mind.
Focus on self-care when you're depressed
Depression is common after a job loss, and it's a natural transition from the bargaining stage. As we've mentioned, it helps to understand you have a right to feel depressed:
"Validate your right to feel miserable," Dr. Robert L. Leahy, author of The Worry Cure, advised on NPR. "You're a human being. You have a right to feel unhappy." Once you've given your emotions space to exist, you can start to see the big picture more clearly, enabling you to act in ways that will help you and your career.
Validating was hard for me, because I just wanted to get over the whole thing. Instead of dealing with my depression, I'd tell myself I was over it (more denial). Eventually, I'd go right back to being depressed. It's important to experience this stage, but it also thoroughly sucks. A few things helped me get through it.
For starters, a daily routine was useful because it gave me direction and purpose. It also forced me to put my nose to the grindstone and look for work. Part of my routine also included a few hobbies I didn't have time for when I was working 60 hours a week, so that was a nice reprieve. I didn't convince myself losing my job was a good thing so I could take on these hobbies (which would be denial), but I still tried to enjoy them so I could get my mind off of feeling like a failure all the time.
Speaking of that feeling of failure, a lot of people kick their exercise up a notch during this stage, too. Exercising can trigger happiness and reduce stress, and it can also make you feel accomplished and productive, which is important when you're feeling the pitfalls of unemployment.
Volunteering can also help give you a sense of purpose. It can be useful for networking, too. At the same time, you also want to make sure your sense of purpose isn't tied to work. As Forbes explains:
People who interpret losing their job as a sign of personal inadequacy or failure are less likely to 'get back on the horse' in their job hunt than those who interpret it as an unfortunate circumstance that provided a valuable opportunity to grow in self-awareness, re-evaluate priorities and build resilience. You define who you are, not your job or a company's decision whether or not to employ you.
It's hard not to take things personally when you're upset about losing your job, but in order to keep your self-esteem intact, try to think about the situation as objectively as possible.
Finally, of course, there's acceptance. You understand what happened, you've experienced it, and you're functioning through it. One thing to keep in mind with acceptance: make sure you're not forcing it. Sure, some people move straight to the acceptance stage after losing a job, but as Careerealism points out, sometimes that's just denial:
The best way to know if you are truly over your job loss and in the stage of acceptance is if you can talk about the experience with:
- Objectivity: You can state the facts without adding emotional commentary.
- Accountability: You can take ownership of your role in what lead to your job loss.
Trust me when I say hiring managers (and everyone else you talk to about your job search) can tell if you aren't at the acceptance stage of job loss grief.
Again, you don't want to rush through any of these stages. In order to accept your job loss, it's important to experience whatever emotions arise. You can, however, manage them and make sure they don't get the best of you during the process.