The emotional toll of a layoff
Or “How I got through losing my job without losing my mind (most of the time)”
I will always remember November 2019 as The Month I Got Laid Off.
The details of how and why this came about should not be discussed here, partly because my story is not unique or hard to imagine. A Berlin-based, small-sized start-up lets go of a group of employees due to a certain business decision. Something similar might have happened to a friend of yours, to a colleague, or even to you. The chain of events that led to my layoff and the aftermath of those events have nothing interesting or groundbreaking to it — yet here I am, two months later, writing about it instead of going shopping for Christmas gifts.
While there’s plenty of online resources on how to react to being suddenly unemployed from a practical point of view (in my case, for example, on how to navigate German bureaucracy in order to be eligible for the Holy Grail called Arbeitslosengeld), it seems like the emotional toll a layoff can take is often silenced. In a world that asks us to present a highly curated and constantly optimized version of our lives, a career setback feels like an obstacle to overcome as soon as possible with a fierce, strong, Lizzo-like attitude. Sadly, though, the reality is less linear and sexy than that.
In the words of Esther Perel, heard on one of my favorite podcasts of the year:
“Because we have become more secularized and more individualistic, because we have losened our ties to the traditional institutions, work and home have become the two hubs where we go to experience connection, community, belonging, and meaning. (…) The idea that work could bring about an intensity of emotions that parallels what we experience in our other important relationships is a surprise for many people, but in fact it is very real.”
Knowing that losing your job is a perfectly plausible and ordinary event to happen to a person doesn’t make that event easier to process when it happens to you. You might feel sad and clueless. You might be disappointed at how you got treated. You might worry about your financial stability, about the impact on your career, about your mental health. You might experience a sense of insecurity and loneliness. In case you’re wondering, I went through all of the above (and more).
As for similar life hardships, there’s no universally approved approach for going through the emotional consequences of getting laid off. People told me “don’t worry, everything will be okay!!!” more times than I can count and, though I appreciate the sentiment, they had no empirical evidence to sustain this claim. That said, out of the many pieces of advice I gave myself and received from others, some made a huge difference to my mood, my mental well-being and to the quality of my days. (It’s not professional advice, though. Always remember I work in online marketing.)
1. Allow yourself to not have an immediate solution.
Chances are high, that the first days after being laid off will feel like a blur. In order to avoid “just” sitting in the uncertainty that was forced upon you by someone else’s decision, you will want to do something. Anything.
I have discovered that there’s only so much you can do when you’re immersed in a fog of anxiety and confusion. Though that might seem like a counterintuitive approach, leaning into your uncomfortable feelings and thoughts will allow you to process what you need to process and avoid any rushed, unproductive action.
Don’t be like me: I sent 8 resumes for open positions in my city, realizing only days later that I had been too mentally exhausted to proofread them properly.
2. If you’re feeling even a tiny bit of shame, work on overcoming it as soon as you can.
If you’re familiar with the concept of Imposter Syndrome, you might understand why one of my first feelings after being laid off was shame — as if this event left a mark on my (lack of) worth as a professional and as a person. A mark finally on display for everyone else to see.
Shame is not only an isolating, torturing feeling, but it makes no sense. Even if losing a job is somewhat connected to what you did or didn’t do, to the career decisions you took, to the professional role you have chosen for yourself, getting laid off has nothing to do with your worth: it took me a few days — okay, weeks — to let this sink in. My best antidote against shame was forcing myself to open up to the people who love me and see me clearly, which leads me directly to the next advice.
3. Be vulnerable with your loved ones (and leave everyone else on read).
During the first 24 hours after starting to imagine I was going to be laid off (what a wonderful thought to sit with!), I was convinced I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it. I didn’t want to concern my family and friends, and more selfishly I didn’t have the energy to deal with their reactions. It didn’t last long before I metaphorically slapped myself in the face and reached out to my loved ones around the world. The outpouring of empathy, understanding, and support I received back lifted me up in ways I didn’t think were possible.
Some of my new ex-colleagues have also been an unexpected source of positivity. Barely six months into a job I had just lost, I found myself in the middle of a support system made of long walks, sweaty workout sessions, and laughing about the tragicomic sides of our situation.
As for “everyone else”, you can read their messages and wait until you have more energy for a reply. They will understand.
4. Don’t sweat the unimportant things (aka The Gossip).
“Enforced hibernations over the years have taught me where I want to put my energy. I’ve been laid off. I’ve been too sick to work. I’ve sat on the maternity-leave sidelines wondering if I’d ever find a way back into being a meaningful part of a team. I’ve lost my bearings and had to reorient. And I suspect that might happen to me again at some point — because contrary to what they teach you in high school and college, life is not a graph on which the line goes up up up.”
This quote by Stella Bugbee stuck with me because I like the idea of “enforced hibernations” as opportunities for learning to save your energy: you’ll need it to process what happened, to think of the next steps, to avoid losing your mind.
In the last two months, I have been training myself to avoid wasting energy on unimportant thoughts and worries. On top of that list, there’s the gossip chain that I have inevitably been a protagonist of after losing my job (only for a handful of minutes, I’m not that important). “What will people say about me? What version of the story will they hear? Will the third-hand news accurately represent the facts?” It’s. Not. Important.
5. Explore your own way out of this.
Two months after being laid off, I see my situation with more clarity and detachment. I accept the fact that some days will be duller and, when those days arrive, I explore different ways to move on: pretending to go for a run but really just walking faster than usual, calling my therapist, searching for the term “soothing music” on YouTube and listening to the first result, staring at the ceiling, sending a poop emoji to a friend as a request for help.
This is what works for me — as a reflection of my specific personality (sensitive, reflective, dramatic, sometimes too self-absorbed), of my socio-economic status (a 32 yo white woman from a Schengen country, member of a single-person household) and, of course, of my natal chart (sun in Pisces and moon in Scorpio, whatever that means). If you happen to lose your job suddenly — and I wish you never do! — completely different pieces of advice might give you the relief you deserve.
I can’t promise you “everything will be okay!!!” but, as long as you’re nice and patient with yourself, that toll will eventually feel lighter. More manageable. And sometimes that’s enough.