The loss of a job can be devastating for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the loss of income and what that entails. However, it is often the psychological repercussions that are more pervasive and have longer-lasting effects. If you are reading this article, chances are that you have been fired or made redundant and, trust me, when I say that you are not alone in this cohort of sufferers. In fact, the psychological trauma inflicted upon you is one that is perpetrated yearly, on an enormous scale, to many workers worldwide. So, what is the psychological damage of being told to leave one’s job and what are the ways to get over the mental and emotional effects?
The challenge for people in that situation is how to handle not only the loss of their job but the cruel tricks that this plays on their mind. There’s irony in being told you’re “being let go” which immediately deflates your self-esteem as you go out looking to land your next job. Here you are, a ball emotions that all at once can sway from a sense of humiliation to failure and vulnerability, to anxiety, resentment and self-pity. But whether the reason you lost your job has everything to do with your perceived performance (and it rarely does), or absolutely nothing, it’s how you respond to that setback that will allow you to maintain a healthy state of mind.
According to Guy Winch, a New York-based psychologist and TEDx speaker Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid, “When we fail at something, it has huge consequences because it does a real number on us in terms of our unconscious thinking,”. “We take the messages we get from our mind as real, when in fact, they’re distortions.”
We believe that we have no power to change our situation and “We feel apathetic, demotivated, demoralised and helpless.” For Winch, this adds to the second mental hurdle that failure puts in our way: “It distorts our perceptions of our abilities, so we feel less capable in our own mind than we actually are.” Winch calls this the ‘ability dysmorphia’ which is a psychological effect that makes us assess our own skills more negatively after a setback.
In addition, according to Winch, it appears that “in our evolutionary past, being kicked out of the tribe was a death sentence. That’s why ostracism is such a painful experience for us… because it has a real evolutionary function.” Which is why you can actually feel the moment you were fired 10 years ago as if it were yesterday. In one instant, your body will be back in that room, in front of that manager, sitting in that chair, as if time stood still and you will have that same painful feeling in your stomach. And, when you are looking for a job after that dreadful day, you’re facing that rejection all over again. Every time you get a rejection letter, don’t even get a rejection letter (because they can’t be bothered), make it to third round and don’t get the job, meet someone who got sacked at the same time but now works, etc, etc, It reactivates that feeling of “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why me?”, “How did that happen to me?”, or “It’s not fair, I told them I couldn’t (fill in the blank) but they still made me do (fill in the blank) and then I failed’”.
I know how this feels for my clients as this has also happened to me very early in my career. When I was in my late 20s working on Wall Street, my own boss was fired for losing the company many millions in investments, the co-head of the investment group became the sole head and decided to clean house. I was summarily fired. That event became a turning point for me for many years until I learned how our minds can play tricks with us and recovered from that event.
Below are seven habits to help you recover from losing a job and get your head back in the right place to move forward.
- Be gentle and compassionate with yourself: You need to take back control from your naysaying unconscious! First off, you have to remind yourself that any negative thoughts are coming from “perceptual distortions” which you can’t necessarily believe. Practice compassion with yourself. Thoughts like “They think I’m stupid”, “Why did I make that mistake, it was so easy?” or “I just can’t get anything right” lower your self-esteem and make it more difficult to be emotionally resilient. Give yourself compassion. Would you let your loved ones or friends beat themselves up while they were down? Talk to yourself as if you were addressing a friend. Change what you tell yourself by substituting a negative remark with a positive one and repeat it frequently. Frequently repeating positive mantras will make these gel in your mind. Try writing or texting yourself supportive things to help build your self-compassion.
- Distract yourself from rumination: You must break the self-reinforcing nature of ruminative thoughts. Replaying these distressing events in your head over and over again is not a helpful way to heal from them. We have a tendency to go over dialogue and try to think how we could have answered differently. The best way to curtail unhealthy rumination is to distract yourself by doing something positive. Activities that require concentration or physical exercise will help to distract from ruminating. So, go outdoors, go for a run, do some baking, go to the movies but just do something that lifts your mood. By all means, avoid lethargy and inactivity. It’s easy to become inactive when you’re feeling depressed but resist this. You may even find that exercise will give you more energy which is great when searching for a new job.
- Redefine your view of failure: Failing in anything forces you to focus on what you can’t do instead of what you can do. Don’t dwell on your limitations, this will only lead to more self-criticism. Learn to ignore that negative voice and think of your positive attributes and skills. How you view losing your job is only from your angle. You do not have all the information at hand. It’s easy to get stuck in the past and what shoulda-woulda-coulda been done, but didn’t. Doing so only continues the circle of destructive emotions that fuel anger, self-pity and a sense of powerlessness. Make a list of what you could control and change if you were to try again. This will reduce your feelings of powerlessness and improve your chances of future success. Above all, this exercise needs to be short and you need to move on and focus on the future.
- Tap your Awesomeness: Even if this proves difficult, sit down and write down a list of your skills and unique qualifications such as “your positive work ethic or that you take instruction well,” says Winch. “Whatever it is, constantly remind yourself of what would make an employer fortunate to have you, rather than focusing on whatever the shortcomings are you think you might have.” I have worked with clients to remind them that they are confident and good employees. We have worked together on when they felt empowered in past jobs and contributed positively to their company to craft mantras that they could feel encapsulated their values and self-worth to employers.
- Surround yourself with positive people: Obviously, you can’t change your friends overnight but you should avoid negative people while you recuperate. You know the ones. Emotions are contagious. Hang out with positive people and avoid pity party. And, while we are on this subject, you might want to stay off Facebook and the likes where everyone is just so happy and showing off their perfect lives. That’s such a downer when you are feeling low. Go out and meet people in the flesh, not in the virtual world.
- Release yourself from the need for approval: Frequently our fear of failure has at its roots our fear of being judged by others and losing their respect and esteem. We fear being kicked out of the tribe! We get influenced by what people say about us. What one person or even many people think about you is not necessarily the truth about you, and if you give too much power to others’ opinions, it will undermine your confidence, and ability to succeed. Don’t forget that many people that you consider successful have been fired including Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, J.K. Rowling, Michael Bloomberg, Lee Iacocca, Anna Wintour, Jerry Seinfeld, and many more.
- Don’t let your job status define you: Don’t take it personally. Separate the failure from your identity. Just because you haven’t found a successful way of doing something doesn’t mean you are a failure. Contrary to perception, no one is perfect. It is important to separate who you are from what you do. 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. Don’t take it as a personal rejection against you. It may well be due to economic forces far beyond your control that you found yourself out of work. Potential employers will be more attracted to people who have proven their ability to stay positive and confident despite a setback/job loss.
Finally, each time you go back to this event in your mind, even if it is 10 or even 20 years after the event, you may find that you still need to practice the 7 habits mentioned above. With time, you should feel proud that you have overcome the trauma of dismissal and lived to tell the tale.
Thankfully, in my case, I am now able to look back on my own firing with some distance and recognise what was in my control and what was not. I am also grateful that the experience has given me the ability to understand what others feel when they are going through the same experience.