The Emotional Cost of Downsizing
When losing a job surfaces feelings of shame and loss of self-worth
When a friend loses his or her job, our support comes in the form of encouraging affirmations about how quickly they will bounce back. We remind them how unhappy they were in that job anyhow and assure them they will find a new job in no time. We offer connections and suggestions on how to improve their resume and how to get past recruiting algorithms.
What we often feel too ashamed to talk about is the overwhelming sense of loss that accompanies job loss — the feeling of raw vulnerability that co-exists with our diminished sense of self-worth.
Our job title and paychecks mean more than a resume and numbers on a W-2 — it’s our identity.
Our career is entwined with how we feel about our personal definition of success, further amplified in a world where the answer to the question “so, what do you do” defines us.
It’s inescapable — we get asked about what we do at the airport, in an Uber, at a friend’s dinner table. As a culture, we are obsessed with defining people and putting them in a job-shaped box. We are measured and evaluated based on that single factor — what we do for money. After I lost my job, I remember being asked “so, what do you do” for the first few times and being at a loss of words for what to say. At first, I would come up with something tongue and cheek to rebut the question, like “do you mean for fun, or for money?” If the question came light-heartedly, I would respond with things I love like writing or traveling.
I resented the fact that our jobs define us. As a woman with no children, I also resented that the next logical assumption was that I didn’t have a job because I was home changing diapers.
I hated that my worth was being judged, I knew I offered the world so much more than my job title or child-rearing abilities. I felt an obligation to protest societal pressure and be the judge of my own existence.
In the depths of my self-loathing, I realized how I allowed my own career to be entwined with how I perceived my own worth. I dreaded the question and protested it fiercely because underneath the surface I felt ashamed. I no longer had a job that was impressive and a team of people who depended on me. I lost my sense of self. What am I passionate about? Why did I choose that career anyhow? My job defined me, and now I didn’t know how to show up in the world. My self-loathing was palpable, and the discomfort of being a recovering workaholic was unchartered territory.
It took months of being unemployed before I realized that I needed to stop overvaluing accomplishment and achievement and start valuing myself for exactly who I was — not for what I did.
After years of giving work all of my life energy and all of my time, I know that it wasn’t just money and success that I was chasing. I was filling a void where self-love and self-acceptance ought to be.
A psychologist friend of mine observed that I was the product of a child neglected by her parents. My high-achieving nature was the classic textbook behavior of a child raised by a narcissistic and selfish parent. I was only noticed and loved when I achieved, not for who I was as a human being. My friend’s remarks should not have come as a surprise to me, but the validation of how I had been living my life spoke to what I feared was true all along — I had been living for external validation. I never felt unconditional love growing up, and I struggled to accept love and more importantly to love myself. My childhood experiences imprinted the words “High Achiever” in my heart and in my mind.
To me, achieving was synonymous with self-worth.
Recognition for success was the only way I knew how to receive love, and feel loved. Growing up with very little security and stability, I was motivated by independence. Having the financial means to live well is the ultimate manifestation of success by my personal definition.
The reality of losing my job manifested into a deep sense of failure, and a total loss of security. My fight or flight mode was engaged, and I knew I was ready to put down the mask. I had the time and space I needed to shift my focus away from that next career to becoming and growing into the person I wanted to be: loved, accepted and complete. To be whole, secure and confident that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Over one year after losing my job, I was offered and accepted a position that leveraged my unique skills and made me excited to grow in a new direction. I am challenged and expanding my horizons every day, and proud of the strength and resilience it took to make such a courageous change.
Every day I consciously strive to find that balance between my ambition and my well being.
Creating professional boundaries helps me manage my time and stress levels. I know when to rise to the challenge and when to lean in and ask for help. I practice yoga, take mid-day walks, practice gratitude and set manageable goals that help me stay grounded in self-acceptance.
There’s a sweet balance somewhere in the middle — maybe that’s where women can have it all. A thriving career that’s fulfilling and a healthy sense of self-worth.
I know that my job no longer defines who I am as a person and the value that I bring to the world.
So when someone you care about loses their job, consider how you can be a more conscientious friend. Sure, everyone could use career advice from time to time, but what we all really need is to be seen, loved and accepted for who we really are. To know that we are enough, that we deserve love, and to feel proud of the lives we have built. Take the time to find out what the journey really feels like during times of transitions, and offer support — you may just earn a friend for life.
And next time you meet someone new, why not ask them about what they are passionate about? Who really wants to talk about work anyway?