How to Mentally Survive Losing Your Job
As I got up this morning, I had an odd thought about something that I never really thought I would experience.
I’ve been unemployed for over a week.
I still feel the stinging pain of it all. Some days it’s hard to stay afloat above all of the difficult feelings I’m swimming in. I’d love to say that I’m alright, but most of the time it’s been tough.
I don’t like that I was so reliant on a job for security and comfort.
It’s felt weird, also, to be in public places in the middle of the day. It shouldn’t be that strange for a 29-year-old father of two to be visiting Walmart or PetSmart on a weekday morning.
But for me, it felt like I should be in an office.
You know in the movies when some older person tells a group of kids something like “hey, shouldn’t you be in school or something?” I know, it sounds dumb, but I’ve felt like someone might say that to me this week.
That’s just what being umployed feels like. Only it’s worse because you know how stupid you feel to even think things like that.
This is just one of the four most traumatic experiences I’ve had in my entire life. And all of them have happened within the last two years. More on the others another day. For now, though, suffice it to say that the last couple of years have run me ragged with difficulties.
How did I make it through significant bouts with depression, a daughter in the NICU, an injury during a marathon, and now joblessness?
It’s called learned optimism, and it’s one of the greatest life lessons I’ve ever learned. These principles have helped me feel confident that life cannot ever again bring me permanently down.
But even more than that, I’m experiencing greater courage to dare greatly and go after my dreams.
What is Learned Optimism?
In the 1970s, Martin Seligman, also known as the father of positive psychology, began research that would ignite a movement to transform therapy as the world knew it.
His aim was to find out how to make people happy instead of just making them not unhappy.
His book, Learned Optimism, is the culmination of many of his studies. Through studying Seligman’s research, I have learned that it is possible to make it out of habitual depressive and anxious thoughts.
And I’ve learned it because I’ve practiced it. Implementing the techniques I’m about to show you is exactly what has helped me get through of all of my recent major traumatic experiences.
In the Summer of 2017, I was battling one of the more severe bouts with depression I’ve had. After pushing myself hard enough to run a marathon, score high on the graduate school entrance exam, and try to balance it all with family and full-time work, I had run myself into the ground psychologically.
My wife, who has a degree in public health, suggested I do some research on the principle of learned optimism, which she remembered vaguely at the time. A quick Google search and an Amazon purchase later, the book was on the way.
Little did I know how much Dr. Seligman was about to permanently rearrange my mental health for the better.
According to the research, it’s not the adversity that makes us feel depressed or anxious.
It’s what we think about our hardships that has a negative effect on our mental health.
We each have what’s referred to in the book as an explanatory style, which can be optimistic or pessimistic. Your explanatory style is the way that you explain events to yourself. There are three core beliefs of this principle: permanence, personality, and pervasiveness.
When something goes wrong, people tend to believe that the difficulty is unchangeable, that it’s a result of them being a terrible person, and that every aspect of their life is a chaotic mess.
One example is after failing an important test in college. You could imagine yourself thinking that it’s all over, you’re so stupid, and that it’s no wonder you can’t get a date either because you’re such a failure. The permanent, personal, and pervasive pessimism that you apply to the situation leads you to feel depressed about your past and anxious about your future.
When you really think about it, however, what evidence do you have that failing a test means such catastrophic things?
It’s just one test. And you’re probably not stupid; the test was just really hard. Later you may find out that everyone did poorly, and your score will be curved.
So, How Does This Apply to Losing a Job?
Well, let me show you. I’ll walk you through the exact thought exercises I’m using to get on top of this malignant mental maelstrom.
While I am not mentally bulletproof, what I’m about to show you has turned the experience into an opportunity that I’m now grateful for.
I’m using the ABCDE approach that Seligman teaches to energize my reaction to the negative experience of being abruptly let go. In other words, I’m interrupting the negative automatic thought patterns that I used to have when things would go wrong.
I’ve gone from this:
Adversity → Unhealthy thoughts → depression & anxiety
Adversity → Unhealthy thoughts → interruption via disputation → upliftment
But first, let me explain just what the ABCDE approach is and how it works.
The ABCDE’s of Learned Optimism
Initially developed by Albert Ellis in the late 1950s, the ABCDE method is how I’ve gotten out of my dysfunctional thought patterns. The best way to practice it is by writing it out for yourself.
A stands for adversity. Write down whatever afflictions you experience each day, like failing a test, getting pulled over, or being yelled at on the internet.
B stands for belief. Write your belief about what the adversity means for you. Think specifically about your permanent, personal, and pervasive thoughts.
C stands for consequences. How do your beliefs about the adversity make you feel? Write those feelings down.
Try this for a week to get comfortable with the technique. When I first practiced this, I used a note-keeping app on my phone. Anytime adversity came up that would make me anxious or depressed, I would write about it.
Next, we get into the ways to fend off unwanted thoughts. After recording your adversities, beliefs, and consequences for a few days start including the following in what you record:
D stands for disputation. You can learn to dispute your automatic thoughts that lead you to spiral downward by learning to argue with them. Focus on contradicting the beliefs that you usually have. This is how you can interrupt the spiral and turn around the consequences.
I’ve found this to be kind of fun myself.
There are four methods for arguing with yourself: evidence, alternatives, implications, and usefulness.
Evidence: examine what facts you have to back up your beliefs. Using our earlier example of failing a test, if you did fail, what evidence do you have that you will not have to quit school and work at McDonald’s your whole life? You might find that you are doing well in a lot of other classes and that this is only one test. Try to think of many pieces of evidence to dispute your original dysfunctional beliefs.
Alternatives: look at the different reasons for a particular outcome. For example, that person that yelled at you online might be grumpy. In most cases, when I get negative comments online, I look at the profile of the person, and they tend to leave other negative comments elsewhere. It’s not their problem with you; it’s their problem with themselves!
Implications: also known as decatastrophizing. To quote Seligman: “Even if my belief is correct, you say to yourself, what are its implications?” For example, even if you did overeat one night, does that really mean that you are a total failure at eating healthy? No, it’s just one moment! Eliza Kingsford uses the same mentality in her book Brain Powered Weight Loss to help people lose weight and keep it off.
Usefulness: when we have to perform well in the moment, it isn’t useful to think about our beliefs about whatever has happened. One example is when playing an instrument on stage, you can’t focus on why you missed a note. It just simply isn’t useful in that moment. You can always examine your mistakes later.
Now, to complete the ABCDE system, we have E, which stands for Energization. Once you have disputed your negative beliefs, you will want to write down how much better you feel after doing so. Think specifically about how proud you are for not spiraling, and what exactly you did to avoid it.
Now, let me show you exactly how I used these principles to break out of the despair that comes with unemployment.
My ABCDE’s After Losing My Job
The adversity was getting let go, rather abruptly and harshly.
Instantly after hearing the news, I was frustrated and disappointed.
How will I support my family? This is my first job right out of college! I’m a terrible worker, and I’ll never be a real professional. I don’t know how I’ll ever hold a job ever again. I chose the wrong career and I’m never going to be able to provide for my family.
I’m so afraid to tell my wife; she’s not going to be happy about this. We’re going to struggle even to be able to put food on the table for a long time.
My life is such a mess; I’m also gaining weight and can’t ever seem to focus on anything.
Notice how my beliefs were permanent (never-ending), personal (I’m an awful person), and pervasive (every part of my life is a failure). I did milk it a little bit, as I didn’t really think some of those things.
After a couple of years of practicing this technique, I know how to avoid the dysfunctional beliefs right when I’m faced with them. That shows you how powerful doing this can be for you.
I feel terrible. I want to crawl in a hole and forget about everything. It feels like I will never get out of this and there’s no light ahead. I’m starting to feel anxious and depressed, like I’m going to be in a rut for a very very long time.
Again, I’m milking it a little bit here, but I want you to see what I would have felt had this happened a couple of years prior.
Evidence: What evidence do I have that I’m a terrible person? I had somebody telling me how much they appreciated me not two days ago. And my life isn’t falling apart; I’m making all this money online. I’m working hard to be a good husband and father. I’m making a difference in many people’s lives.
Alternatives: What are the alternative reasons I could have lost my job? A lot of people have been leaving this company recently, frustrated with the management. Maybe it’s a poor reflection on them and not all on me. As I think about it, the upper-level manager that terminated me didn’t take the time to listen to my complaints. He seemed very reactive and angry, even if he didn’t yell. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this does reflect poorly on the company, which I didn’t really like working for anyway. If they have so many people leaving in frustration, which is what I got fired for wanting to do, and they won’t listen to them, that’s on them, not me! I was also not feeling like I wanted to pursue engineering anyway. I’d rather be a writer and coach. This was probably more a problem of a poor career fit for me than anything else.
Implications: What does it really mean that I lost my job? This is a fantastic opportunity, not a horrific experience! I have so much to learn and gain from this. I’ve had a lot of people telling me that they saw job loss as one of the best things for them or people they know who have been through it. People inside the company and out have told me that they see people in my position go on to get into much better places, and that’s where I’m headed! This isn’t the end; it’s the beginning of something far better than I could have ever imagined!
Usefulness: In the moments after I learned that I was being let go, I began to panic. But not long after that, I knew it was time to act. I realized that I didn’t have time to wallow or feel anything yet. I needed to get things moving forward for a new position. So I did, and I wrote about the result here.
How do my new beliefs energize me? I am incredibly excited that I am done forever with that dysfunctional company. As exciting as that is, I am even more excited to be able to move onward and upward. It feels like a lead weight has been cut off my ankles and now I can fly into a better career.
One Last Lesson
As I look back over the last week or so of not working, I experienced many days of unanticipated despair. It would have been easy for me to force myself to be okay immediately so I could move on and get another job.
While I did utilize the principle of “usefulness” described above to help me get the ball rolling, I purposefully allowed myself the mental time to heal.
Whether you are fighting depression or a speeding ticket, it’s essential that you let yourself experience the feelings of grief that come with setbacks. If you don’t, you fail to validate your feelings, and that makes it difficult to be able to dispute them.
Part of the effectiveness of this method is admitting to yourself how you feel. One habit I’ve also learned to practice is not judging myself for feeling a certain way. It’s not my fault, or yours, when we feel down or angry after life’s challenges. This makes it all the more critical for us to let go and just feel.
I know how hard job loss can be because I’m there right now. But by practicing these principles, I am making my way through the complex feelings and their consequences.
The result is that I feel much better knowing and relying on the truths about myself and my situation, rather than the lies of my automatic thoughts.
There is hope. There is light ahead.
Your situation is not permanent.
You can make it through this; just give yourself time to heal and work through your feelings.