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Monday, February 15, 2010

When Job Loss Means Loss of Identity

Aside from the financial loss, job loss can also mean the loss of an important identity for the person who has lost his or her job: One day, you're the head of accounting in a prestigious firm, and the next day you're an unemployed person sitting at home wondering what happened, who you are, and what you will do next.


When Job Loss Means Loss of Identity

As I've mentioned in other posts, prior to being a psychotherapist, many years ago, I was involved in other fields, including banking and finance. Being in the banking and financial field as a human resource manager, I had many occasions to see people laid off from their jobs due to mergers, cutbacks, and "downsizing" (a euphemism that I have never learned to like).

Even though I had seen many employees lose their jobs (through no fault of their own), nothing prepared me for when it actually happened to me.

A few months prior, I had received an excellent performance evaluation and there was no reason to think at the time that I would be laid off. But I can still remember how my mouth went dry and my brain was slowly trying to catch up to my boss's words when she told me that she was truly sorry to be letting me go.

She had tears in her eyes, assuring me that it was nothing that I had done (or not done), she offered to give me an excellent letter of recommendation, and help me in any way that she could.

But, based on company protocol, which I knew well, I had to pack my personal belongings and leave by the end of the day. That protocol, which is generally observed for security reasons (the idea being that an employee might get angry and engage in sabotage) is one of the most dehumanizing experiences you can go through.

I think some part of me went on automatic and I gathered my things in boxes. There was no time to say goodbye to colleagues (and I don't even know what I would've said to most of them at the time). But, before I left, I called one colleague that I had a close collegial relationship with to tell her that I had just been "let go." She knew and admired my work, and she was shocked. Months later, she told me that she was so surprised when I called her that she didn't know what to do or say, so she just put her head down on her desk.

Afterwards, as I was taking the train home, I was so distracted that I got on the wrong train and only realized it when I had traveled a distance from my home.

I felt like I was in a fog. I was fortunate to have a good emotional support system, and that night, I made up my mind to do what I had been thinking about doing for a long time--completing my undergraduate degree, going to graduate school, and changing careers. So, I was able to channel my emotions into advancing my new plan with determination.

But it wasn't easy at all. Even though I had this new determination, I still went through most of the feelings that people go through when they lose their job: shock, denial, sadness, and anger.

I also come from a family with a very strong work ethic, which has generally been beneficial to me. My grandparents lived through the dark days of the Great Depression and their attitude was: "If you have a job, no matter what kind of job you do, do it with pride to the best of your ability, and be happy that you have a job."

My father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins were all hard workers. Although my cousins and I knew that our grandparents suffered during the Depression, we never dared to ask them about it directly. We heard oblique references to it at times and how hard it was, but that was it.

And, as children, we knew that there were two things that you did not ask my grandfather about because it was too upsetting for him: 1) Did he miss his family in Italy, a family that he was very close to, and that he never saw again after he came to the US by himself when he was 17 years old, and 2) What happened after he lost his job during the Depression?

Of course, by the time my cousins and I arrived on the scene, they were okay: My grandfather had a job as a janitor for the post office that he was very proud of. He talked about the post office a lot when the whole family got together every Sunday for dinner.

Having gone through the Depression, we sensed that it was like a badge of honor for him that he had this secure Federal civil service job. And, through a lot of hard work, before my cousins and I were born, my grandparents also eventually achieved the American Dream of buying their own home: Be it ever so humble in a part of Brooklyn where goats still roamed the streets at the time when they bought their two-family house.

Since both of these topics were so taboo and shrouded in a dark mystery, as children, we grew up feeling that losing your job would be one of the worst calamities that could ever happen to you. Even though I was living in a very different time than when my grandfather lost his job and I was not a child when it happened to me, I still had a sense (as distorted as it might have been) that this terrible thing happened to me, and I was somehow at fault. This is a common initial reaction for many people who are laid off as they try to sort through in their minds what happened to them.

At this point, I'm fortunate to be able to say that losing that job was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I went on to complete my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and obtained postgraduate training. I can honestly say that I've never had any regrets about it. But that's jumping ahead in the story quite a bit and, at the time, I didn't have a crystal ball that would predict a good outcome, so I was worried.

Aside from losing a daily routine that gives so much structure to people's lives and losing the day-to-day affiliations with coworkers, when people lose their jobs, they often lose their sense of identity. No matter how much you might like to say, "I'm not my job" or "I'm not my title," it's the rare person who doesn't go through this kind of loss of identity.

In my case, I went from being a full time assistant manager to being a full-time student. I'm a naturally curious person and love learning.

But, aside from losing a regular income and knowing that there was no cushion of a second income, it was a hard adjustment to being a returning college student as a middle-aged person among people in their late teens and early 20s.

So, to cope with this adjustment and the accompanying doubts and fears, I had to learn to keep very focused on my goal, which was years away for me at that point. I took whatever part-time work that I could find (we were going through another recession at the time, so work was not plentiful), took out student loans, and reigned in my spending immediately.

Even though this occurred to me many years ago, I still remember how it felt for me, and I have a lot of empathy for people who are going through it now. Of course, everyone's situation is different, but in general, to sustain yourself emotionally, I would recommend:

  • Stay connected with your emotional support system: Allow your spouse or partner, close friends, and other family members to be supportive of you. As tempting as it might be to not pick up the phone when a friend calls, this is not the time to isolate.
  • Stay in contact with former colleagues and supervisors. They are often a valuable resource for references, tips about job openings, and what's going on in the field.
  • Join business networks like LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/) to pursue career opportunities.
  • Find meaning and value in the other aspects of your life: You're still the same person that you were before you lost your job--father, mother, son, husband, wife, Little League coach or whatever other roles you might have.
  • Don't blame yourself if you were laid off due to cutbacks. Chances are the decision to lay you off, which is, of course, very personal to you and your family, was made based on financial decisions. And if you were terminated for cause (for something that you did or did not do), learn from whatever mistakes that you might have made.
  • After you go through the initial shock, denial, grief, and anger, work towards accepting what has happened and mobilize yourself to take action. Avail yourself of whatever resources there might be in your local library or State Department of Labor. Take advantage of whatever funds there might be through Unemployment insurance for additional educational training.
  • Recognize that you're going through a crisis and take good care of yourself. This is not the time to skimp on medical and dental visits, especially if you are eligible under the new current Federal COBRA law, to extend your health benefits at a reduced rate, if you qualify. Engage in stress management techniques that work for you (like meditation or going for regular walks).
  • Remember other times when you went through other crises and you came out of it okay--maybe even better than okay. Maybe you'll be able to make changes in your life, as I did, that you might not have made if you didn't lose your job. Also, remember, that we're often more resilient than we realize.
Stay Connected With Your Emotional Support System


I am a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist in NYC who works with individuals and couples to help them lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.