Why My Layoff Hurt More Than a Breakup
The end of a relationship is rough, no matter how prepared you are. For me, there was no preparation. I was completely blindsided—and devastated. Did I miss the signs along the way? What if…? "Often, the biggest hit comes in the form of the questioning it makes us do about our own value," says John Roccia, director of career services at Ama La Vida. "Am I not good enough? Could I have prevented this? And if I could have—how? This leads us to start reexamining every little decision we've ever made and looking for flaws, which isn't great for our self-esteem."
When I got the news that my position was eliminated, I was shattered. I cried for days and ignored my ex-coworkers' calls and texts. The feeling I was experiencing was very familiar—dumped.
According to the Labor Department, 30.3 million people have claimed unemployment in the six weeks that the coronavirus has weighed on the economy. With millions of Americans filing unemployment claims each week, I wonder how many people are feeling that way for the first time. "No one likes rejection," says Roccia. "It's perfectly natural that some relationships—with friends, employers or significant others—will come to an end. That doesn’t make it any less jarring when it happens unexpectedly."
THE RULES OF WORKPLACE FRIENDSHIPS
I had been laid off from jobs before, but it never hurt like this...not even from a breakup. I had never formed such a strong emotional connection to a workplace before. Whether it was professional or not, these were people I considered my friends. I rushed into work early to tell my boss that I got engaged—she knew before half of my friends and extended family. Everyone was invited to my wedding.
I shared my life with these people and thought the bonds were unbreakable. "Initially, many people do try to keep their work and personal lives separate and distinct," says John Grohol, Psy.D., psychologist and editor-in-chief of Psych Central. "What tends to happen over time, however, is that the lines start to blur as people get to know each other better. It's because we're social beings that that effort may ultimately fail. We need that human connection, even with our work colleagues. While it may make the work more meaningful or enjoyable, it does mean when a lay off occurs, it hurts even more."
Even though this didn't feel like a job, it was. My coworkers weren't my friends—they were just being friendly. I played a big role in that dynamic by blurring the lines between personal and professional. "Remember, this is about work," says Marianne Ruggiero, a career coach with Optima Careers LLC. She encourages employees to remember that a job is an arrangement. I was hired to fulfill a set of duties at work and the friendships that I formed were based on that company's need. It was fine to be friendly at work, but if the day came that the company no longer needed my services, that friendship would likely be over.
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
Any significant loss can be devastating, whether it's romantic, platonic or professional. "Many people have their identity tied to their work, just as many people tie their identity to a significant other," says Grohol. "In fact, some people define a lot of their self-worth through the work that they do. When that gets taken away from an individual, they may feel a great sense of loss for what they no longer have."
That was the first stage for me. I felt a huge loss for this part of my life, and that moved into denial. I tried to tell myself that it wasn't that big of a deal...everyone got laid off. Then I was angry with everyone. I directed it at the "high ups" who ultimately made the decision.
Eventually, I sunk into a deep depression that lasted for months. "It's natural to be shocked at first, then angry," says Roccia. "Sometimes you might try to find a way to avoid those feelings, and then get depressed when that obviously doesn't work. These are natural stages, so don't feel bad about facing them. But just like how you eventually accept that the landscape around you has changed and you get back out into the dating scene, you have to get back out into the job market the same way."
BACK INTO THE "DATING" POOL
When I started looking for a new job, I went for a classic rebound. Instead of taking steps to get in the right mindset first, I dove back into the job pool and thought I could fake it until I made it. "You have to put your best foot forward when looking for a new job," says Janna Koretz, Psy.D. "But that doesn't mean you can't also feel sad, angry, disappointed, or any other emotion."
For me, that emotion was overpowering my ability to put my best foot forward. I was coming off as disinterested and ungrateful in interviews. My potential employers were right. I was applying for jobs that I didn’t want because I wasn’t ready to move on. I stopped to reflect and thought more about the aspects of my previous job that hurt me.
That period of reflection was a blessing. While I was lucky enough to be able to take some time to process my feelings, I was also able to focus on what went wrong in my job. "When you reflect, write it down and put it in your journal," says Ruggiero. "Get it off your chest, the same way you would in a relationship. You can express all of your shock and anger. You want to park it some place, close the book and move on."
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Thinking about all of the events leading up to the end of my job was a huge wake up call. It helped me to process the mistakes I made along the way and how I could make sure history doesn't repeat itself. "So many people see a lay off as a major setback in their career goals," says Grohol. "I get that. Because initially, that's all that it seems to be. Maybe it's a warning about your own work ethic, behaviors, or abilities that need some additional attention and improvement on your part, so you will make a better employee for a future employer."
It took me a long time to get over the feelings of a breakup. I spent a lot of time at my new job wondering how my old coworkers were doing, instead of just reaching out to them. I followed the growth of a company, but I was bitter about it. I tried to do the exact opposite at my new job and form no connections at all. Big mistake. "Your emotional connection to your workplace is just like your emotional connection to a partner," says Roccia. "Sure, if you close yourself off emotionally and build walls, you can lessen the hurt of a breakup. But you also make that breakup more likely by never establishing a real connection." After spending eight hours a day with my team for four years, it was natural to care about my work and the relationships I formed there.
MOVING ON, THE RIGHT WAY
Eventually, I coped and found a happy medium in my job search. It took a lot longer than I expected. "Try and move beyond the stages of grief and get to acceptance as soon as possible," says Grohol. "Maybe others can help you with that, whether it's a trusted friend or an online support group for people who've also been laid off. If you're having trouble getting past the feelings of hurt and self-worth, consider even talking to a therapist or career counselor."
In retrospect, I can now see the situation for what it was—a job. I was ignoring the red flags from my employer. I wouldn’t have been blindsided if I had picked up on those cues, instead of looking at my job through rose-colored glasses. "Very few endings are completely unforeseen," says Roccia. "At some point, you saw or heard something that gave you some clue that an ending was approaching, but maybe you didn't address it or accept it. You didn't want it to be true. The biggest lesson you can learn is what to look for, whether it's in yourself or your environment."
Most importantly, I stopped dwelling on the situation. Negative talk didn't make me feel any better and it certainly didn't change the script. "Don't make the mistake of treating all employers as if they're one entity," says Roccia. “If you have a bad breakup, it can be tempting to write off the entirety of the dating pool, blaming them all for the failure of one relationship. People who have been recently laid off do the same. You're allowed to feel your anger, but process it honestly, and put it where it belongs." Doing that was the true acceptance of the lay off for me. I was able to move forward in my career by finding a healthy, middle ground.
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