Virginia Bola

Article Summary:

How you can counteract the fear that job loss can generate.

How to Overcome the Fear When You Are Unemployed

Unemployment carries a lot of emotional baggage for most of us and fear is a major component. We fear the financial fallout of no longer receiving regular wages. We fear the impact of our lack of productivity on relationships: our marriage, our family, our friends, and our social and community activities. We fear losing the respect of our children when we can no longer give them what they need. We fear approaching acquaintances for help in identifying potential positions. We fear the humiliation of the job hunt and the personal rejection we expect to encounter. And finally we fear the most basic concept we hold within: that we're just not good enough, that we can't cut the mustard, that we're an incurable loser.

The fear seeps into our bones and leaves us awake and restless in the middle of the night. It flashes behind our eyes to telegraph our desperation in interviews. It weighs heavily on our stooped shoulders as we walk into yet another agency and answer the same questions we have been asked for weeks. It hobbles our energy and extinguishes the enthusiasm we try so hard to project.

It becomes our constant, uninvited companion in everything we do. If not quickly contained, it wrests control of our lives.

To manage our fear, "Think positive" is a useless platitude when there is almost nothing positive going on in your current world. You have no job, no income, no prospects, and no real hope. But you still have the most powerful tool ever developed: the human mind. To stop the encroachment of fear, your mind must become your partner and your ally; it is your secret weapon against the fears and anxieties of an untenable situation.

Here are a variety of strategies for you to try:

Early financial planning
After the initial shock of losing your job ebbs a little, your natural motivation and competitive drive kick in and you feel optimistic that something will open up in a very short time. You may have been out of the labor market for a long time and haven't realized that hiring protocols have changed significantly over the past few years. Except for entry-level jobs, it is unusual to obtain an offer on the first interview. Employers are wary of skeletons lurking in applicants' closets and take their time in checking you out. For the past four years, the average time out of work has drastically increased - it now typically takes six to twelve months to find a new position. That is a long time to go without regular income and how many of us have substantial savings to give us a real safety net?

As soon as you can, sit down with your spouse and your records and see what you can do to immediately cut expenses to the bone. Contact your creditors and see if you can defer payments by paying interest for a while. Restructure your social life and choice of entertainment to conserve every cent that you can. It won't entirely remove that nagging fear-of-losing-everything that will dog your footsteps until you're again gainfully employed, but having some sense of control over it will lower the worry to a dull roar rather than downright panic.

Share your fears
Confess your fears to your spouse, your family, your friends, your pastor - whoever makes you feel comfortable enough to share your personal thoughts. If you have a supportive spouse and family, reveal your worry that your present circumstances will impact your relationships with each other and jointly plan how that can be avoided. So many couples withdraw when under stress. The partner without a job feels drained and lost as summoning the high energy required for a successful job search campaign becomes more and more difficult. The partner who is still working feels stressed out from the increased responsibility of being the only breadwinner. Because they do not realize how painful and disheartening are your frequent rejections, they start to think that you're not that interested in finding a position, that you're not looking hard enough. Share your feelings early and become part of a team effort or you may become part of the nasty statistic that shows a high percentage of laid off workers encounter marital strife, separation, and divorce.

Use your friends and acquaintances
Asking for, and receiving, support from those around you doesn't have to mean exploitation. People who know you, like you, and care about you are happy to help when they can. Don't be embarrassed to ask for their assistance and do it clearly, concisely, and directly. Just "dropping hints" and getting frustrated when no help is forthcoming is self-defeating. Call in the chips from everyone you know and vow that you will return the favor for them when your positions are reversed.

Manage the toxic effects of job search
Looking for work feels humiliating because you sense an inner air of superiority in the contacts you make. People who have a job possess a sense of identity and security that as an unemployed applicant you temporarily lack. Ask yourself how much of the attitude is coming from the other person and how much is your own projection. While you will undoubtedly run into the occasional boor, many more of your contacts - employers, interviewers, receptionists, human resource specialists, agency staff - empathize with your situation having been there in the past themselves and fully aware that there is a good chance that they'll be there again in the future.

Your misery and pain leads to the feeling that it is you, alone, against the world. Every face in the crowd is threatening and alien. Self-conscious about our non-productivity in a culture that deifies success, we assume that everyone else buys into our own self-critical, guilty, personally faulty image. If, for even a few moments, you can step out of that self-centric view, you may be able to change your self-judgment. Look at yourself with the objectivity of a little distance.

When you look at other applicants, what is your reaction? Do you despise and look down on them or identify with their desperation and want to help? Although often distracted, inattentive, or oblivious, most of us care about other people and are willing to help once we really notice what is going on.

Look at the outpouring of sympathy, support, and love that a kidnapped child or a natural disaster evoke. Are we that generous all the time? Of course not, we are all too involved in lives that demand our attention 24 hours a day. Only when a light explodes do we start to look around us and our better selves emerge.

The key to an open, positive outlook is to realize that our humanity is always there, we're just not paying attention to it. If you can expand that vision of a caring, supportive humanity to those who seem to view you with indifference, your world completely changes. Instead of a drab, lonely desert, you see the waves of surrounding support, all caring about you, wanting the best for you, rooting for you: a great, positive team in your corner.

Yes, you will still experience rejection but your new outlook can put that into perspective. It is not a personal rejection but a mathematical determinant: if the number of applicants exceeds the number of openings, everyone, even those fully qualified and highly regarded, cannot be hired. Acceptance of that reality, in a non-personalized view, can help keep you going until you find the perfect fit - you get the job offer and other highly skilled applicants don't.

Battling personal inadequacy
There are, luckily, very few times in our lives when we feel we are being judged by our peers. Unfortunately, looking for a job is one of those times. Every resume submission and application completion makes us feel that our personal worth is being assessed. That feeling intensifies in an interview where we sit eyeball to eyeball with our judges. We feel vulnerable and objectified as interviewers scrutinize our skills and experience.

To validate our sense of personal competence, we need to be seen as valuable and worthwhile. That is why we feel so good about ourselves when we are offered a position that we wouldn't allow our dog to take, like night liquor store clerk in a high crime neighborhood or cleaning crew in a slaughterhouse (yes, people do those jobs). The important thing is that we are wanted, that what we have to offer has value to someone. It is also why we get so down on ourselves when we are not offered a position: the more we want the job, the more crushing is the sense of defeat when we don't get it.

Everyone experiences rejection at some point during their lives, sometimes only occasionally, sometimes often, whether it is finding a job, applying for a promotion, asking for a date, proposing to someone they love, or trying out for a team. Failure is part of our lives because we are naturally competitive and everyone can't place first in the race to the wire.

It is our mental generalizations that cause such natural rejection to become crushing. If something is not that important to us, we shrug it off with a sour grapes response: I didn't want to be in that stupid club anyway. When we are emotionally committed to a goal, failure becomes devastating. While being turned down for a job will never carry the emotional jolt of having a marriage proposal rebuffed, the destructiveness of job search is that rejection becomes a recurrent pattern. One failure to make the cut is manageable; ten failures, one after the other, start to impact our ability to cope; a hundred failures overwhelm us.

We start to identify ourselves as losers. We mentally twist our failures into a pattern and start to believe that we are the problem: we're just can't make the grade. We fail to look at the situation objectively: that each job application, like a dice roll or the pull of a slot machine handle, is a totally independent event with odds that don't change with multiple repetitions.

The fact that I was not offered one particular position says nothing except another applicant was a better fit. It is not a judgment about me as a whole person, not even as a worker or potential employee. For one of a thousand reasons, the chemistry wasn't right. Watch how your mind doesn't really accept that as it sinks into self-blame and self-doubt, repeating all the negative tapes you have ever developed, seeking to make you see yourself as a perennial loser.

Use that same powerful mind to consciously focus on your positive attributes. Think, or better yet write down, all your successes, great and small. Mentally explore your life, looking for all the times you were a winner - everything from a good grade in a difficult subject to the successful raising of a child, scoring a goal, marrying your spouse. Re-assuring yourself of your value, frequently and at length, will help turn your mind into a source of support rather than an internal enemy who repeatedly cuts you down.

Rejection is always difficult but its pain can be made more fleeting when we refuse to allow one, or a hundred, rejections to define ourselves as reject-material.

Virginia Bola, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist who operated a vocational rehabilitation firm for more than 20 years. She studies the emotional effects of unemployment, aging, overweight, and social issues on the individual.  Her first book, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual addressed the emotional aspects of unemployment, provided psychological support for the rigors of the job search, and incorporated proven techniques for obtaining successful work. Her new (2005) book, Diet With An Attitude: A Weight Loss Workbook, approaches weight control through psychological strategies to permanently modify the body-food relationship. Visit her sites at and

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