Virginia Bola

Article Summary:

Techniques to counteract the painful loss of self-belief that occurs with job loss are provided.

Unemployment Stress: How to Keep a Strong Sense of Self

When we lose our jobs, no matter the reason, we lose a big part of our identity. Think of the last several times you met new people. After names are exchanged and polite comments made on whatever event you are attending, the question quickly arises: "What do you do?"

It's a pleasant starting point for conversation and usually gives rise to many questions or a lively discussion. It also allows us to measure and preliminarily judge each other. Until we really start to know someone as an individual, we tend to deal in broad generalizations and stereotypes. By learning what work a stranger performs, we start making assumptions about their values: education, social ranking, work ethic, and personal priorities. Meet someone and talk for a while and, unconsciously, you are assessing and categorizing them based on occupational data. Meet a custodian, a plumber, a nurse, or an attorney. Notwithstanding your actual conversation, you have made character judgments that may have little basis in reality but which allows you to fit that person into a suitable niche in your mental organization.

When I can no longer say proudly "I'm a mechanic" or "I am a computer operator" my self-esteem plummets. I meet you as a stranger and admit that I am unemployed, perhaps have been for an extended period of time, and I watch my stature diminish in your eyes. I can talk about what I used to do but I feel somehow tainted and incomplete. I talk too much about why I have no job because I want you to realize that it's not my fault, that I really want to work, that there's nothing wrong with me.

The scourge of unemployment is what it does to our minds. We may have watched as our position moved overseas. We may have sensed that our department was running over budget. We may have known that the company was seeking to cut costs. But unless the entire company closed down, or relocated out of state, we believe in our hearts that we were selected for lay off, over someone else, for a reason. And, being human and vulnerable, we blame ourselves.

Who has ever been terminated, even from a job you don't particularly like, without ruminating over what you could have done differently that might have changed the final outcome. "I should have . . . worked Saturdays to do that extra project, been more willing to train the boss's idiot son, socialized more with the in-crowd." Whatever it is, you feel guilty. "If I had handled things differently, my family wouldn't be suffering the way they are." You feel not quite good enough, not up to par. Your negative mental tapes start replaying in your head and you start generalizing about yourself and your lack of worth. You remind yourself of all the negative things you've done in life and look at yourself as a failure "Why do I always blow it?"

STOP IT!

That's a lot easier to say than do, I know. But, it's worth a try. Start by listing all of your positive accomplishments (take your time over this, add items later as you think about them). Anything relating to work is going to be valuable to put in your resume but there is more to life than work so look at other areas too. If your children are not in jail or strung out on drugs, include "good parenting skills" in your list -- you must be doing something right. Include major activities: taking night classes while continuing to work, coaching little league, volunteering for a charity drive, running a household while working full time. When you run out of major areas, start concentrating on smaller items such as cleaning the house, taking your parents out for a special dinner, losing those 10 pounds which had been bothering you. KEEP ON LISTING until you have pages of positive personal accomplishments over your lifetime, from an A grade in kindergarten to painting the patio last week.

Now compare the list of your positives, all the things that make you what and who you are, the things that make you a valuable and unique human being, and the one item, no current job, that is your primary negative. There really is no comparison at all, is there? Move your mental focus from those old negative tapes by concentrating on all (and there are a lot) of your positives. Keep repeating and redirecting until habit kicks in and your mental outlook slowly changes.

Your self-esteem will improve, your self-confidence reassert itself, your belief in your own worth blossom. Now you are ready to tackle the demands of job search with higher energy and without that baggage you've been hauling around for too, too long.

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 DietWithAnAttitude.com and UnemploymentBlues.com.

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