Shame is a powerful force and a common response to job loss – and this is a bad combination. Shame drains energy and confidence. It undermines connection with others at precisely the moment when it’s needed the most. So how do we triumph over shame after job loss? The first step is to recognize it.
Last month, I began coaching a client with a long, accomplished career in the entertainment industry who had recently lost her job. We were reviewing her LinkedIn profile, a must-have tool for job seekers, as recruiters and hiring managers often turn to LinkedIn in their search for candidates. When I noted to my client that her page was too skeletal – no photo and few details about her professional achievements – she said, ‘I’m afraid to reveal more because I won’t measure up.’ Her answer stunned me. How can there be such a disconnect between notable achievement and level of confidence? My client worked at one company for almost 20 years. The sudden job loss knocked her down, dislodging her sense of belonging and sense of self.
In this situation, my client felt like a failure, and the inclination was to withdraw. Working as her coach, I had the chance to intervene, and said, ‘no way.’ If you have this inclination, do what it takes to resist using some of the strategies outlined below.
remember that you’re in good company
One of the first questions I get asked when prepping a client for an interview is, ‘How do I explain why I’m out of work?’ Even when the circumstances are less than ideal, I counsel people to keep their answer to this question brief, then quickly pivot to demonstrating enthusiasm about a new opportunity. In today’s environment, with millions of people unemployed because of pandemic-related layoffs, no hiring manager would be surprised to find a potential candidate in between jobs. The numbers are too staggering. Listening to countless people who find themselves without a job for the very first time, I understand their pain. They come to me steeped in shame and don’t know how to talk about it.
Talking, and yes, even venting can be a good thing. Choose your confidantes wisely. The odds are you already know someone experiencing job loss and they probably know someone too. To triumph over shame following job loss, consider putting together a small mastermind group with others who are in similar situations. Schedule a regular meeting time, when you can share challenges, give each other support, generate new ideas and provide accountability. We are in a rare moment in which there is less stigma and more societal compassion around being unemployed. Every day, I coach clients at the top of their fields, with stunning achievements, who are looking for work. You are in the best of company. Remember this.
reach out to your network
Connecting with others who are in similar situations and also looking for work is a good place to start. But the crucial targets are people who might know of opportunities and be able to offer a referral. One of the most consistent ways that my clients have landed jobs has been when a former supervisor or colleague brings them onto the team where they’re currently employed. Don’t let shame get in the way of reaching out to your network and tapping into a vital pipeline.
reconnect with your value
Organizational restructuring and reductions are common in today’s job market, especially given widespread, pandemic-related layoffs. When employers let people go, it’s often a matter of numbers and rethinking business needs, rather than a reflection of an employee’s performance. In other words, it’s not personal. But even if you can be clear-eyed about this, it’s still understandable to feel bruised after a job loss. One way to overcome this shame is to allow yourself to mourn the loss, but keep a boundary around the grieving, so that it doesn’t erode motivation and self-esteem. Use the same approach for fielding rejections when applying for jobs. Reconnect with your accomplishments by deconstructing what it took to get there. Try the following exercise to get in touch with your shining moments:
Think of a time when you accomplished something on the job that was meaningful – an accomplishment you feel proud of. Then, do what I call an ‘achievement debrief.’
Take a deep dive into the step-by-step process of how you achieved success. Take your time answering the following questions. Don’t take for granted any part of the process or the skills and tenacity that it required. It’s often the tasks that come easiest that are our natural gifts.
- what results did you achieve?
- what traits did it take to get it done?
- where did you have to dig deep?
- what made you particularly suited for the task?
- what impact did this achievement have on the company?
Now repeat the exercise, this time reflecting on an achievement that has nothing to do with work.
The answers to these questions will speak to your value, passions and unique strengths. Soak in your successes. And use them to help frame your professional story.
A client of mine recently landed a great job after a long search and a roller coaster of ups and downs. What led to this job was an impulse to do good. Months before he was hired, during a historically massive flood in his state, he decided to volunteer for the Red Cross. At first, he did manual labor, whatever it took to help the survivors. He then segued into training volunteers and caught the eye of a supervisor. They stayed in touch once the disaster passed, and when a paid position opened for the executive director of the Red Cross in his region, he got the call.
When you’re out of work, securing a paying job is the most direct benefit of volunteering. But there’s another advantage if you’re experiencing shame. You’ll have a chance to step into something larger than your own personal struggles. Contributing your time and talent to people that need you can help restore your sense of value.
I know from my own experience that if left unattended, shame after job loss can infect other parts of your life and make everything feel bad. During my days of looking for work, I went on long walks with my dog, not realizing until we got back to the house, that I’d spent the entire time focused inward in a negative, hopeless spiral. There’s one clear antidote and it’s well within your grasp. Remind yourself of positive thoughts and small wins. Not in a vague, abstract way. Use metrics and be very specific.
Each day come up with five things that were positive about the prior 24 hours. It can range from the mundane – like not getting a parking ticket even though you returned to the meter 10 minutes late, to the more consequential – like sailing through your annual physical. I say ‘practice’ because if you’re like me, gratitude doesn’t come naturally. You might have to work at it. Make a commitment and use this framework to get started. Let it become an essential part of your day, even once you land a great job.
In a perfect world, we would naturally appreciate our own inherent value regardless of employment status. But sometimes this takes work. And by work, I don’t mean having a job. Sometimes, to triumph over shame, it takes a deliberate effort to stay connected, share our stories, help others, solicit help and be thankful for the good stuff.