The concept of identity is a complex one as it comprises many things. Our identities are made up of our personal beliefs, values, social relationships, and so much more. Identity guides how we identify with the world, and how the world perceives us. The loss of a job can challenge our identities financially (loss or change in income), psychologically (where we create meaning of who we are, how we interact with the world, and how we are viewed by peers), and interpersonally (loss of friendships and workplace relationships).
A friend of mine lost her job recently. She had known there were layoffs happening for weeks, and was expecting a notice at some point. Yet it didn’t lessen the impact of the shock and sadness when she found out. Her job was a source of income, a career for which she had attended post-secondary school, and a field she had worked in her entire adult life. Her job represented stability, opportunity, friendships, and hopes and dreams. My friend’s example highlights the grief experienced following job loss. Grief is complicated because we don’t grieve one thing following a loss. There is the primary loss, but also the secondary losses, which can sometimes be felt months or even years after. Secondary losses following the loss of a job can look like losing a house, changes in income, cancelling vacation, changes in routine, the missing out on a promotion, or loss of hope. These can all impact identity, and may leave us feeling unsure of where to go next, and asking the question, “who am I now?” As a society, we attach significant meaning to how work ties into our identities. It’s likely you can recall being at a function, and being asked, “what do you do for a living?” Where we work, and who we work with, shapes our identities, and when a job loss occurs the impact can be a disrupting experience. Who would have thought a job could represent so much?
Absorbing the shock
When the loss of a job occurs, there becomes a need to create a new sense of self. There may be a back and forth between letting go of the old and moving onto the new. The instinct is often to get back to the old, the comfortable, the ‘what we’ve always known.’ We may idealize a reality that did not occur and become focused on what we believe our futures ‘should have’ looked like, which can result in feelings of unhappiness with the present situation. But the reality is that we cannot go back, and part of the grieving process is accepting what has occurred. With my friend’s example she discussed knowing the job loss would happen eventually, but still experiencing the pain of it. Consider the routines you have created throughout your day around work. You get up at a certain time, get ready, drive to work, interact with people, and then go home. At the best of times, we have all likely complained about the traffic and a certain someone at the office. Whether losing a job is expected or not, the disruption which occurs can come as a shock as it challenges our notion of normal. When this happens, the goal is to recognize the loss. This can be done through regulation, stability, and through new routines to re-establish a sense of safety and structure.
Negotiating a new sense of self
Now that you have recognized the loss, it’s important to experience it. There may be a struggle, or a back and forth if you will, between still wanting the old, but needing the new. You may feel like you’re in a state where nothing makes sense. This is a normal response to loss as we attempt to resolve the ambiguity around a future we’re unsure of, and a past we cannot have. It’s common for people to experience intense emotional waves as the negotiation occurs, and there may be feelings of guilt, anger, depressed mood, or anxiety. Permission giving is an integral part of grieving, and allowing ourselves to feel the emotions around a loss can be powerful. Acknowledging and owning the difficult emotions helps to create a sense of control in a situation where we may feel we don’t have any. This can also be an opportunity to find meaning out of the new reality, and where you may consider seeking new endeavours and options which may not have been available before. During this time there is a negotiation of what will and will not work, all the while grieving what could have been.
A bit of the old with the new
Early theories of grief often focused on moving on, or letting go, in order to overcome loss. Newer theories place an emphasis on moving forward by honouring our past, rather than severing ties. Consider connecting with an old colleague, updating your resume, attending a workshop, going back to school, or nurturing a hobby. Pull on the knowledge you have gained in your profession(s), and the people you have met along the way. This can be a time to slow down and contemplate the changes you have experienced. Use this time to reflect on your identity, and remember, you are more than your career, job, or profession! Take a moment instead to focus on other aspects which comprise your identity such as loved ones and beliefs and values. Ask yourself, “what is important to me?” Create opportunities by looking at what you have control of, rather than what is out of your control. This helps shift perspective to our strengths and positive qualities, from which we work toward integrating a new sense of self.
Allow yourself time and space to grieve the changes you are going through, and remember there’s no timeline to our grief or a right way to do it. The right way is your way. So take a moment to miss the rush hour traffic, to miss your colleagues (even the ones you didn’t get along with), to miss the coffee breaks, and you may even take a moment to miss your boss too.
Stay safe and healthy everyone.