Rachel, 28, was an account exec at a Makati advertising agency when she was eased out last month to make room for a higher-up’s protégé. Fortunately, she had some savings, “just in case,” she says. “But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional jolt. I mean, suddenly, you’re in the supermarket in your bike shorts on a Monday morning, wishing you had a sign on your back that read, This is not what it looks like. I was making three hundred thousand a year. Then you go home to call a contact, and the receptionist asks, ‘Your company?’ And you mutter sheepishly, ‘Well, I used to be with..’”
Most of us don’t even realize how much we are defined by our job—until we lose it, that is. “We live in a culture that is driven by What do you do? and What do you make?” says Ginger Thaxton, president of Creative Management Consultants, a Bristol, Rhode Island, consulting firm. “Plus, there are very real emotional perks that go with the job. Aside from the companionship, you have the gratification of completing assigned tasks and the validation of getting paid for them.
So how do you survive when all of that disappears?
First You Cry…
“What you’re mourning is your sense of yourself as an employed person,” says Joel Yaeger, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico Medical School. “Even women who opt for a stint of full-time motherhood often feel as if they’ve lost their citizenship for a while. Being able to anticipate that reaction, knowing it goes with the territory, can keep you from thinking you’re losing your mind.”
“It’s like every day is a vacation,” says a La Salle grad in the third day of her search. “But what do you do with that time? When I finally land an interview, I spend two days deciding what to wear and two weeks writing a follow-up note. The little things start to loom really large.”
Solution? Fill the void. “Get up, get dressed, put your makeup on,” says Koltnow. “Meet an unemployed pal for breakfast, especially on Monday when the rest of the world is heading back to work. Then sit down at the designated space and draw up a battle plan. Better yet, find an empty office you can go to—swap some freelance work for the usage of a desk, phone, Xerox, and fax machines.”
Thaxton advices setting attainable daily goals. “Don’t tell yourself, Today, I’ll talk to twenty people, because you won’t. Instead plan to call twenty, and hope to connect with two. Acknowledge your small victories.” You could offer a desirable company a small (and free) sample of your services or tackle some part-time work that doesn’t have a thing to do with your career. One woman temps, another flips display cards at a friend’s financial planning seminars. “I’m not Vanna,” she says, “but at least I’m out of the house,” which underscores the next rule…
Mix It Up
“Years ago, if you were fired, you went into hiding,” says Koltnow. “Now, because of downsizing, almost everybody I run into at professional lunches is unemployed. The people with jobs are spending eleven hours at their desks, and the rest are out exchanging cards.”
Don’t feel shy about using connections, because as Koltnow puts it, “you aren’t asking to be hired. Instead, it’s ‘Know anyone I could speak to in…?’ Seventy-five percent of midlevel slots are filled through networking.” Still hesitant? Reverse the situation, see whom you can help. “If I make some calls for a friend,” says an out-of-work sales rep, “that’s an ego boost for me. It’s also an excuse to touch base with contacts myself.”
While you’re at it, don’t neglect to tell nearest and dearest what they can do for you—or stop doing. Example: “Mom, I’ll keep you posted, so please don’t ask every time we talk.” And be sure to enlist some fellow sufferers; check your local community center, church, or temple to find a support group, or start your own.
Once vocational consultant estimates that as many as half of her unemployed clients put on weight, which is why most experts advice working out more than usual. “Not only does exercise help you look your best,” says Thaxton, “but it sends oxygen to the brain and stimulates release of endorphins. Poor diet and inactivity make you lethargic, which leads to more lethargy.”
Discipline doesn’t have to equal drudgery, she adds. “If you hate running, ride a bike. If music would be an incentive, buy an mp3 player. Do whatever it takes to stay motivated.”
Be Good To Yourself
Economize, yes, but don’t be stingy. Skip the weekly pedicure—not the bubble bath, the lunch with the former colleague, or the sitter who will give you an hour to unwind.
“You have to be more resourceful about planning little pick-me-ups,” says a system analyst who has been stretching unemployment checks for the past four months. “I’ve trained myself to go to thrift shops instead automatically running to the mall. And rather than meet friends for dinner at some pricey restaurant, I’ll have them over for dinner where the theme is, ‘Introduce me to your favorite wine.’”
Hang In There
Sometimes you’re on a high because you’re up for two jobs, says a nine-month job-seeking veteran. “Then you learn the first company just instituted a hiring freeze, and at the second, somebody came in from out of town, she’s the boss’s niece, and guess whom they’ve decided to hire?”
Business as usual, says Wall Street-based psychologist Marilyn Puder-York. “You’re always going to have setbacks. The goal is not to eliminate the bad days but to manage them so they don’t lead to more defeats.” The key? Stop pushing so hard. Slow down. Instead of plugging away at a time when you may not be capable of selling your sterling assets, give yourself permission to sit quietly in the park or do some library research for a day or two. And try to have a few things pending. Exploring a lot of options, in fact, is what this time is about.
Take The Hit As A Gift
“Try to think of the crisis as an opportunity,” says Dr. Yager. “When your complacency is challenged, all sorts of doors can open.”
That’s what Janet, a former production manager at a small New York knitwear factory, learned. After a grueling period during which she felt, she says, like “pond scum,” Janet recently landed a similar job, the difference is she earns less but works nine instead of thirteen hours a day. “This new company is very family-oriented—they insist we leave by 5:30. That was a big plus, would have been a lot less devastating if I’d had a life.”
So now she’s working on developing a new one. “I’m editing a website for a woman I met in an elevator after flubbing an interview, and I’m creating some software—an assignment that grew out of a consulting gig. I’m also taking a design course.” Plus, she’s dating more. “Men are gravitating to me in a way they haven’t before. Maybe that’s because I’m projecting so much confidence. Or it could be the excitement I’m feeling about trying new directions. Or just that I’m more plugged in—I have more time to read. An old boyfriend I saw the other night asked, ‘How come we have so much to talk about now?’”
If she had to do it over, would she choose to be laid off? “Funny thing is, I would. I’m hoping to run into my old boss so I can give her a thank you hug.”