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How to Regain Your Identity After a Hard Job Loss

By Susan Peppercorn, Fast Company

For over two decades, journalist Karen Given was the producer of a popular nationally syndicated sports radio show, Only a Game. Given identified so closely with this role that when she introduced herself, she would say: “Hi, I’m Karen, the executive producer of Only a Game.”

But when the show and her job came to an abrupt end in September 2020, Given found it hard to maintain a clear sense of identity. “With the loss of my job, I struggled to figure out who I was professionally,” said Given.

Given’s feelings around job loss are not unique. Work provides many of us with much more than a paycheck. A job can offer recognition and status, instill a feeling of belonging, and reinforce self-worth, which together create a tangible professional and personal identity that can be hard to let go of when the position ends.

Research shows that having a concrete “work identity”—which can be defined as how important your job is and who you believe yourself to be professionally—can be closely tied to your well-being. In a Gallup poll, unemployed Americans were more than twice as likely as those with full-time jobs to say they had been treated or were being treated for depression, and this situation has become endemic during the coronavirus pandemic as millions of Americans have experienced unemployment.

Regardless of the reason why you lost your job, here are some steps you can take to regain your sense of self:

As a coach who works with people in job or career transition, I’m acutely aware of the intense feelings of anger, sadness, and abandonment that generally accompany a layoff. After having a go-to response to the icebreaker question, “what do you do for a living?” it’s hard to be forced by circumstances to let go of the pithy answer that helps us position ourselves in other people’s worlds, as well as our own.

When a job that you once identified with becomes a thing of the past, it’s essential to acknowledge your feelings about the loss, and not dismiss or hide from them. As with any kind of grief, before you can move forward, you must first mourn what you’re leaving behind.

When I spoke with Given about how she was handling the recent end of her long-time radio role, she explained that this year has been all about reframing the way that she looks at things. “When I start to get sad about losing the job I loved, I remind myself that the commute was really terrible,” says Given. “When I start to worry about what the future will hold, I challenge myself to think of the possibilities.”

She emphasized that while uncertainty is scary, it also creates a blank canvas on which you can build something new. “I can no longer do the thing I’ve always done, which gives me the freedom to try the things I’ve always wanted to do,” says Given. “With the entire world upside down [due to COVID-19], could there be a better time to take a risk?”

Social support is crucial in times of change and challenge. Isolation and loneliness are compounding factors that can accompany job loss, so it’s essential to connect with others in the wake of a layoff.

When my client Josh lost his job in a biotech company due to a merger, he asked people in his network to recall a time they had seen him at his best. He also invited them to identify the skills he was using to help him home in on his most marketable capabilities. Doing so allowed Josh to reconnect to supportive people and regain his footing during an incredibly difficult time.

Values are fundamental beliefs or principles about what you stand for, and can be considered the “essence” of who you are. Values—such as creativity, honesty, collaboration, personal development, and autonomy—underpin career decisions over the long term, though how you express those values and rank their relative importance can shift over time.

While values can help you find meaning and fulfillment in your work, they transcend your work identity and can also be expressed in many contexts outside of work. They’re another lens from which to view yourself during a career transition. That’s why grounding yourself in your values and vision is a powerful way to navigate uncertainty and regain a sense of self in the wake of a job loss.

Brad, one of my clients who ran social media marketing for his tech company, was always interested in mentoring younger employees—particularly those who had fewer opportunities growing up that resulted in less exposure to the business world. Brad’s value of helping others laid the foundation for exploring other possible career options. His passion for diversity and inclusion guided him to start a consultancy aimed at assisting tech companies that wanted to diversify their engineering organizations.

To regain your sense of identity after a layoff, it’s important to incorporate some activities that are potentially less frustrating and rejection-filled than looking for a job. When I coach professionals in transition, I’ve often observed how volunteering helps many rediscover a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Taking on a volunteer role can broaden your networks, and in some cases leads to concrete job opportunities. Most importantly, engaging in activities that are important to you and that help others can foster a sense of confidence, competence, and control over your life—qualities that may have felt shaky after being let go.

Job loss can usher in a corresponding loss of identity and shaken self-image—but keep in mind that what makes you unique isn’t determined solely by your job title or the organization to which you used to belong. Your work isn’t who you are; it’s just what you do. If you’re open to it, losing a job can reveal possibilities to explore sides of yourself that lay dormant until now.

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