If I’m Not My Job, Who am I?

In the process of preparing to lead a group that focuses on the emotional impact of job loss I was recently reading sections of Les and Leslie Parrot’s “The Career Counselor.”  The book lives up to its title and addresses many topics surrounding career counseling, but a section highlighting the various stages of emotion an individual may experience at the time of the job loss particularly stood out in this reading.  I’ll refer directly to the author’s words:

 Shame occurs with the loss of a job because the disapproval is from some authority with power to judge.  When a worker has been fired, it feels as if everyone disapproves.  Guilt comes from what I do.  Shame comes from who I am.  If I am fired, I must be an  unworthy person (Parrott and Parrott, p. 177).

Now, the CBT therapist in me wants to point out that you think everyone disapproves, leading you to feel sad/ashamed/ rejected, etc.  That point aside, this cuts to the heart of why a job loss is difficult, regardless of the circumstances.  The loss demonstrates to individuals that they are no longer good enough for the thing that took up the majority of their waking hours for months and (possibly) years—the thing that they were once recruited for, promised would be long-term, sacrificed for, and struggled to hold onto—this thing now sends the message, “sorry, you’re expendable.”  As the quote points out, being fired, regardless of the circumstances, can drown out all previous positive feedback in its finality.  As noted by Parrot et. al., the reaction to this feedback is often shame.  Naturally no one likes negative feedback, but why is job loss so powerful that an individual can become deflated overnight?  Isn’t a job a merely a tool that enables you to feed your family, afford shelter, perhaps even to afford fun vacations?  Don’t we all complain about having to go to our jobs week in and week out?  Logically, we might expect the first reaction to be fear for how to provide rather than a sudden loss of confidence.  Logically we know a job can be replaced and that the loss does not negate the years of experience and successes, yet it is a struggle for individuals to hang on to that knowledge–a truth echoed by those who minister to individuals walking this path.  Sometimes I wonder if the experience of shame is heightened by our society where we are trained to compare ourselves with others by our work.  Would you know how to start a conversation with a stranger without asking about his or her career?  This is taken as normal, yet other cultures do not necessarily look to this as the first point of inquiry.  Valuing job as a marker of status may be neutral, but it is important to consider that we can define ourselves by other things.  The unemployment period can be beneficial in that it allows an individual to consider values around work, relationships, self-care, and more.  Perhaps for you this is a time to explore where your identity is grounded.  Do you look to your work, your relationships, or your accomplishments to find value?  Or do you base your value on an acknowledgement that you are a person of worth regardless of your external trappings?  For my readers of faith, do you take time to realize your value to God?  Losing a job will always be a time of uncertainty, fear, and lead to struggles with self-worth but it does not have to be a time where you become lost in these struggles.  If you are struggling with shame after job loss take a breath, reach out to a friend, and consider your value as a person apart from your work–you might be surprised what you discover!

Take-out Version:  An identity based on what you do crumbles easily.  How would it be different if you weren’t defined by your job?  How would you define yourself?