No matter what type of personality you have, losing a job can have a crippling effect on your self-esteem, confidence, and energy level. This is particularly true for high-achievers, who often heavily identify with their work and invest a large part of their identity in how well they do their work. In such cases, being fired or getting laid off makes them question who they really are, or at the very least question how well they were doing their job.

While these feelings are normal (up to a point), they can also interfere in, and in some cases sabotage new job prospects. In fact, a huge part of coming back from a job loss is all in how you think about it. Knowing what to expect after job loss and putting together a solid game plan to find a new job (which is Part 2 of this article, Getting Back in the Game After Job Loss) are keys to getting you back in the game.

What to expect:

1) A whirlwind of emotions - when you suddenly realize that life as you once knew it has changed—in many cases, quite dramatically—it's normal to feel an enormous rush of emotions, mostly negative ones. This is perfectly okay (at least at first), but it's important to recognize that this is probably not the best time to make major life decisions. Give your emotions a chance to settle and get some perspective on what happened before you make any significant changes that you may regret later.

2) Grief symptoms - the emotions surrounding job loss are often similar to the emotions surrounding any kind of major loss, including death and divorce. There are several models that identify the stages of grief, most notably Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stage model. However, for this article, I'm using a seven stage model (discussed on Recover-from-grief.com) because the stages fit well with the emotions surrounding job loss.

  • Shock and denial - these experiences typically occur immediately after being fired. It's the stage where you know what happened on one level, but on another level is disbelief and denial. This is the point in the process where you're most likely to feel overwhelmed with emotions.
  • Pain and guilt - once you realize it's not a bad dream, pain and guilt are common feelings. It hurts to not be wanted, especially when you thought (as you likely did) that you were doing a good job and were of value to the company (and that might be true—sometimes, being fired has nothing to do with productivity and everything to do with the company's bottom line). Guilt (internal blame) also usually comes into play, especially if you're dependent on your income. It's common to feel guilty and ashamed that you are no longer in a position to financially contribute to the family income. This is the time when you may begin "If only I had ..." and "What if ..." thinking, which is normal, but not productive (see #4 in Part 2, Getting Back in the Game After Job Loss).
  • Anger and bargaining - Pain and guilt often evolve into anger and bitterness (external blame). Again, normal, but again, not productive, so this is definitely not a stage you want to stay in for too long. Of course, we're all human and sometimes the anger is justified, but just because you may be justified in feeling something doesn't mean that it's good for you. Anger is a destructive and damaging (personally and interpersonally) emotion. It often festers like an infected wound, and instead of making the situation better, it makes it worse. It's also the stage where you may begin to question, "Why did this happen to me?" and start making bargains (e.g., If only I could get x to happen, I'll do y for the rest of my life). But be careful about the bargains you make at this difficult time in your life because they're often not achievable or realistic over the long haul.
  • Depression and reflection - this is the stage where sadness hits you and you begin to reflect. The reflection can be helpful if it's an honest, realistic assessment of what led to the job loss and what you can do in the future to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. While it's thinking about the past (which I usually encourage people not to do after losing a job), it's with an eye toward the future, which can be a productive and enlightening exercise that can help you when you begin looking for a new job.
  • The upward turn - this is the stage where you begin adjusting to the loss and moving forward. Your emotions are better under control and you're at a place where you likely feel more organized and ready to move to the next step.
  • Working through - As your emotions become less prominent, you begin to feel more productive and start to make plans and put them into action. You see beyond your life as a "former employee of w" and look toward becoming a "future employee of x, y, or z."
  • Acceptance and hope - This is back to baseline, or even better than baseline. When you get to this stage, you've accepted what happened, hopefully learned something from it, and you're moving on, hopefully with renewed hope and an optimistic attitude. 

As you read through the stages, keep in mind that the progression through these stages is not always linear. Some people go back and forth between stages; some skip a stage or stages completely. It's also interesting to know that research on bereavement suggests that the healthier your mindset is before losing a loved one, the faster you are likely to move through the grieving process. It would make sense that the same would hold true for other forms of grieving; more and more research is finding that a positive attitude can help you better navigate all kinds of adversity. However, it's impossible to say how long it will take to get to the latter stages because grieving is unique to each person and can be complicated by other experiences going on in a person's life at the same time. Regardless, knowing what to expect often helps people put their feelings into perspective and know that what they're feeling is not unusual. It also provides a light at the end of the tunnel to those reeling from a particularly difficult job loss.

In Part 2 of this article, I'll discuss putting together a game plan for success in navigating the brave new world of job hunting.

© 2014 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved


Dr. Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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