Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step


These four characteristics can affect our identities after losing a job.

Posted Mar 11, 2017

When you’ve lost your job, you may question your identity.  A big part of who we are can be based on what we do for a living.  So when you lose your job, you can lose a part of yourself.

However, this can play out in different ways.  Several aspects of the transition make a difference:

1. Voluntariness  

Did you choose to leave your job (voluntarily), or was it forced on you (involuntarily)?  A good example of this is the difference between being unemployed because you were fired or laid off versus having retired or quit.

Voluntary changes tend to be easier than involuntary ones because they give us a sense of control, a very important factor in good mental health.

2. Visibility

Identities we can "see" are more likely to get reactions.

Source: Paul Gallo/Eye Spy/flickr/no changes made/CC BY 2.0

Is your identity immediately visible (or known to others) or is it relatively invisible?

Some changes, such as getting older, are visible.  But most job-related changes and identities are not.  For example, when someone meets you for the first time, can they tell right away that you’ve lost your job?  Probably not.

For better or worse, other people tend to react to (and confirm) our identities (for better or worse) if they are “visible.”  Think about how you might react to someone wearing a white coat and a stethoscope.  These visible signals let you know he or she is a doctor. 

Without visible signals, others who don’t know you will be unlikely to remind you that at your core you are still the computer programmer, welder, server, etc. you used to be before losing your job.  That makes it harder to hold on to your old identity, which can make you feel more depressed or anxious.

3. Valence

Is your identity change positive or negative?  We all have a general idea of how various identities and transitions are judged.  Losing a job is usually viewed as negative. This is true even if you are personally a little relieved at losing a job you disliked.

Changes are easier when they’re positive, but even positive change is still tough to go through. In fact, research shows that most people prefer to stay the same person across time, even if society sees that identity negatively!  (This may be one reason why moving out of, say, an “addict” identity is so hard – it’s simply more comfortable to stay consistent.)

4. “Voreseeability” (foreseeability) [Yes, I know.  But I had to make it work as a "V" word.]

Jo Amelia Finlay Bever/340/flickr/no changes made/CC BY 2.0
Source: Jo Amelia Finlay Bever/340/flickr/no changes made/CC BY 2.0

Did you know in advance that your change would happen, or did it happen without warning?

Advance knowledge of an upcoming identity change gives us a chance to practice, or “try out” our new role, and get feedback from others about how we are doing in that role. 

For example, in Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh’s study, nuns-in-training who were considering leaving the convent before taking their final vows talked with other former nuns who had left.  They also tried out their new possible civilian role by wearing layperson clothing and by wearing their hair longer to see how others would react.

On the other hand, changes we did not know were coming deprive us of this opportunity.  This makes us feel more confused and disoriented about who we are and which direction we should take.

Knowing about the “Four V’s” can help you manage identity-related aspects of your job loss. 

Coming soon!...Stories from people who lost their jobs who worked with the Four V’s to help strengthen their identities and mental health.