Why the Loss of a Job or Work Environment Hurts So Bad

Navigating loss and hardship through a rediscovery of our identity.

Posted Apr 05, 2020

 Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

Over the past two weeks, a record 10 million Americans have filed jobless claims. One million Canadian have filed for unemployment insurance in the past month.

Amid the financial struggles of facing life without a job or income, these unprecedented numbers bring about another crisis—one known by many who have faced job loss over the years individually or in smaller numbers. Not until now have we had the opportunity to have a larger societal conversation and create a large support network for everyone facing such circumstances.

Whether you have lost your job or lost your everyday routine of meetings, or you find yourself working from home and amiss of associating with colleagues, it’s likely that you are feeling a major shift and a hefty sense of loss. You’re grieving because it feels like along with that loss of your role or working environment, you’ve also lost your identity. For so long, who you are has been centered around your work, and now that the role is gone, you are left staring in the mirror questioning who you are without it.

There’s reassurance: you haven’t lost your identity; you’ve simply been given the opportunity to discover it.

While this opportunity is one that can seem unfair, daunting, or overwhelming, it is an opportunity when you choose to see it as such. By no choice of your own, you’ve been forced to step back from your daily routine. The question is now: will you choose to open up a world of discovery as to who you truly are and what you truly want in this life?

Our identity was never intended to be driven by our external roles or tasks—that is simply an organic bi-product of being a part of a society that builds us and educates us to jump into parenthood or find a job in the workforce. Most of us were not taught how to find ourselves and build a life around contributing who we are.

My personal career began three weeks after graduation from university in Canada, as I got recruited into an elite training program with a major U.S. financial institution. They bred me for life and the industry was my home until a life-threatening case of lupus left me physically unable to work, socialize, volunteer or be out in the community contributing in any form. I felt the loss and felt lost. Everything I had known in the first few years of my early adulthood had disappeared in the blink of an eye.

From within my bed, where I lay in debilitating pain within the confines of the four walls of my home, I grieved. That weight of the loss lasted weeks, until I awoke to the realization of how deeply my identity had been tied to my time-consuming career and role in the financial sector.

I had to (re)discover who I truly was.

The task of understanding who I was seemed daunting, but my strategic mind began to break it down: what made me happiest and what was I great at within my previous role? I loved to organize, to create, to help people. I contributed a sense of peace, calm, clarity, structure, resilience and confidence to those I touched, personally and professionally. These traits were unveiled as I looked at myself and my previous interactions with an objective, third-party perspective—just the same as I would do to assess what anyone else “brought to the table” in their work, relationships and life.

What was magical was that in the process of my healing, I began to apply my writing skills to creating powerful personal narratives about a journey through illness and about those who had deeply touched my life, instead of putting those skills to use in marketing collateral for financial institutions. Everything that I was truly good at began to take on new meaning and gifting my writing to professional associates unknowingly lead to acquiring four deals to write books, which grew into a vocation as a ghostwriter and business & communication strategist.

The work and business created through the choice to transform the loss of my job into a discovery of who I am was so vastly different than what I knew prior. While I was one to be able to find happiness under nearly any circumstances, I had always known that there was something missing in my financial work. It was something I found in writing for leaders in the personal development space: purpose and meaning. I was able to come at my work with greater vigor and heart than ever before because that work, in shaping the messages of others, was an extension of who I was, not the source of it.

When we lose our jobs, it feels overwhelming. It’s daunting to know what to do next. The root of that fear is one that we believe we may not find another job. The truth is, what is most daunting is that you can do just about anything. Our digital world, for instance, allows for many people to create businesses teaching from their lived experience—on everything from finding fulfillment to navigating the daily overwhelm as a working parent. Choosing to rediscover your true identity through this crisis is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and one that may very well lead to a life more fulfilling than ever before.

Tell a new story

Today can serve as a major turning point: we can choose a narrative of loss and undue hardship, or we can talk about what we are doing to progress forward, even when it feels seemingly impossible to do so. When we choose to find ourselves and build life from that foundation, we are always moving forward.

Remember the true power of a personal narrative, as mentioned in my previous post, “Interpreting Our Reality Through Story: What a Personal Narrative Really Is”: our personal narratives help us shape our identities and create order in our world.

  • Forming our identity. There exists a forever dance between what happens in our lives and what we create from it—who we become. Our narratives give us the opportunity to shape our character and our voice, to make the choice as to who we become.
  • Creating order in a chaotic world. We use narratives to create meaning and attempt to make sense out of the events in our lives. As we are witnessing with the deadly toll of coronavirus, not all events will make sense to our logical minds. That is not to say that we don’t have the opportunity to create meaning from them

Now, perhaps more than ever before in most of our lives, we need to be able to create a sense of order, for our sanity and our ability to move forward individually and as a society. And as we are witnessing during this COVID-19 crisis, our external circumstances cannot always be the source of order. Through truly, on any given day, job security cannot be guaranteed, relationships may fall victim to personal change or unsolved past, or people can be lost. When we rely on the external to form who we are and the external structures shift or crumble, we are left feeling as though our identity has done the same—we are left feeling lost. More drastically than ever before, we see that the source of our identity must stem from within ourselves and be translated outward, not the opposite.

If you have been laid off, you have been granted the gift of time—and now is the time to reshape how you frame and form your identity.

How to reshape how you frame your identity

Instead of beginning with “I am a [insert external or societal role here],” try translating the narrative of your identity by beginning with completing the following thoughts:

I love...

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    -

    -

I value...

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    -

    -

I contribute...

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    -

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And if the answers aren’t clear, ask those close to you for their perspective to get you started. As I tell my clients, have others write you a testimonial about the impact you’ve had on their lives. Start to recognize and underline the common themes, as those are the true indications of who you are and what you contribute in the world.

When we choose to name our identity from within ourselves, rather than by or from external roles or sources, the roles that we do play can then become an extension of who we are. If one, any or many of them should be lost of change, we will continue to have within ourselves a strong sense of identity, because we will never lose ourselves. And that identity serves as our fuel and our power to be able to find strength and be resilient during times of great challenge and adversity. When the time is right (after we grieve what is lost), we can find our way back to contributing to a new role, person or circumstance, with potentially more gusto, meaning, and purpose than ever before.