“It’s who you are, not what you do, that defines you.” Most of us have heard an expression that sounds like this from parents and mentors over the years to help you frame your identity, but often it is very difficult to remember what that means when you have hit a roadblock in your career. Transitions are a part of life—some are planned, such as the decision to get married and become a family unit with your partner; while others are unexpected, like job loss or your child moving back home after college without a clear path toward independence. When an unexpected transition occurs, it can be one of the most terrifying experiences that a person can face because the world as you knew it has changed forever. You pictured your role in society a certain way and were settled in a routine that grounded you. Your self-image and self-worth take a huge hit, which can leave you feeling victimized, wracked with guilt and anger, and isolated. It may seem like a hopeless situation, but through targeted psychotherapy you can learn ways to constructively accept the consequences that life’s challenges bring and get to a point where you feel empowered and capable again.

Dr. Walker Lyerly, one of our psychiatrists who is starting a program at our practice specifically designed to treat individuals who are going through difficult transitions, says that the biggest factor in helping patients adapt to the loss of a job is showing them that there is a future, and not just a bleak one. “Patients often come in overly stuck or rigid in their thinking about what they are good at and feel that if their new position does not fit that mold, they will no longer like who they are as a person. Their confidence is so tied to the specific skills that they learned and often their former salary, that they can’t see beyond their immediate predicament. They may feel like their life is over because the picture for their future no longer matches their reality.” Dr. Lyerly helps patients build a new identity and move past this loss of self in two steps:

Dealing with possible unresolved grief after job loss and coming up with a concrete plan.

Losing a job is similar to losing a loved one. Psychotherapy can help you to actively grieve this loss and move on from feeling trapped and overwhelmed. You will start to work on answering questions like, “Who am I now? What is my self-worth centered on now? How do I become independent and feel good about myself again?” Certain undiagnosed mental health issues can hinder the grieving process and it is important that your doctor screen you for depression, substance abuse, and conditions like an adjustment disorder—which can develop when a major life stress or change disrupts normal coping mechanisms. Symptoms, which often begin within three months of the change, may include a depressed or anxious mood, changes in daily habits, feelings of overwhelming stress and panic, difficulty enjoying activities, and changes in sleeping or eating. Your doctor may need to prescribe anti-anxiety medication and teach you new coping skills to overcome this difficult period. In a prior blog post, I outlined visualization and mindfulness techniques that can help reduce anxiety in the short term while you determine the best treatment plan.

Once you come to terms with your grief and begin to forgive yourself for your perceived failings, it will equip you to focus on the future and a plan of action. Working with your doctor or therapist to brainstorm new career paths, ones that more truly “fit” you, can alleviate your fear of the unknown and turn abstract worries into more concrete solutions. Your next career choice should be one that you feel provides meaning and purpose, not just something you are willing to do. With many of the patients that we treat, navigating through the crisis, and enabling them to learn more about their true selves, results in a new career choice that is far more satisfying than the one they lost.

To help manage your fears during this uncertain time, maintaining focus on other strengths in your life that have nothing to do with your career, like being a good friend or caregiver to a sick family member, is critical to keeping your confidence intact as you navigate the job market. It is easy to discount other less “impressive” accomplishments when others value them more than you may know. Talk to people in your support system for reassurance that you are worthy of love and acceptance even while you are struggling to find yourself again.

Dr. Lyerly says that, “Getting someone unstuck is the goal” of this treatment. You just need to lift one foot off the ground at a time, and you will eventually fly.


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