How to feel like a person when you're jobless


Rachel*, twenty-eight, was an account exec at a Manhattan advertising agency when she was eased out last month to make room for a higher- up's protegee. Fortunately, she had some savings "just in case," she says. "But what I wasn't prepared for was the emotional jolt. I mean, suddenly you're in the supermarket in your bike shorts on a Monday morning, wishing you had a sign on your back that read, This is not what it looks like. I was making sixty thousand a year. Then you go home to call a contact, and the receptionist asks, `Your company?' And you mutter sheepishly, `Well, I used to be with...'"

Most of us don't even realize how much we are defined by our job - until we lose it, that is. "We live in a culture driven by What do you do? and What do you make?" says Ginger Thaxton, president of Creative Management Consultants, a Bristol, Rhode Island, consulting firm. Plus, there are very real emotional perks that go with a job. Aside from the companionship, you have the gratification of completing assigned tasks and the validation of getting paid for them."

So how do you survive when all of that suddenly disappears?

FIRST, YOU CRY...

What you're mourning is your sense of yourself as an employed person, " says Joel Yager, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico Medical School. "Even women who opt for a stint of full- time motherhood often feel as if they've lost their citizenship for a while. Being able to anticipate that reaction, knowing it goes with the territory, can keep you from thinking you're losing your mind. "

Yager recommends taking some time to grieve. One victim of downsizing visited her sister in Sun Valley and came home with a job offer. Another treated herself to three days of tennis camp that "boosted my morale and gave me something to talk about besides my former boss."

The main objective? To work through negative emotions so you can put them behind you. San Francisco psychologist Brenda Wade suggests a ritual that involves writing down feelings - all the anger, sadness, and rejection. "Then you can bury that piece of paper, burn it, or rip it to bits. And move on."

PICK YOURSELF UP, DUST YOURSELF OFF

Even before you're ready to launch a comeback, have some personal business cards made up - a simple name and phone number are enough, or you can add a descriptive tag such as "Copywriter" or "Public Relations Consultant." "Your card gives you an instant identity," says Emily Koltnow, president of Women in Networking, which organizes workshops in New York City for women in career transition. "If you' re feeling the lack of a corporate link, just incorporate yourself, as in `Sarah Jones and Company.'" Coauthor of the book Congratulations! You've Been Fired, Koltnow also suggests posting your resume on the refrigerator "as a reminder of all the good stuff that's happened before."

A tipfrom Thaxton: "List on one side of a sheet of paper any accomplishments you've been proud of - even early ones like learning to ice-skate - and on the other side, the skills and traits that enabled you to excel. You've been achieving all your life, and the qualities that worked for you earlier can work for you now. We tend to think, Oh well, skating was nothing. But at the time, it took courage, and that' s a resource you can always draw on."

Courage, in fact, may be exactly what's needed to ride out the long, idle days ahead.

GET ORGANIZED

"It's like every day is vacation," says a Harvard grad in the third month of her search. "But what do you do with that time? When I finally land an interview, I spend two days deciding what to wear and two weeks writing a follow-up note. The little things start to loom really large."

Solution? Fill the void. "Get up, get dressed, put your makeup on, " says Koltnow. "Meet an unemployed pal for breakfast, especially on Mondays, when the rest of the world is heading back to work. Then sit down at a designated space and draw up a battle plan. Better yet, find an empty office you can go to - swap some freelance work for the use of a desk, phone, Xerox, and fax machines."

Thaxton advises setting obtainable daily goals. "Don't tell yourself, Today, I'll talk to twenty people, because you won't. Instead, plan to call twenty, and hope to connect with two. Acknowledge your small victories." You could offer a desirable company a small (and free) sample of your services or tackle some part-time work that doesn't have a thing to do with your career. One woman temps, another does literacy volunteer work, another flips display cards at a friend's financial planning seminars. I'm not Vanna," she says, "but at least I'm out of the house." Which underscores the next rule....

MIX IT UP

"Years ago, if you were fired, you went into hiding," says Koltnow. "Now, because of downsizing, almost everybody I run into at professional lunches is unemployed. The people with jobs are spending eleven hours at their desks, and the rest are out exchanging cards."

Don't feel shy about using connections, because, as Koltnow puts it, "you aren't asking to be hired. Instead, it's `Know anyone I could speak to in...?' Seventy-five percent of mid-level slots are filled through networking." Still hesitant? Reverse the situation; see whom you can help. "If I make some calls for a friend," says an out-of- work sales rep, "that's an ego boost for me. It's also an excuse to touch base with contacts myself."

While you're at it, don't neglect to tell nearest and dearest what they can do for you - or stop doing. Example: "Mom, I'll keep you posted, so please don't ask every time we talk." And be sure to enlist some fellow sufferers; check your local community center, church, or temple to find a support group, or start your own.

SHAPE UP!

One vocational consultant estimates that as many as half of her unemployed clients put on weight, which is why most experts advise working out more than usual. "Not only does exercise help you look your best," says Thaxton, "but it sends oxygen to the brain and stimulates release of endorphins. Poor diet and inactivity make you lethargic, which leads to more lethargy."

Discipline doesn't have to equal drudgery, she adds. If you hate running, ride a bike. If music would be an incentive, buy a Walkman. Do whatever it takes to stay motivated."

BE GOOD TO YOURSELF

Economize, yes, but don't be stingy. Skip the weekly pedicure not the bubble bath, the lunch with a former colleague, or the sitter who'll give you an hour to unwind.

"You have to be more resourceful about planning little pick-me-ups, " says a systems analyst who has been stretching unemployment checks for the past four months. "I've trained myself to go to thrift shops instead of automatically running to Saks. And rather than meet friends at some pricey restaurant, I'll have them over for a dinner where the theme is `Introduce me to your favorite wine.'"

HANG IN THERE

"Sometimes you're on a high because you're up for two jobs," says a nine-month job-seeking veteran. "Then you learn the first company just instituted a hiring freeze, and at the second, somebody came in from out of town, she's the boss's niece, and guess whom they've decided to hire?"

Business as usual, says Wall Street-based psychologist Marilyn Puder- York. You're always going to have setbacks. The goal is not to eliminate the bad days but to manage them so they don't lead to more defeats. " The key? Stop pushing so hard. Slow down. Instead of plugging away at a time when you may not be capable of selling your sterling assets, give yourself permission to sit quietly in the park or do some library research for a day or two. And try to have a few things pending. Exploring a lot of options, in fact, is what this time is about.

TAKE THE HIT AS A GIFT

"Try to think of the crisis as a terrific opportunity," says Dr. Yager.

"When your complacency is challenged, all sorts of doors can open. "

That's what Janet, a former assistant production manager at a small New York knitwear factory, learned. After a grueling period during which she often felt, she says, like "pond scum," Janet recently landed a similar job, the difference being that she earns a thousand dollars less but works nine instead of thirteen hours a day. "This new company is very family-oriented - they insist we leave by five-thirty. That was a big plus, because I'd realized, with so many months to think, that losing my job would have been a lot less devastating if I'd had a life."

So now she's working on developing one. "I'm editing a Website for a woman I met in an elevator after flubbing an interview, and I'm creating some software - an assignment that grew out of a consulting gig. I'm also taking a design course." Plus, she's dating more. "Men are gravitating to me in a way they haven't before. Maybe that's because I'm projecting such confidence. Or it could be the excitement I'm feeling about trying new directions. Or just that I'm more plugged in - I have more time to read. An old boyfriend I saw the other night asked, `How come we have so much to talk about now?'"

If she had it to do over, would she choose to be laid off? "Funny thing is, I would. I'm hoping to run into my old boss so I can give her a thank you hug."

* In the interest of privacy, some names have been changed.

Crook, Barbara, How to feel like a person when you're jobless.., Vol. 221, Cosmopolitan, 12-01-1996, pp 96(2).