Stage 1: Shock and Denial

Sylvia had been the director of marketing for a major cosmetics firm for only seven months when she learned her job had been eliminated. She recalls her immediate reaction to the news. "It was like somebody punched me in the stomach. I just lost my breath."

Like so many people who have just been terminated, Erdman's first response was utter disbelief. She heard what her manager said about company-wide layoffs and expressed the appropriate dismay, but deep inside, where it counted, she didn't really believe a word of it. Even as she went through the motions of packing her belongings, saying goodbye to her colleagues, and leaving the office, she was thoroughly convinced she'd awaken at any moment from her "whale of a nightmare."

You might react to the news of your termination stoically, bravely, or tearfully. Whatever your response, thoughts like the following are likely to engulf you:

  • How could this have happened to me?
  • It must be a mistake.
  • It's the end of the world.
  • My life is over.
  • What will I tell my spouse and the kids?

Whatever the specifics, thoughts of this nature will likely race through your mind when you get the bad news. The announcement of your termination won't seem quite real and, at the time, nothing else will, either. You'll feel as detached as if you were watching yourself and the world around you in a movie. People often say, at this stage that they're "blown away" or they've "zoned out." In short, your mind shuts down to protect you. Although you may feel you've been "punched in the stomach," the full impact of your termination won't hit you for days, weeks, or however long it takes for the reality of your job loss sink in.

Coping With Shock and Denial

"In the beginning, all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and go to sleep," recalls Joan, an out-of-work senior marketing manager who instinctively had the right idea. When people ask me what they should do while they're going through the shock and denial stage of the e-wave, I advise them to do just what Joan felt like doing: nothing.

Give yourself time and the privacy you need to recuperate.

  • This isn't the time to write letters, call people, or broadcast the news of your termination to the world (the only exception are your family members.
  • If you go off like a loose cannon and try to find another job before you've had time to "sit alone" with your termination, everyone will see the trauma of unemployment in your eyes and hear it in your voice.
  • It's okay to come unglued, but don't do it around the people whose help you'll need down the road when you begin your job search.
  • You've suffered a setback in your professional life, and may feel vulnerable to attack from other fronts. You may also feel a generalized sense of dread, and even relatively insignificant items and events can become menacing.
Tom, an aerospace engineer, explains how he obsessed about the heater in his house while he was out of work. "Whenever the furnace blower came on, I thought of the expense. How long will the furnace run, I wondered, and how much will it cost? Tom never even gave his heating expenses a thought while he was employed, and now they haunted him.

Unemployment certainly brings with it a host of valid concerns. But during the fear and panic stage, you spend much of your time and energy "catastrophizing" about such issues as:

  • What if I have to declare bankruptcy?
  • Will I lose everything I own?
  • Will my family and friends abandon me?
  • Is this the end of my career?
  • Will any employer ever give me another chance?
Your fear and panic may also lead to indecisiveness. Every choice takes on an exaggerated importance, and you feel as though the world will end if you make the wrong decision. For example, Jay, who lost his job as a software engineer, remembers how much of an ordeal it was for him to figure out what to wear each day. "I'd change my shirt and tie ten times, and then go back to the ones I had on originally." Each time he hesitated, Jay felt as though his indecision only proved he was a loser, and of course that made it even tougher for him to trust his own instincts.

Rampant fear, panic, and indecision are typical responses to losing your job. Nothing could be more natural than to worry about the future when your livelihood has just been snatched away from you and you don't know what tomorrow will bring. However, uncontrolled and disproportionate fright can quickly drain your time and energy, and immobilize you, if you let it.

┬ęCopyright 2008 Professionals In Transition Support Group, Inc.

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