Repeat After Me: I Am Not My Job

Repeat After Me: I Am Not My Job

by Kerry Scott on 4 March 2009

8267517_2473f2a2b3Photo by Erix

On Monday, I talked about the five stages of grief as they relate to a job loss.  I’ve had a large number of friends and colleagues lose their jobs recently, and I’m surprised at how well some are handling it…and how poorly others are doing.  Why are some people able to take a job loss in stride, when others are crushed by the blow?

There are lots of reasons, certainly, like how prepared people were, or how much money they had in the bank, or how close they were to foreclosure before they got that pink slip.  One thing, though, that seems to be a huge variable is the degree to which their identity was wrapped up in their job.

I lost my job last summer.  I loved the company and the people there, and I still liked the type of work I was doing.  But I’d been thinking nonstop about two things:  staying home with my kids, and changing careers.  I’ve enjoyed my run in HR, but I never envisioned doing this—or anything else—for 40 years straight.  I can’t imagine talking about hostile applicants or boob-popping candidates or outsourcing weenies for that long.  I’d lose my mind.

As a result, my husband and I had already started to talk about how we could restructure things so I could stay home with the kids until they’re in school, and beyond that, what I’d do next.  We were not at all ready to actually DO this when I lost my job, but the fact that I’d begun to think of myself apart from my profession helped me tremendously when the ax fell, because I’d already shifted my identity away from what I did for a living.  I still ha a little trouble adjusting to saying, “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” or “I do a little freelance work” when people asked, because you get a very different reaction when you say those things instead of “I’m the head of HR for an airline.”  But the head start helped.  We’d also begun getting our budget in order, so that helped too.  When the economy crumbled last fall, we’d already switched to prepaid cell phones, cut back on the dinners out and trips to Starbuck’s, and switched to Target brand diapers (which are actually better anyway, at least on my kid, who apparently has a Target-shaped butt).  We started being cheap before it was cool.  It’s the first time we’ve been cutting edge since, well, ever.

I have a couple of friends, though, who have been particularly flattened by the process of losing their jobs.  In both cases, they were fairly high-level HR people, and they are having a very, very hard time figuring out who or what they are now.  It’s not just the loss of income, although for people used to living high on the hog, that’s a tough blow in itself.  The loss of identity seems to be the real source of angst.  Without a title, they don’t seem to know what to call themselves.  To be honest, I have a hard time identifying with that, since I never was all that corporate to begin with…but from the outside looking in, it sure looks painful.

Whether you’re employed or not, I think it’s a huge mistake to identify too much with your job.  As we’ve all seen in the past few months, jobs are not permanent.   Those contents are guaranteed to shift during flight.  One of the lessons from this downturn seems to be that we need to find ourselves outside our offices and cubicles.  Few of us will do the same thing for our entire careers anyway (and who would want to, really?).  Some people see the uncertainty as a scary thing, but I think it’s freeing.  It means we can survive changes without so much grief.

In earthquake country, they build skyscrapers on these special rollers, which allow the building to move and sway when the ground shifts, without falling down.  The more rollers you can build underneath you, the happier you’re going to be, in any economy.

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abdpbt March 4, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Yes, I’ve had to deal with this my whole adult life. I was in school for so long, so I’d get the, “What do you plan to do with that?” question. Then I decided I didn’t want to be a professor, and it became, “I’m a stay-at-home-mom,” which is sorta true, but it’s very hard to say that. It’s like it’s not enough somehow, which is really sucky. I guess these days there will be less and less judgment on that kind of stuff, though, since people are losing their jobs left and right.

abdpbt’s last blog post..A DAY IN THE PARK

J. March 4, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Personally, my job is so soul-sucking right now, that while I’m probably being incredibly foolish, I can’t WAIT to get rid of it. There’s undoubtedly someone just salivating to have my position, and more power to them.

J.’s last blog post..I’m Probably Insane For Even Considering This

kt March 9, 2009 at 8:02 pm

This was my favorite post, and not just because I have lots of Target-shaped body parts too, but because I’ve always been a person who stood tall because of professional pride and self-esteem. Without that, I am slouching all too often lately. I’ve felt that twinge (in myself) when people ask me where I work…though I’ve been saying, “My job is to find a job.” Something about that makes me feel less judged. And you’re right, there’s an instant understanding by those who hear any indication of joblessness right now, usually followed immediately by a hazy look in the eyes where you can see their own fears of losing a job (or their livelihood) projected outwardly. I’m grateful for those other professionals who are in it with me as we’ve developed a network of support that includes pick-me-up phone calls, cheap taco meals and even job references for each other! Good luck, everybody!

Debbie March 15, 2009 at 10:24 am

It’s difficult to predict the length of time that we are committed to a company. You can pour your heart and soul into a business only to get fired one day and have your replacement start their new job the next day. While it may be unfair, it also makes you wary that your next employer has a similar twin waiting in the wings for your position.

Barbara Johnson March 17, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Unemployment is worldwide and everyone must compete for a position with the current market and global economy. I recently took over my bosses job for various reasons. Pay. Why not hire someone who is 30,000 cheaper? Makes sense. Ethical or not, I have been trying to get her position for the last two years. I got in better with her boss, and made significant headway when she was on leave. I stole the position from under her and some say it was the wrong thing to do, but with this economy everyone needs to fight for a position.

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