Losing your job can feel like the end of the world, and in such circumstances it can be difficult to have confidence that things will get better. A recent study from the University of Notre Dame suggests that it can be the best thing to happen to us however, providing we respond in the right way.
“On the way down, we frantically do all sorts of things to try and repair the situation, and suffer as they fail,” the researchers say. “Bottoming out frees us from the misconception that the problems can be fixed, and in the process, frees us from other constraints and negative emotions and provides the conditions necessary to find a viable solution.”
The identity that we associate with our previous work has now been lost, and people tend to go down one of two paths of either recovery or dysfunction.
The team used an ‘identity play’ environment to provide a safe environment for participants to escape the current situation and experiment with new things, and through this process refine a new identity that was stronger than before.
The authors found that when participants found a potential identity that felt right, they were then able to emerge from the reality of the situation more productively.
“A failed corporate executive might consider a variety of other potential roles,” the authors explain, “For example, sitting on the board of a nonprofit organization that is desperate for experienced managerial guidance, exploring government positions or running for office, working with startups, and so forth. Similarly, a failed entrepreneur might explore how skills learned in starting a business could be applied in a corporate setting, take standardized exams to be considered for law school or engage in other low risk exploration activities. In these cases, hitting rock bottom opens up myriad new opportunities.”
A less desirable path
A less beneficial strategy involves the use of fantasy to escape the reality of the situation. Such an approach can also involve drugs or alcohol.
People on this path tend to oscillate between severely negative emotions and no emotions, with this hampering their ability to forge a new identity.
Musicians, athletes and soldiers who have suffered career-ending injuries have been a fertile testing ground for this approach. In such scenarios, it was common for people to be fixated on the loss of their former identity and became paralyzed by the fact they could no longer perform such a role.
“A failed executive might resort to a numb state that involves abusing alcohol, engaging in menial tasks at home or becoming a couch potato,” the authors say. “However, when friends offer job suggestions or ask why the executive has yet to land a new position, it could launch the individual from the numb state into extreme negative emotions leading to destructive behavior.”
The team hope that by better understanding the process people go through, and indeed the best strategies to use to cope with the change, they can better support people going through the process themselves.