Today marks the 3rd anniversary of one of the worst days of my life. Many times I’ve had people comment about how ‘real’ I am, or honest, or authentic. One of the reasons I write is to encourage and inspire people, and sharing my less than stellar moments takes the power out of them and shows that you’re not alone (or maybe just shows that you’re better off than me, or gives you a laugh, all of which fulfills my writing mission). But there is one area I am not real, or authentic about, and that’s about this event. Initially, I thought it was anger and bitterness that kept me from this topic (and it kind of was, and I still wrote some things, which I promptly regretted), but the truth is it was shame, pure and simple. This event marked me, in my mind, as damaged goods, and who wants to admit that?
Three years ago today I was laid off.
Writing it out like that it looks so innocuous. Why was THIS such a big deal? Well, here’s the scoop. For all of my adult life, my work comprised my entire identity. I was successful, and earned an excellent salary. I saw myself as an integral part of the teams I led and contributed to. I didn’t have kids until I was nearly 40 partly because I loved my job so much and felt so fulfilled in my role. I was in charge of the organizational development departments, which means I developed leadership programs, I coached, I trained, I oversaw employee relations…and I was always a part of decisions when it came to hiring, firing, and laying off.
For a long time, work was my ONLY identity. If I had a good day at work everything was okay. If things weren’t going well, I was a wreck. I put in ridiculously long hours, took things way too seriously, and if I ever did take vacation, it was never more than a week and I never disconnected. I knew on some level this was dysfunctional, but I also knew I was kicking butt at my job and that felt good.
I dreamt that one day I’d transition from a corporate job to a coaching/consulting role with the flexibility to also focus on my writing. I got married at 38 and had my daughter at 39. Our life plan was that first we would start up a fitness business, and when that was thriving I would launch my consulting/coaching gig. I had a business plan and was excited for the day to come, but in the meantime, it made sense for me to stay in my job, as it paid well and was ‘secure’.
Fast forward several years. We’d relocated to Seattle, started the gym, and I had just had healthy twin boys (a whole other story, but suffice it to say it was a physically and emotionally grueling time). After I’d been back from my maternity leave for a month, I got the call from my boss. This is exactly what he said. “We had a meeting last night about your team, and there’s some bad news. For you. Effective today, we’re letting you go.”
I was numb at first, and unbelieving. I knew it had been an option, but had not in my wildest dreams accounted for the particulars of this circumstance. In one phone call, we’d gone from a financially stable home, with childcare, good benefits, and an exciting startup venture, to a 5-person (6 if you included the au pair we’d engaged with a yearlong, unbreakable contract) family that included a two-year-old and infant twins with no income, no benefits, and no immediate prospects.
And the shame. Rejection is one of the most painful experiences any person can go through, and getting laid off or fired is not only rejection, it has stiff financial penalties associated. Even though I knew on some level it wasn’t true, I felt like I was a failure. Obviously, my mind told me, I didn’t bring that much value if the company could do without me. What if other people found out? How could I start a business when a company I’d helped grow for five years didn’t even want me? This was reinforced occasionally by clients who wouldn’t hire someone who’d been laid off because there was probably something wrong with them. As much as I tried to put a good spin on launching my own business, I still felt like if people ‘really knew’ that I’d been laid off it would be a black mark against me.
I was totally unprepared for the jolt to my esteem and lifestyle that event wrought. My husband and I are generally optimistic people, and we had faith that things would work out, but there were still some scary moments despite that. For instance, I already had my daughter enrolled in a music class, and then realized that we were no longer the kind of family that could afford things like music classes. Or Christmas presents. Or the good toilet paper. I worked hard to think of ourselves as successful business owners in progress, rather than struggling, poverty-stricken victims, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were low times.
Obviously, things have worked out. My consulting business grew quickly, and we learned to be resourceful to a degree I’d never thought possible. I can honestly look back on getting laid off and say definitively that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. There were lessons I learned over the last three years that I would never have learned any other way. If you’ve found yourself unexpectedly, or even expectedly jobless, here are some things to consider:
- Don’t let it define you. Don’t carry the rejection, and don’t carry the shame. Being let go from one place does not mean you are unemployable.
- Be fearless about looking at your part. Is there anything you might have done differently? Don’t let the shame prevent this step, it’s the only way you can get closure.
- Don’t rush into your next chapter. One of the things I would definitely do over again is take a bit more time launching my business. I stayed in a niche I didn’t love out of fear instead of launching the leadership and coaching business I should have. This is tied to point one, of course.
- Don’t allow your beliefs to become limiting. Obviously adjust your lifestyle, but don’t start thinking of yourself as a failure.
- Ask for and accept help. This is one of the hardest things to do.
- Don’t get bitter. This is easier said than done, but you can move on with your life much faster if you’re not focusing on the rear view mirror. In today’s society, you sometimes do need to decide whether to pursue litigation against your former employer. The answer is different for everyone. I felt that any financial gain would be outweighed by the emotional time and energy drain. I wanted to move forward.
- Shore up your faith in the calm, not the storm. The whole summer I was on leave, I was listening to a sermon series about getting through hard times by my former church in California (awesome by the way, here’s the link for that particular series, but anything Pastor Tom Barkey at Church of Grace teaches is worth listening to). Ironically, several times I thought how glad I was that I wasn’t going through any seriously hard times. Regardless, all of it sunk in and was a major contributor to keeping us in hope and out of despair.
In closing, being laid off can happen to anyone. It doesn’t mean you’re damaged goods, or that you have nothing to offer. I now refer to that day three years ago as the gift of desperation. That event started me down a path to working in my true gifts and calling. It also revealed the people in my life who I could count on. Many people I considered friends were supportive, encouraging and never wavered in their belief in us. My parents were there for us in every way possible (thanks, Mom!). There were also some people who had claimed to be friends who disappeared over night. You just learn to focus on the good and move on. If you’ve been let go, try to get past the financial fear, and consider all the things you’re now free to pursue. And good luck! For me, it was the best worst thing that ever happened.
PS I’ve written, 10 tips on dealing with multiple (conflicting) priorities. If you’d like a free copy, just click here!