When I was laid off, I thought it would be a month before my application to be a permanent resident of Canada would be approved. It was easier, in that context, to think of the time away from work as a vacation. I later found out that the time had been extended to an additional five months, with the expectation that my application will finish processing by the end of June. Suddenly, the first half of the new year found me unemployed and purposeless.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? I associate my purpose with my work. This setback wasn’t primarily financial, though this was a huge concern; it was personal. Who am I without a job? How do I create meaning when the socially acceptable route isn’t available to me? I’m still wading through this emotional and practical quagmire, but here are some things that I have found helpful so far:
- Feel the feelings. This is my rule for everything, and this situation is no exception. Over the past month, I have felt shocked, angry, frustrated, hopeless, hopeful, energized, depressed, disappointed, and overwhelmed. When I repress those emotions and pretend they aren’t there, they become more powerful. They last longer and pop up in other areas of my life where they don’t belong. To avoid this, I try to feel the feelings. For me, that means naming them as they arrive. Simply saying, “I’m sad today,” goes a long way toward accepting and moving through the emotion. Have a good cry or a good rant, and let that feeling go.
- Set boundaries on feeling the feelings. There comes a time when feeling the feelings turns into saturating yourself in the feelings. Instead of letting your emotions be signposts to show you what you need, they become quicksand, eager to pull you under completely. I have a rule for this as well:
Have your pity party, but only for one day, and only if you invite someone else.
I have found that this validates my emotions without empowering them. It also has the fortunate side effect of infusing humor into the darkest emotions. When I’m in an especially bad mood, my conversation with my girlfriend looks something like this:
“What kind of balloons are at your pity party?”
“Black ones. No, black is too good for my party. They’re like, watery grey. And only half inflated.”
“Where are they? Hanging on the walls?”
“No, they’re just…on the floor. And I’m on the floor. Laying face down, making the world’s saddest balloon angel.”
“I’m going to try to sit on some to pop them. But they’re so uninflated that they won’t pop.”
By now, I’m trying not to smile at absurd mental images. “You look ridiculous,” I insist, before bursting into laughter.
- Be careful who you share your story with. There are all kinds of people who are not going to help you. Some unsuccessfully hide the fact that they are happy about your misfortune, because it makes them feel more secure in their not-that-bad situation. Others seem helpful, but their commitment to being with you in your experience can actually keep you mired in the worst emotions without allowing you to move on. If you find that you’ve opened up to someone who is making things worse, you can always back away from the information updates and give less intimate reports when they ask how you’re doing.
- Balance productivity with laziness. This has been my biggest struggle. When I was first confronted with so much time off, I had a list of projects I wanted to complete, from decluttering my closet to designing podcast logos. As I checked off the projects that excited me most, I started to falter. I watched more Netflix, played more video games, and wasted more of my time. The shame increased, which made escaping into tv shows even more appealing.
It’s the shame that is the problem here. Once I told myself that I was allowed to be a lump on the couch as much as I wanted, it didn’t feel quite so appealing for quite so long. Am I playing video games more often than usual? Yes. Once I chose to see that as a perk of being unemployed, I could enjoy it without getting sucked into it forever and always. I could work on projects when necessary, and be lazy when necessary. Always keeping my eyes open for new shame attacks, of course. Those things aren’t a one-and-done deal.
Being unemployed is a struggle, and following the four pieces of advice laid out here will not make it a magical experience. But this time doesn’t have to be seen as a waste. It can be a period of self-growth as you explore and strengthen your emotional intelligence. You can discover new hobbies, or pick up old ones that fell by the wayside when you were too busy with work. It is going to be uncomfortable, but it is survivable.