By Denene Brox
It's a question that we all face when interacting with people: "So, what do you do?" And if you're unemployed or underemployed and looking for work, it may be a question you dread answering.
If your job title was a big part of your identity, normal feelings of shock and depression after a layoff may be intensified. But approached with the right attitude, losing your job can be a time to step back and redefine who you are in your life and career.
Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress, says about 70 percent of the people she works with define themselves by their job titles. "We tend to measure ourselves by our accomplishments -- looking for external validation," says Mandel. "Much of this is rooted in our school days when we were graded for our work."
Need to put your job identity into perspective? Here are some tips to help.
Even with unemployment at nearly a 30-year high, many laid-off workers still feel alone and embarrassed. "They question if they fit in anymore," says Mandel. "A mild depression could set in, and a person becomes distracted and unable to focus -- and worst of all, feels ashamed."
To combat feelings of depression and isolation, strive to be around people as much as possible. Depression and isolation are difficult to emerge from on your own, says Philadelphia-based psychiatrist Joseph Garbely. Join a networking group or a support group in your area. Garbely also recommends seeking professional help in dealing with the loss. "Pre-emptive marriage counseling may be very helpful as the financial and emotional stress mounts daily," he says. "And creating a Plan B, for when you return to work, is an important guard against history repeating itself in the future."
Robin Ryan, career counselor and author of Over 40 & You're Hired: Secrets to Landing a Great Job, advises identifying the one or two people in your life who will cheer you on through this process. "Usually it is not your spouse, who is often too anxious over money issues [to help objectively]," she says.
Balance Is Key
In most cases, we define ourselves most by where we spend the majority of our time and energy. If most of your time was spent working, then losing your job can mean, in a very real sense, that you've lost your life. But now you can channel more energy into creating a more balanced life.
"My analogy is that life is a series of gardens that need to be tended to regularly," Garbely says. "Each garden is vital to one's happiness. If you tend only your 'work garden,' your family, friends, health and faith gardens will shrivel up and die."
Dominique Browning, the author of Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness, says she experienced depression, isolation, humiliation, fear and anger after being laid off from her job as editor of House & Garden magazine -- an industry hit hard by the recession. "Then I experienced liberation," she says. "The best part of being laid off has been forcing myself into reinvention, and into a different kind of self-reliance."
Browning made a list of things she'd always wanted to do and began redefining her life and her career. "I've reinforced my identity by allowing myself to find strength in the activities I have always enjoyed, by discovering new ones and by giving myself a new work identity," says Browning, who now works as a freelance writer and blogger.
Browning has also learned to never say no to anything. "Say yes to all interviews, yes to all consulting assignments, yes to helping friends find their way," she says. "I'll try anything once, and see where new paths open."