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"You're Unemployed? How Are You Doing?" Thanks For Asking, I'm Dying.

Unemployed people typically experience an enormous crisis of confidence, once the anger over a layoff or firing lessens a bit. There’s a reason.


In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler Ross published On Death and Dying, a reading requirement for college psych and social science students for years afterward. The book was the outcome of a study she did on the dying, and in which she identified the emotional stages of death, which are:

  • Denial: This cannot be happening to me!
  • Rage: It’s not fair!
  • Depression: I’ll never get past this.
  • Bargaining: Let me out and I’ll be good!
  • Acceptance: OK, let’s get on with it.

All people who die apparently go through these stages. I was once in a situation in which death was the only logical outcome, and watched myself with great interest go through these exact steps. You’ve probably guessed I didn’t die. But upon waking up the following morning, I was ticked

So what does this have to do with unemployment? Plenty! 

I’ve been working with unemployed people, including myself, in one capacity or another for more than 30 years, and I’m here to tell you that, if you’re unemployed, you will go through this sequence. 

Here’s the problem. Dying people go through these stages and die. But the unemployed go through them again, and again, and again...

Have a good interview and life is great! The drought’s end is in sight! Don’t get the job, and BOOM!!—denial!, rage!, fear/depression!, bargaining!, acceptance! 

As a culture, we have come to identify ourselves by what we do for a living. You go to a party and when someone asks, “And what do you do,” you don’t say “I do engineering,” you say, “I am an engineer.” That’s fine if you’re employed, but if you’re not, are you still an engineer? Nope. You have no identity, so you’re dying, or dead, from an emotional standpoint.

It isn’t unusual for a client to say, in reaction to the possibility of their getting the job they want, “I’m not going to get my hopes up…” The reason they say this is obvious: they’ve recycled those death emotions several times before, and don’t want to again. Well, go ahead and get your hopes up! It’s going to be tough to convince someone you’re the solution to their problem when you’re busy damping down your hopes!

What you must understand, and remind yourself often, is this is an emotional reaction to a situation, not reality. There are a lot of unemployed people now, and most likely, more to come. If you are one of them, you cannot afford to sideline yourself based on an emotional reaction, strong though it may be.

I’m certainly no psychologist, but here’s what works for me. If I find that a situation is really getting me down, I major in it. “Woe is me, I’m a worm and no man, a reproach of men and despised by the people!” I play the saddest music I can think of (“The Death of Ase,” by Peer Gynt is really good for this—try it!), and, after about two hours I get really bored with the whole thing, and I’m ready to move on. That beats taking myself out of action for a couple of days, while I assume the prenatal position and turn the electric blanket up to “9.”

This is, indeed, a lousy time to look for a job, and it may get worse before it gets better, but it won’t be permanent. It’s just the rotten part of another cycle. You may be unemployed, but you’re not dead! Companies are still hiring. Go forth and conquer! And never hand your career over to your employer!