leadership development


If you’re one of the many people who have been laid off recently, this is for you. Recovering from the varied and complex ramifications of a job loss can be overwhelming. To make things worse, your own automatic patterns of thought and behavior may be sabotaging your best efforts. Understanding your underlying thinking offers a great learning opportunity in the aftermath of this critical life event. Learning how to replace these patterns with intentional thought, increased choice and sound purpose will not only bolster your career comeback, it will strengthen your capacity to manage future pivotal events.

Self-sabotage One: The Unconscious Undermine
If you have heard the phrase “fight or flight” or the concept of a threat response, you’ve ventured into the field of neuroscience where we learn from thought leaders, such as David Rock, that the purpose of our brain is to protect us. Minimizing danger and maximizing reward is an organizing principle of the brain. Our brain, therefore, drives our behaviour in ways that minimize perceived threats and maximize rewards. According to Rock’s research, our brain has the same reaction to our unmet social needs as it does to unmet primary needs, such as food and water.

Dirty Rope

So how does this relate to our response to job loss? Our brain assesses every human experience against five social domains: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (SCARF). Consider status, which is related to our sense of self-worth. Our brains scan to see where we fit in the hierarchy at work and in our social realm, and when we lose a job, the brain reacts to this as a significant threat. Certainty creates a sense of safety that the present is manageable and the future is a known quantity. Change threatens certainty, leading to increased stress and a sense of imbalance. Autonomy gives people a sense of control over what they do, which is often the opposite when a job is suddenly lost. Relatedness refers to our need for social connection or belonging to a group, which could be the peer group that disappears when you leave your employment. Lastly, fairness is always in question when there is sudden job loss, which automatically puts us on the defense.

What can we do about our well-meaning but not-so-helpful survival instincts? Make the unconscious conscious. Reflect on the five social domains in the context of your situation and notice where your survival instincts may be driving you into a defensive fight or flight response. Notice rigid opinions—“It isn’t fair I was let go” (fairness), “I can’t handle this right now” (certainty), “I’m a victim” (autonomy). Also notice physical sensations such as heightened anxiety, faster heart rate, increased perspiration, difficulty sleeping or a sense of panic. These are all indicators that adrenaline is in your bloodstream and you are in fight or flight mode.

Asking yourself a question can help your body move out of the “survival brain” and reengage the cerebral cortex or “thinking brain.” Shift into thinking rather than reacting automatically with questions like “What is right about this situation?”, “Who can I ask to help?”, or “What should I do first?” Replace your survival instincts with consciously chosen action by asking questions. To help the adrenaline leave your bloodstream, move your body. It is a chemical that takes time to dissipate; physical movement helps the process.

Self-sabotage Two: Tangled in Transition
Losing your job can be a highly emotional, disorienting life event that leaves you reeling. You may be experiencing a new and intense mix of emotions such as fear, shame, sadness, anxiety, guilt and hopelessness. As your world tilts, you may find yourself grasping to get your bearings, and staying stuck here can painfully prolong the process.

Strong emotions in this circumstance are a normal and natural response to losing something that was important to you. This is called grief. According to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Knowing what stage you are in can help you become oriented in your grieving process. These stages also show up in William Bridges’ books on transition for organizations and for individuals, such as Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Check out his transition model:

Transition During Change

Even though you can frequently move forward and backward as you move through transition, when you can see roughly where you are on the road map, you will feel like you have more control over where you are going and how you will get there.

How do you find solid footing as you simmer in this emotional soup? Create new emotions by changing your thoughts. First, pause to notice and tune in to how you are feeling. Name each emotion and write them down, which can help you acknowledge your full experience (use this feeling wheel to help name your emotions). Once you’ve written them down, think about how they connect to your thoughts, and ultimately to your actions. Notice how your thoughts drive your emotions (not the other way around), which then lead to your actions. Now, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What behavior am I noticing that is different for me?
  2. What emotions are driving this behavior? 
  3. What thoughts are driving these emotions?

Once you make these connections you will have greater self-awareness and can adjust your thinking by asking, “How else can I think about this? What other perspectives can I explore?” Adjusting your thinking will create new emotions, which will expand your choice of actions. This exercise is not about judging your emotional response, it’s about understanding it. Whatever feelings you are having are valid. “The Five Stages of Grief After Losing a Job” might be a helpful article as you work through your own grief process.

Self-sabotage Three: Nagging Negativity
Job loss is a life event that few of us want to experience, and it can trigger some of our deepest doubts and most negative thoughts. You may be experiencing self-criticism, deflated self-confidence, a sense of lost identity, widespread worry, financial panic or an unshakable focus on problems. You may be obsessing over mistakes or indulging negative self-talk, such as “My career is over,” “I don’t know how to do anything else” or “I will never get another job in this market”.

As the saying goes, we learn in the valleys. It’s normal and healthy to reflect on past experiences. This is often where we find our most meaningful learning. However, if you find that you are repeatedly rehashing without the intention to learn and move forward, you are stuck in a self-sabotaging pattern of negative thought. Left unchecked, these thoughts and feelings can have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health. Assess your own “stinkin’ thinkin’” and notice where you may be absorbed in repetitive, unproductive thoughts that serve no real purpose (while churning up a sea of negative emotions).

Recognizing these negative thoughts as they occur and observing them objectively help loosen your emotional attachment to them and leaves you with more choice in how to react to them. Negative thoughts tend to come from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, both of which remove you from the present. The present is where life happens; by giving it your undivided attention, you will break the pattern of your negative thoughts.

Take a moment to write down five negative thoughts you have been having. Be curious about your thoughts and answer these questions for each of them:

  1. Where does this thought come from? 
  2. On a scale of 1-10, how accurate is it? 
  3. What evidence do I have that this thought is true? 
  4. And what purpose does this thought serve?

The field of positive psychology, which is essentially the study of happiness, says that “Happiness is not a reward for avoiding pain. It demands that you confront negative feelings head-on without letting them overwhelm you. If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life, you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.” In essence, bringing mindfulness and positivity to negative feelings reduces their impact on you and your ability to take productive action. Here is a one-minute video on mindfulness at work and an article on how to increase positivity during career transition.

Self-sabotage Four: The Self-care Slump
Many of us are experts at treating ourselves in a much harsher way than we would ever treat others. Job loss can magnify this tendency and may set us on a path that zaps energy and motivation, damages self-esteem and may even lead to substance abuse, depression or, at its most extreme, suicidal thoughts (if you are experiencing these thoughts, seek help at a crisis centre as soon as possible).

Self-sabotage Four: The Self-care Slump

In contrast, what we truly need is heightened self-acceptance, patience, openness, self-love and self-care. The concept of self-care may feel counter-intuitive as we learned subtle messages from an early age to be seen and not heard, to put others before ourselves and to not be selfish. As adults it’s difficult to replace these messages with a healthier approach. However, taking care of yourself is exactly what’s needed to dissipate the stress of your recent experiences, and build up the emotional and spiritual reserves you’ll need to lean on as you move through this transition. Reflect on what types of activities fill your tank, and start practicing them with intention and conviction. This list will vary for each individual, and in case you are wondering, self-care is just as important for guys! Start to take care of yourself in meaningful ways, and you may be surprised at how your perspective evolves.

Shift to a more positive mindset by taking stock of your strengths. Invite people to give you feedback and ask them specifically to help you see your positive attributes. These conversations are not only informative but also empowering, connecting and nurturing at a time when you might really need it. There are also many online tools available to help you recognize and articulate your own strengths such as the StrengthsFinder, a highly researched tool by Gallup.

Lastly, engage your support network, even if you don’t feel like reaching out. Inviting others in will help you lean on the people who want to help the most. Talking with your trusted network about your experiences can provide valuable new perspectives and help them understand how best to support you. People want to help, so let them. It deepens your connections and strengthens your relationships.

Self-sabotage Five: Overwhelmed Inaction
When experiencing job loss, the combination of shock, overpowering emotions and information overload while continuing to function in your physical reality can be overwhelming. You may feel like you have been hit by a rogue wave full of things to do and stuff to worry about. Our brain is highly capable of flashing worrisome thoughts at a rapid-fire pace that is much quicker than real life actually happens. In one minute of worried thinking, you can experience several problems mentally. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that too much is happening all at the same time, when in the physical world it’s not.

Jumping Dog

If you are feeling paralyzed by overwhelming thoughts, one question to ask yourself that can help you get unstuck is “What is one thing I can do right now that will move me toward my goal?” – then, get up and do it. Take action. It can be that simple. Don’t worry whether it’s the right thing to do or whether it’s a small or significant thing, just get moving. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. A comprehensive resource called Creating a New Future: The Job-Loss Workbook is worth checking out as you move to action.

Once you are in motion, put the tools in place that will help you organize your thoughts and actions to maintain your new inertia. Set up a system that will help you get things done and keep moving in your chosen direction. Find ways to break larger projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. Enlist support, access the available resources and then follow through. Importantly, don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small!

Key Takeaways:

  1. Notice whether your fight or flight instinct is kicking in and driving defensive thoughts and behaviors.
  2. Figure out where you are in the stages of transition or in the stages of grief to help you get oriented and plan your next steps. Notice how your thoughts are driving your feelings, which then drive your behaviors.
  3. Break the patterns of negative thinking by asking questions such as “How accurate is this thought?” and “What purpose does it serve?”
  4. Choose your self-care activities and practice them with diligence.
  5. Break big projects down into manageable tasks and take immediate action to break out of feeling overwhelmed.

This article first appeared in Oilweek’s on-line magazine September 15, 2015.

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