After recently being made redundant from her dream job, Kate Lancaster speaks to career coach Jane Jackson and psychologist Rachael Walden about navigating the simultaneous loss of personal and professional identities.
The thing that protrudes most vividly from my memory about the afternoon I was made redundant was my naive preoccupation with my appearance prior to the meeting. It was (and still is) a chaotic time in the media industry but my biggest concern that day was about how to hide my unwashed, dry shampoo-filled hair for the video call – not knowing that in mere minutes, it wouldn’t remotely matter.
Beyond the fundamental worries that immediately crossed my mind following the news – would I find another job? How could I afford to live? – for the very first time, I was confronted with another question, one that I believe would stump many ambitious young women my age.
Who would I be without my career?
I knew the logical next steps I needed to take: update my resumé, reach out to my contacts, take stock of my current skillset, potentially contemplate a different career altogether. But I struggled to differentiate my personal identity from my professional one. My life and my work became so tangled up, it was hard to extricate the two. I didn’t know who I was without it, or even what my interests were. I’d set aside most of them in favour of my ambition long ago.
Today women are encouraged to be relentless in the pursuit of career success but when you lose the job, they don’t tell you that after sacrificing parts of yourself for years, you might just lose your entire persona in the process. So how do I, and the thousands of other women now in my position, learn to move on?
It’s not just you
Although I had known that there was a potentially devastating outcome on the other side of that conversation, at the time it still felt unimaginable that I could actually leave it unemployed. I was shocked, lost and directionless, but a quick survey of the focus group that has become my recently laid-off friends revealed that I wasn’t alone.
Jane Jackson, a career management coach and the author of Navigating Career Crossroads, says that losing your job feels even more stressful given the current climate.
“A redundancy can leave you feeling anxious, fearful and confused about your own ability. But the most important thing to remember is that if you have lost your job or been stood down because of changes due to COVID-19, it is not related to your performance,” she says.
My fault or not, after years spent building a career that I truly loved, it didn’t feel like just a job anymore – it had become as inherent to my sense of self as my role as a sister, or as a dog mama to two cheeky French Bulldogs. It felt like something tangible, a little garden that I had tended to overtime – making connections to form roots for the future, putting in long hours and hard work in the name of professional growth – all in the hopes that against all the warnings from my university tutors, my efforts would bloom into a long-term profession in lifestyle journalism.
Instead, I was now looking down the barrel of a career crisis at the age of 30. What would I do next, if what I do best was no longer viable in an unstable economy? If a career change is the best option, Jackson suggests examining what it was that fulfilled you the most in your last job.
“You will have learned a lot since you first started your previous role. There will have been aspects that you enjoyed and aspects that were not as enjoyable. Also, analyse why you didn’t enjoy it,” she suggests. “The answers to this will help you gain clarity about what is important to you in your career.”
Hold space for your feelings
Once the initial shock had worn off I experienced a tidal wave of emotions, with peaks and troughs in alarming succession. Psychologist at The Bondi Psychologist Rachael Walden says that job loss sees us move through the same cycles of grief as we would with any other sudden loss.
“Anxiety, stress, sadness, and anger are all valid emotions and it is important to allow yourself time to feel whatever comes up for you,” she says. “When we acknowledge how we feel and self-validate those feelings – saying ‘it’s okay that I am angry that forces beyond my control have taken away my income’ or ‘it is fine that I am sad, it’s normal to feel this after a loss of a job’ – we are normalising them and making room for those feelings to be with us, not trying to push them away.”
Bring back purpose
Then there’s the general sense of purpose to contend with. During the global uncertainty in recent months, my job had felt like a steady, solid connection to my previous life. Taking away the daily commute and professional surrounds of an office, my time during social distancing still felt purposeful. I had meetings to click in to, stories to write, and a relentless stream of emails that served as a reminder that the world was still turning outside of my own four walls.
Now it felt like my sole reason for getting up in the morning had been taken away, with little distractions available to fill out my days. Walden suggests building purpose back into your day by looking outside of your work.
“Getting aligned with what matters to you means that you are living your life with conscious action, which has a direct impact on your sense of contentment and self-esteem,” she explains. “Can you add in some extra time to connect to the people who matter to you most? Would doing more exercise make you more aligned to values around health and vitality? Tweak your life to look more like you want it to, and piece by piece you will create the life that you want – one that feels purposeful, conscious and chosen.”
Focus on you
When separating the professional from the personal, Walden suggests zooming out and considering the other roles you occupy in life. “You are not just the job you had. Even if your last role was impressive, it’s only part of the story. Take your focus further out and appreciate your whole self,” she says. “Are you someone’s supportive sibling? A kind neighbour? A great parent? The person who has the funniest work stories to tell at drinks? Look at these parts of yourself, see what are you proud of and recognise your values.”
Once you have processed things mentally and emotionally, the idea of facing the job market will seem less daunting. Jackson suggests reaching out to your professional connections for guidance, to begin with.
“Once you start talking to people about the direction you are interested in, you will gain suggestions, new ideas and offers to introduce you to more people who can provide advice,” she says. “You will be surprised at the number of people who are willing to help if you can confidently and clearly express who you are, what you can do, what you are targeting and what you need from them. If you feel stuck, never be afraid to reach out for help.”