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Where to Find Motivation After Losing a Job

Handling negative emotions


After losing a job, motivation can be a little hard to come by. A lost job usually serves up a double whammy: a massive blow to self-respect in being fired, forced to resign, or laid off, and a goodly serving of uncertainty about where the next job is going to come from. The combination of sadness about the past and anxiety about the future can be pernicious, because just when you get one side of the problem under control, the other can sneak up and wallop you.

I was forwarded this useful article from the New York Times Web site today, and it has some good points to make: “Accentuating the Positive After a Layoff“. While reading it, however, I realized there are some basic elements of motivation that apply to job loss: here those are.

If You’re Beating Yourself Up, Here’s How to Stop
It’s hard to be kind to yourself after losing a job. You may blame yourself, for good reasons or silly reasons, or be unable to let go of anger, or feel hopeless about the future. These kinds of feelings almost always are the result of broken ideas, things we tell ourselves that sound true but are actually bunk. Some common ones follow, along with some good ways to repair them. For a much more in-depth treatment of broken ideas (under their more proper psychological name of “cognitive distortions”), read Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper’s A Guide to Rational Living or David Burns’ Feeling Good.

I should have _____
“Should” is almost always a red flag word. Looking back at the past, it helps to know how we would handle a similar situation in the future, but since there is no way at all ever to change what we’ve done in time gone by, it can be a lot more constructive to say “I did ____. If the situation came up again, I would do ____. I’m going to accept that I made a bad choice. What can I do in the future to help turn things around?”

I’m such a ____
Labeling means taking one or more incidents in the past and concluding that they add up to an unchangeable tendency to fail. Yet our brains are amazingly adaptable; we can change virtually anything we want about our behavior or even our skills. A bad choice or a failure is nothing more than a specific bad choice or failure. It doesn’t decree how we will act in future.

My boss/coworkers/clients/etc. should have _____
“Should” again, and again it points to something we can’t change. We can influence others, but we generally can’t force them to act a particular way. It can help in these situations to remind ourselves that we have no control over other people, only control over how we respond to them. We can then turn our attention to the areas of our lives where we actually do have some control.

I’m not going to find a job/decent job/job around here/job in my field
This one is called “fortune telling.” We can’t predict the future, and there’s no point in pretending we can. It can help in these situations to map out all of the possibilities we’re hoping to avoid and say to ourselves “OK, that might happen, even if I don’t want it to. If so, what’s going to be the best thing for me to do?”

This is awful!
Watching a child die is awful. Being imprisoned in  a tiny cell in a Southeast Asian country for eight years is awful. But having to sell your beloved late-model car and move to a second-floor walkup in a town you don’t like is merely unpleasant. If you look at your future and see things you don’t like, remind yourself that they’re just things you don’t like, and that your job is just to make good decisions. Very few things we don’t like will last through our entire lives. Generally they’re just something to be gotten through as well as can be managed until they’re gone.

Make goals, not wishes
It’s tempting in these situations to make goals like “I will get a new job right here in the city within three months, for at least as much as I used to make.” The problem is that something like that is not a goal, because it’s not under your direct control. It’s more of a wish: it depends on other people doing things, and we’ve already established that other people are (inconveniently) not under our control. Goals are motivating and worth pursuing, as long as they’re entirely under your control. A real goal might be something like “I will apply for at least 15 jobs a week,” or “I will study a new job skill for at least two hours a day until I have a new job,” or “Every morning, I will come up with one new thing I haven’t tried yet to help me in my job search.” As mentioned in the S.M.A.R.T. post, good goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. The “attainable” part needs to include being under your direct control.

There is an up side
Any change, even a very messy one, has the potential for positive side effects, sometimes substantial ones. For instance, many people who have lost their ability to walk, see, or hear through an accident literally refer to their experience as the best thing that has ever happened to them. As strange as it may sound, it can make sense, because a major life problem is a wake-up call: it slaps us in the face and forces us to look around. What do we really have going for us, when it comes right down to it–what skills, what passions, what resources? What do we truly want to do with our lives? Is making a living enough, or do we want something more? If so, what is that thing? Are the choices we’ve been making really making us happy? It’s possible to be happy without a lot of things, including sight, hearing, and the ability to walk. A happy life with less is better than an unhappy life with more.

And almost any change also has little benefits, things that you’re probably more than happy to leave behind–a cramped office or an over-controlling manager or a long commute. Don’t hesitate to take pleasure in the improvements in your situation, even if they’re small compared to the problems that have arisen.

You don’t have to be happy about losing a job (though it’s possible, and it can help). And you don’t have to pretend that everything is going to come out the way you want it to just because you wish it (which doesn’t help). But taking a calm look at what has happened and where you are now can at worst help you put to rest anxieties you don’t really need, and at best help you see opportunities you hadn’t previously imagined.

Photo by Rhett Sutphin; it may or may not actually depict a lost job



  1. Although losing a job is extremely difficult, especially if you have a family that needs your support, we have to look at the positive side and motivate ourselves to action. I’m pretty sure if someone is in this situation, it will be difficult to see the upside to losing a job, keep positive, and take action toward the future.

    Ken Kurosawa

  2. Kaizan  •  Aug 20, 2009 @4:24 am

    Losing a job can be the greatest opportunity. I think it is crucial to push the negatives to the back of your mind, or else you really disadvantage yourself in searching for the next opportunity.

    By the way, I hate the word “should”! It brings nothing but pain wherever it goes!

  3. Luc  •  Aug 20, 2009 @9:16 am

    Good points about the negative feelings that usually come up, and about the importance of overcoming them. One approach that occurs to me that I’ve used with other kinds of setbacks is remembering other situations I’ve already gotten through that were similar. It can help to reflect on the fact that we’ve weathered past troubles, and in some cases come out better for them. If anyone has other strategies they’ve used, those would be great to hear about as well.

  4. Luc  •  Aug 20, 2009 @9:24 am

    Oh, one more approach that occurred to me, one that I just mentioned in another comment here: getting a little exercise makes a real difference in mood and combats depression and anxiety, even if it’s just a brisk 30-minute walk a few times a week.

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