“I can’t believe this is happening to me,” said the CEO on the other end of my phone line. “They just offered me a contract extension and three months later they’re telling me I’m out. I’m in shock.”
Whether you have just received the news you no longer have a job or are dealing with any other change you didn’t ask for, chances are you’re dealing with a set of difficult feelings. Typically, these feelings follow an emotional process similar to the five stages of grief—denial: “this can’t be happening to me”; anger: “how dare this happen, it’s not fair”; bargaining: “I’ll do anything not to have to go through this”; depression: “why try?” and finally, acceptance: “it’s happening and I can handle it.” That’s because change always represents a death of some sort—the death of a career, of your expectations for the future.
No matter what other emotions you’re experiencing, there’s always a sense of loss of control. Something you didn’t ask for has happened. You can’t control when or where you will find new work. And that can be very challenging, particularly if you’ve been used to a lot of influence or power.
What’s important is to understand that there is a natural trajectory to these emotions. That way you can take some comfort in the fact that what you are feeling is normal and that it does have a positive progression. When you understand that what you are experiencing is grief, you can be kind to yourself as you go through the process. If you suddenly lost a loved one, would you expect to be at the top of your game?
This doesn’t mean you have to collapse in a corner. According to resiliency research, Change Masters allow themselves to feel their difficult feelings, but they don’t take them on as a permanent state. As psychiatrist Steven Wolin points out in psychologytoday.com, it is “… possible to be hurt and rebound at the same time. We human beings are complex enough psychologically to accommodate the two.” And of course actively finding ways to cope with the new situation can help you feel back in the game.
In my work with individuals around the world, I’ve discovered one other crucial coping mechanism to put in place right now: pursue some interest over which you have total control—run a marathon, take up oil painting or skydiving. Make it something challenging that feels worthy of your achievement. That way you regain a bit of control over your life.
What about my client? It’s several months later now. He’s gone though denial and anger, and is moving from bargaining and depression to acceptance as he begins to receive nibbles regarding a new job and to experience the benefits of not working 100 hours a week any more. “I’ve got time for my family finally,” he exclaimed the other day, “and to do some things I love that I haven’t had a chance to do for the past five years.” At some point you too will discover a light at the end of the change tunnel.