Getting laid off is really scary, but here’s how to deal

I’ve been laid off, and I’m here to assure you that it’s not the end of the world. Not even close. But first, let’s commiserate: For me, it happened six years ago, and I was 27. The magazine publisher I worked for was in a slump, there had already been three rounds of layoffs, and, every time, I worried the “last one in, first one out” rule was about to be applied to me. But I survived. My sales numbers were high, and the brass had recently announced that we’d finally seen the last of the layoffs — though not before they decreased our salaries and took away some vacation time. My coworkers and I gritted our teeth. At least we had a job.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I got the call from HR. In the same office where I’d been assured my job was secure, I was told that, due to another evaluation of the company’s financial circumstances, they had to lay off just a few more employees. And I was one of them. I sat in silence, stunned.

I took a deep breath and tried not to cry. I stood up. I marched with shaky legs back to my desk, and quickly put my things together. I said good-bye to the few people I could find scattered about the office, turned in my key card, and was escorted out of the building by an uncomfortable-looking assistant.

I can’t tell you how humiliating this was. Few things in my life are capable of making me feel the vast range of emotion I felt in the instant I learned I had been let go. The best comparison I can come up with is a breakup. But, as with a breakup, there are some time-tested ways to cope. Take it from someone who’s been there:

Never burn bridges.
When you get the news, you’ll probably feel like freaking out, but holding it together, as difficult as it is, will always prove to be the smarter move. Why? Well, my company offered me my job back six months later . That’s not necessarily the norm, but you will most likely need a reference for your next job, so if you up and start cursing out your former employers, you’re pretty much invalidating all the hard work you did for them. (Jerry McGuire is a great movie, though.)

Still, give yourself permission to freak out. 
I’m impressed with myself that I didn’t stamp my feet and wail, “It isn’t fair!” I waited until I got back to my apartment for that. I paced. I punched pillows. I called my mother and my best friend and shouted what felt like unintelligible half sentences, which they somehow responded to with sympathetic advice and comforting indignation. I needed to be irrational and upset and not be judged for it. My thoughts were so discombobulated and I felt lost, angry, nervous, and embarrassed. I had no idea what to do next, but my anger was helping me feel motivated and I was almost afraid to let go of it because of what intense emotion might take its place. So I went to the gym and ran on the treadmill with the determination of an Olympian in training until I was sufficiently exhausted. Then I took a long hot shower and tried to sleep.

Take a little time to sort out your next move.
The next morning I hopped out of bed, ready to scour the Internet for job opportunities and revise my résumé. But I stopped myself. The same way a rebound relationship isn’t always the healthiest solution to a breakup, jumping into a new job isn’t the smartest decision, either. Although last week’s splurge on Versace sunglasses in retrospect seemed ill-timed, I decided to take a few days and make a list of what I liked and disliked about my past jobs and come to a conclusion about what made sense for the next phase of my career. I will admit I spent a lot of that time watching reruns of One Tree Hill and drinking root beer in my bathrobe before I could definitively make up my mind.

The situation really stinks, but don’t let it destroy your self-esteem.
After my initial anger passed, I couldn’t help feeling incredibly discouraged. Did I work hard enough? Could I have done more at my job? Who will want to hire me after this? The answer was lots of people, but I didn’t see that right way. Plus, the economy was awful at the time. I told myself that my jobless status was more a reflection of the financial times than my skills, but it’s not always so easy to convince future employers of the same thing. You know how sometimes a guy or girl only pursues you when you already have a partner? Same with companies: It’s easier to get a job when you have a job. The judgmental stares of interviewers seemed to ask,Why aren’t you employed, really? But I couldn’t allow them to diminish my confidence. I just cast a wide net, tried to stay open to all possible opportunities, and considered each interview a learning experience. Whether or not someone offered me a job, I was learning more and more about the kind of work environment I wanted for myself, which helped me stay focused on where to look.

Reach out to everyone.

Besides applying for job postings online, talk to literally everyone you know about what you want to do and where you’d like to work. Send them an email, meet for coffee, ask them to pass it along to their friends, whatever. You never know who knows someone who knows someone, etc., and nothing beats a personal referral. I didn’t do this at first because of my stubborn pride. I didn’t want people to know that I was floundering professionally, which was silly, because almost everyone will feel this way at some point. The minute I got over my hang-ups about asking for help, I found great support, some helpful business contacts, and solidarity.

But now for the surprising conclusion: Six months after that awful day, I discovered that I no longer wanted to work in sales, finance, or advertising. My whole life until that point I had pursued a corner office because I assumed that my writing and entertainment interests were merely hobbies. Somehow I ended up as a financial headhunter for five years, which I grew to enjoy. But I realized I didn’t love it. I loved writing. I would spend my lunch hour editing essays and, after work, constructing stories. We all know the saying: If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life. So when my old company called with an offer to return, I turned them down. Politely. (Secretly, I was gleeful.) Instead, I started over at the bottom rung of another professional ladder. I moved home for a while. I took classes on how to pitch articles to publications. I worked as an extra in movies and television shows, which was sometimes dehumanizing. And I make far less money now than I did in my corporate career, but you know what? It was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I have stressful writing deadlines, and some really frustrating writer’s block, but not once have I regretted my decision to start all over again.

In a way, getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me. You’ll hear a lot of people say that, believe me. So if it happens to you, know that there’s something better coming your way. And one last piece of advice: Save your money. It helps.

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