I can still picture the first time I was fired as if it happened an hour ago: I was working at a record store and had mistakenly sold an R-rated DVD to two girls who turned out to be 14 years old, and one of their parents called to complain. (For the record, it was one of the schlocky Scream sequels; it wasn’t like it was The Exorcist or anything.) Despite the fact that I’d already quit and was working my week’s notice when my boss told me to get out, I still felt utterly, weirdly devastated. Even thinking about it now, nearly two decades later, I feel that same bitter mixture bubbling up: childlike humiliation, undying resentment toward my spineless boss and a burning need to ask Neve Campbell, star of the Scream movies, if she knew anyone who was hiring.
This isn’t to make light of the experience of losing your job. Just the opposite — my exit from the world of retail is about as mild a termination as you can experience, yet it persists as an open wound.
Obviously, when there are real livelihoods, careers, emotional investments and professional reputations at stake, the scars run much deeper. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 1.6 million people were fired or laid off nationwide in the month of April alone this year. In the first four months of 2017, an average of 54,200 people were losing their jobs per day across the United States. That’s bludgeoning psychological trauma on an enormous scale.
So what’s really going on inside the heads of those 50,000-plus people who find themselves clearing out their desks each day? And how can they best handle the mental and emotional fallout?
Being fired plays cruel tricks on your mind
There’s a terrible irony in being told you’re not wanted anymore: It immediately drains your ego of all the swagger it needs to help you land your next job, according to Guy Winch, New York-based psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. But that’s not even the half of it: “When we fail at something, it has huge consequence because it does a real number on us in terms of our unconscious thinking,” explains Winch. “We take the messages we get from our mind as real, when in fact, they’re distortions.”
The first misleading message, says Winch, is that we have no power to change our situation: “We feel apathetic, demotivated, demoralized and helpless.” And this, he says, compounds the second mental hurdle that failure shoves in our way: “It distorts our perceptions of our abilities, so we seem less capable in our own mind than we actually are.”
“Let’s call it ‘ability dysmorphia’,” continues Winch, referring to the well-documented psychological effect that makes us assess our own skills more negatively after a setback. This was demonstrated vividly in a 2009 study at Purdue University. In it, participants were asked to kick 10 field goals from the 10-yard line on a standard football field, then told to estimate the dimensions of the goal posts they’d just been aiming for.
The results showed how failure in any given task affects how difficult we perceive that task to be: “The more success one had at kicking the ball through the field goal, the larger the goal appeared to be after kicking,” reported the researchers. Meanwhile, “Participants who missed their kicks wide perceived the uprights as narrower. Similarly, participants who missed their kicks short, perceived the crossbar as higher off the ground.”
Winch says this is a perfect metaphor for the way we unfairly raise the bar on ourselves after we’ve been laid off — and when we suddenly see finding another job as something that’s out of our reach. The solution, he suggests, is to wrest back control from our naysaying unconscious. First of all, you have to remind yourself that any pessimistic impulses are coming from “these perceptual distortions that are at play, so you can’t necessarily believe them.”
You then have to counter those downer instincts — and the accompanying slump into helplessness and lethargy — by compiling evidence to the contrary. Basically: Come up with a list of all the things that make you awesome. “List your core competencies and your unique qualifications; focus on the fact that you have a great work ethic or that you take instruction well,” says Winch. “Whatever it is, constantly remind yourself of what would make an employer fortunate to have you, rather than on whatever the shortcomings are you think you might have.”
Why it’s so hard to dismiss the pain of being dismissed
But wait: There’s another emotional sucker-punch in store, one that comes from our brain’s fairly pathetic inability to deal with being excluded from a group. “When we’re kicked out of a tribe, no matter what the tribe is, it’s going to a) hurt and b) make us feel unsettled.” This is because, says Winch, “in our evolutionary past, being kicked out of the tribe was a death sentence. That’s why ostracism is such a painful experience for us… because it has a real evolutionary function.”
Essentially, our tribal ancestors who found being rejected most unbearable were the ones who did whatever it took to stay within the social group — and thus, tended to survive to pass on their hypersensitivity about “being fired” to the rest of the species. “The remnant to this day is the pain we feel when it happens as well as that need to feel like we belong,” says Winch.
Our aversion to rejection is so strong, in fact, that some researchers have suggested we might experience it literally as pain. One fun study in 2010 invited people who had recently undergone a distressing breakup to stare at photos of their ex-partners while undergoing fMRI scans on their brains. Amazingly, at least 40 people agreed to take part. Even more amazingly, in reliving their rejection, the subjects were found to be activating many of the neural pathways the researchers would normally expect to see lighting up when physical pain was present. Or, as Winch puts it, “The assumption is that the rejection pathways piggy-back on the physical-pain pathways.”
“That’s why even small rejections can hurt so much,” he says, “and that’s why even if you get fired from a job you didn’t really want, it’s going to be painful.” But unlike physical pain, the throb of social rejection lingers. “If you think back about your tooth hurting yesterday, your tooth isn’t going to hurt while you’re thinking about it. But if you think back on how it really hurt to get fired yesterday, last week, or even 10 years ago, it’ll reactivate and make you feel crappy for a moment. So when you’re dealing with finding a new job, you’re basically dealing with that rejection all the time. Every time you hit a hurdle or a frustration, it reactivates that feeling of ‘How did that happen?,’ ‘Why did that happen?’ or ‘It’s not fair that that happened.’” (Which explains the rush of remorse I still feel every time I see Neve Campbell popping up in Season 5 of House of Cards.)
But since it’s another mental booby-trap we apparently have little control over, can we do anything to ameliorate the pain of rejection in the first place? Winch believes so. “You can band together with people who are looking for jobs, and feel you belong there. You can strengthen your feeling of belonging to your professional cadre, whoever they are — if you’re a lawyer or graphic designer or whatever you might be, you can join in those groups on LinkedIn or affiliate with their associations and network within them. It reinforces the sense of, ‘Okay, I might not belong to that company, but I still belong to my profession: That’s still my tribe, I’m still in it.’”
It sucks that our brains aren’t team players when it comes to helping us rejoin the labor market. But the good news is that people are getting around their unhelpful neurology all the time: According to the BLS figures, so far this year, more than three times as many hires have been made as firings and layoffs combined.
And if you’ve ever bounced back from a traumatic dismissal to land another job, you should feel extra proud of yourself: Not only did you beat out all the other candidates, you also beat all the distortions and negative impulses your unconscious mind was throwing in your path — which, when you think about it, is quite an achievement. Although maybe not one to put on your resume.