science of us

Getting Laid Off Taught Me How to Cope With Breakups

Photo: Glow Images, Inc/Getty Images

It was a Wednesday in November and I was crying in the middle of a mall. Such public displays of emotion aren’t typically my style, but I’d just been blindsided by an “It’s not you, it’s me” conversation, one that ended a two-year partnership. Passersby stared as I managed to choke out a few words over the phone to my mother, who was offering positive assurances that I’d move on from this, that I deserved better. But aside from the fact that my waterproof mascara was holding up impressively well through the deluge of tears, I didn’t feel superior to anyone — I felt really dumb, and it wasn’t because I was alone, crying in a mall.

I’d just been dumped by my employer. It was my first layoff.

Plenty of American workers are already familiar with the pain that comes from losing a job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 1.6 million layoffs and discharges this past December, proving that the phenomenon of layoff season is alive and well. For me, though, the feeling was a new one.

Except, as it slowly began to dawn on me, maybe it wasn’t: The emotions I experienced after the layoff were eerily similar to the anguish I’d felt after past breakups. I sat around ruminating over what went wrong, how I could’ve been better, how I maybe shouldn’t have said that careless remark that elicited a few eye rolls. I started to get bitter. I wished mild discomfort on the people who have plagued me with this inconvenience. I had waves of grief when I saw people living the life I’d once had: then, happy couples; now, the professionally successful.

Which makes sense: Both a layoff and a breakup can make a person feel like they’ve lost control over aspects of their day-to-day that they formerly had a grasp on. “It’s a major shift in what you’re waking up to every day,” says dating coach Katrina Evelyn. “With a job, you’re waking up and not going to that job anymore. With a partner, you’re waking up and that partner isn’t there anymore. We’re creatures of habit as humans. When our routine is disrupted, that can be very difficult to deal with.”

To adequately bounce back from a layoff, then, it’s important to note the similarities between it and another kind of heartbreak. Like a failed romance, it’s a loss that elicits grief and requires a period of healing and reflecting in order to adequately move on. Just like learning from bad breakups, we could do well to learn from bad job losses, as well.

One of those lessons may be to think carefully and deliberately about how you try to move on. After a breakup, friends might suggest you sign up for dating apps or take you out to prowl for a rebound fling; similarly, résumé-building and intense job searching are the norms following job loss. But while this seems like a functional cut-and-dry approach to moving on, you may not be tackling these techniques effectively. “People are looking for the x-number of steps to move forward,” says career and life coach Maggie Graham. “There’s a lot of focus on the action: What should I be doing to get myself back out there, as far as the protocol? That is an important part of the process, [but] the bigger unaddressed picture is the mind-set.”

That is, if you’re projecting a woe-is-me energy (which I definitely did), exuding self-doubt, bashing your ex, or acting out of desperation, you’re subliminally sabotaging yourself, Graham says. And checking off next steps isn’t that productive if you’re going through the motions motivated by fear or bitterness, without really reflecting on what it is you want to do next both career-wise and romantically.

“If you are holding feelings of resentment and anger, that signals to [a date or hiring manager] that you’re not ready to truly move on,” says psychologist Lynn Joseph, author of The Job-Loss Recovery Guide. Instead, she suggests visualizing my career and romantic goals for a few minutes a day, letting the image of my best self form in my self-conscious. “It’s like you’re programming your inner computer,” Joseph says. “If all you feed it is the fear images, than that’s what it will help provide to you. We need to spend more time creating the inner positive emotion and images, and then it will become more easy.”

It’s hard to ooze positivity, though, if you haven’t allowed yourself time to grieve the loss. Just like the passing of a loved one, a layoff and a breakup are life events that need to be mourned. The feelings associated with five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — are all valid reactions to dealing with a major change of pace.

For me, clarity came only after I let myself mourn the job and the lifestyle that came with it: financial stability, co-workers, a place to be every day. Once I grieved a little, I was able to look back on what I’d lost with a clear head, picking out more than a few less-than-ideal aspects of the position and vowing to not take a new gig that had these same qualities. And if I could do that with a job, I know now that I can definitely do that with a partner.

Getting Laid Off Taught Me How to Cope With Breakups