The Unexpected Grief of Losing a 27–Year Career–and My Identity
When my high-powered Wall Street career ended during the pandemic, I was blindsided by my own reaction
“Why are you crying?” asked my husband. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”
A couple of days earlier I had been called into my boss’s office and learned that I was among a group of employees being laid off. With a generous severance package.
Just a couple of months before that I had written in my journal about my 27-year, high-paying Wall Street career:
“I find my job saps the energy out of me. The physical space I work in, with no windows and no privacy, does not make me feel safe. In order to be in the office on time, I need to wake up by 5:30 am. But I don’t get to bed until 11:30 pm, because the evening is when my “real life” takes place — when I teach yoga, see friends, take classes.”
I was finally free.
Losing My Identity in the Midst of Job Loss
Yet there I was, bawling at the bottom of the stairs (I had just tumbled down the back stairs to my kitchen). I hadn’t injured myself. But the shock of the fall seemed to release all the emotions that had been bottled up inside me for the past few days. The first response that came out of my mouth, in answer to my husband’s question was, “I just lost the identity I’ve had for 30 years. Who am I now? What do I do next?”
I’d like to tell you that I experienced that unexpected layoff as acknowledgement from the universe that I was finally ready for the change that I had secretly longed for. Like many people who left their jobs – willingly or not – during The Great Resignation, I was dying for a change of pace. Like many dedicated workers, after working from home for months without an energy-sapping commute, I decided to prioritize my emotional health over my financial well-being. Like many others, I had decided to ditch a job I found exhausting, demoralizing, and no longer challenging. When it actually happened, I found myself dizzyingly, excitingly free. And yet…also emotionally ambivalent – even terrified – of what might come next.
For me, a self-professed nerd in high school, my lucrative career was so much more than just a job. It was a source of pride and identity; my title contributed as much to my sense of self-worth as the paycheck did to my net worth. Though I hadn’t expected to experience a profound sense of loss when my career suddenly ended, I wasn’t surprised that I did.
Recognizing Job Loss Allows All Emotions In
Susanna Harkonen, MBA, M.Ed, CTTP, ASDCS, CAGT is a registered counselor in Switzerland who experienced two massive career shifts. Her first transition was from an international career in procurement & supply chain management to a position with the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO); her second career change was from the ILO to her long-term passion: workplace mental health and well-being.
According to Harkonen, most of us associate loss and grief with death and dying, but any type of change, even the happy ones, entail some level of loss. ”Grief is a natural human response to loss,” she says. “We are impacted mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually to varying degrees. It is perfectly normal to have mixed feelings even if the career change was by choice.”
Grief Ushers in Healing
Among the 43 most stressful life events, 10 are in some way connected with work. Being fired and retirement are in the top ten. It is therefore no wonder that many of us who have made career shifts end up going through intense emotions that range from the more positive ones like joy, freedom, and peace of mind, to the more negative ones like shame, guilt, and regret.
Western cultures do not allow much time or space for loss and grief. We soldier on rather than surrender and allow ourselves to feel all feelings: the good, the bad, the ugly. Grieving requires just the opposite. It requires us to be vulnerable and open; only then can healing and growth take place. When we are experiencing strong emotions, it is helpful to remind ourselves of our core values. When we feel lost and overwhelmed, reconnecting to our core values brings us quickly to a state of self-awareness and understanding.
Name and Reframe the Story You Tell Yourself
In order to begin the process of reframing, take the time to notice the difference between what actually is happening, such as “I lost my job,” and the meaning you are making of it, such as “I’ve lost my value” or “I’m going to run out of money.” Get curious about how you’re feeling. Notice what fear is being triggered, and how it might be similar to past experiences. When have you heard this story before? Managing emotions doesn’t mean that we suppress them; naming them actually gives our brain and body some relief.
It’s important to recognize that we filter our reality through a lens of belief, expectation, hope and fear. Robin Merle, author of the book , Involuntary Exit, notes that the stories we tell ourselves often limit us. Learning to reframe our story is an important step toward developing resilience. “Reframing takes time and practice, especially when we’re grieving our job loss,” Merle says. “Give yourself the grace of time. As I say in my book, ‘Don’t confuse moving quickly with moving forward.’”
Identifying the story you are telling yourself opens you to the possibility of choosing a new, more empowering story. When you examine the difference between what you think and what’s actually happening around you, you can begin to notice what it is you need from a place of expansion and flexibility rather than contraction and fear. This transformation will not necessarily happen quickly but, over time, you can begin to consciously choose and cultivate a more positive life narrative.
Redefine Your Concept of Success
Our definition of success often shifts as we age. When we’re younger, we measure our success against others using metrics such as our job title, or outward signs of financial accomplishment such as a large house or a fancy car. As we age, we may redefine success as having control over our time or being members of a close community, family, and friends.
I have noticed that I no longer need another high-paying job to feel successful. Instead, I value my ability to carve out time in my schedule for walks in nature or coffee with friends more highly than adding additional zeros to my bank account.
When considering what success may look like for you as you ponder the next chapter of your life, I encourage you to make a list of the following:
- The activities, paid or unpaid, that currently give your life a sense of meaning and purpose.
- The accomplishments you’ve achieved that have given you the greatest intrinsic rewards, and think about why that is.
- Some of the things you’d like to experience in the future. Give yourself permission to include those that you don’t consider realistic.
Since I sat at the bottom of the stairs that day, my journey has been full of exhilarating moments of achievement and satisfaction, as well as discouraging moments of self-doubt and hopelessness. I held on to my previous definitions of status and financial success for longer than I’d like to admit, imagining that there was a specific destination I was aiming for as I began my second career as a financial planner. What I’ve learned is that the journey itself IS the destination. There is no job in the world for which I would trade that lesson.
Laura Rotter, CFA, CFP, is the owner of True Abundance Advisors, a financial planning firm in New York. After a successful career managing money for institutional investors, Laura discovered mindfulness practices and was drawn to guide professionals facing big life changes to achieve both financial security and life satisfaction.