Bouncing Back When Your Income Drops 1: Making Sense of My Losses

The first in a series of publications about rebounding from unemployment, this publication helps explain the emotional responses to job loss.
Bouncing Back When Your Income Drops 1: Making Sense of My Losses - Articles


Losing a job, for whatever reason, stirs in us deep emotions. Saying the final “goodbye” to a job means leaving roles and individuals that have become part of your living pattern. Leaving the job means more than just losing your income—it means losing a part of your current identity. No longer can you simply say, “I am a _______,” or “I work for _____ as a ____.” All of that is gone, replaced with intense emotions of anger and fear: anger at the unfairness of the loss, and fear of what you will do without an income and what the future will hold.

Losing a job is one of the most stressful situations anyone can experience. Like going through divorce, it is an unanticipated transition that we never expect to happen to us. It also creates a chain reaction of other changes that increase the stress.

Bouncing back from losing a job will require you to recognize and experience the deep emotions of loss, much like experiencing the loss of a loved one. Typically, our reactions to loss involve five stages: shock and denial, fear and panic, anger, bargaining, and despair. Recognizing that this is a universal process will help you understand that your feelings are normal. Denying these feelings will keep you from bringing closure to the experience and moving on with your life.

The first and most natural reaction to any loss is shock and denial. During this stage, some people just want to hide. Others become supercharged emotionally, losing their temper at the slightest incident for no reason whatsoever. Take time to recuperate from the shock of unemployment, but don’t obsess on the negative aspects and unfairness of it.

The second stage typically involves fear and panic, including the fear that you will lose everything you own and all of your friends. During this stage, you may question your own ability to make appropriate decisions. To deal with these feelings, set firm deadlines to make decisions. Make a list of the alternatives, consider the pros and cons of each, and decide what to do within the deadline. Keep in mind that everyone makes good and poor decisions. The ones that do not work out need to be reviewed, and then you can take new actions. In this stage, worrying becomes a consistent pattern of your daily living. To control your worrying, list your worries on a sheet of paper. Evaluate which ones are priority concerns that action can resolve, then follow through with appropriate actions. Other worries may not be realistic or very important. Try to dismiss such worries by identifying why you are so concerned about these particular issues. Sometimes just understanding why you fear something eases the worrying.

Once the fear of income loss begins to ease, it is common for anger to surface. The anger typically is focused on your past employer. Moving through the anger stage is critical to your ability to move on with your life. Find ways to burn off your anger in healthy activities, such as exercise, completing a job around the house, or just cleaning the house or yard.

When you have been deeply hurt and are feeling sorry for yourself, it is easy to slip into patterns of uncontrolled and chronic anger. If your anger persists until it is hurting your close relationships or becomes uncontrollable, you need to take steps to learn how to handle it in positive ways. You may need to seek outside help from a pastor or counselor.

Being in control of our anger starts with recognizing that we make ourselves angry. Preventing anger is an important personal management tool. When you feel yourself tensing and raising your voice, your anger is growing. Take some deep breaths and focus on calming, positive thoughts. Thoughts such as “She did this on purpose,” or “He never gives in, it always has to be his way,” or “Stupid so-and-so” can feed your anger. We all have thoughts that trigger anger and intensify our emotions, but once your thoughts push you into an anger reaction, it is harder to solve problems or gain control. Coping with anger does not mean that you will not fantasize about ways to get even with your past employer. Working out the anger—not letting it control you or pretending it does not exist—is key to not getting stranded in this stage for the rest of your life. Moving past the anger and denial is the first step to a new future.

As your anger begins to burn out, the stage of bargaining emerges. You think to yourself, “I am due for some good luck.” You may think, “There are lots of jobs out there; one will come my way,” or “My friend will get me into his workplace.” In the bargaining stage we think a “job savior” or good luck will work a miracle and get us a job. Sometimes it takes a while to realize that you cannot rely on fate, friends, or connections to get you a job, but that it is your responsibility to find a new job. You will find a job when you put your own efforts into the process. You can not rely on a miracle to happen.

If you begin to actively look for a job and find that a new job is not going to come your way in a short time, you may experience despair and, if your job search is prolonged, depression. In this stage, you experience feelings of worthlessness and self-blame. You may begin to think that there is no hope. It is hard to get up and to keep looking for a job. As your anger turns inward, your feelings of worthlessness and guilt increase. The best way to cope with this stage is to fight off the blues and do things that make you feel good about yourself and your abilities. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Step outside of your feelings and look at what in the situation can make you laugh. Find ways to be productive and help others. Don’t sit home feeling sorry for yourself— get out and get active. If your feelings of depression reach the point that your health or close relationships are being affected, you need to visit a doctor.

As you move through these stages, you are coping with the ending or loss of something very important to you and your identity as an adult. By moving through the process, you accept that an ending in your life has occurred and it is time to move forward and begin anew. Although unemployment is still with you every day, you now can think about what has happened and what the future may hold. You find yourself thinking, “The past is the past, it’s time to move on.” At this stage, you can begin to think about what kind of job would really satisfy you. What new skills would help you to get a job that pays more or is locally available? You can make a new beginning by finding a job or making a job switch. No matter what you choose, remember that a new beginning is not like starting a car with the turn of the key—your efforts are required to make it happen. You also will need a purpose for your efforts, a picture of your destination, a plan to get there, and a part for yourself to play in making it happen.

As stressful and challenging as losing your job is for you, it is a situation that most working adults will experience. It is estimated that most workers will change jobs three to four times in their working lifetime. Learning the skills and attitudes that help you move from one job to another will help you to be more resilient in the job market. The idea of job security now rests with the individual rather than the employer.

Your employment security will depend on you developing the skills, attitudes, and abilities to move from one job to another. The process that you are coping with in dealing with your unemployment can be a learning experience that helps you acquire strategies you can use to remain employed throughout your working lifetime.

Strategies to Cope Effectively with Job Loss

Recognize Your Emotional State

Job loss creates strong emotional reactions. Learn to recognize your personal emotional reaction signs. Anger is a key emotion that you can control by learning coping strategies. When you begin having thoughts that feed your anger, purposefully change your thinking to positive, controlled thoughts. Control anger through activity such as exercise or physically strenuous work. Learn to talk out your anger in a controlled manner. Coping with anger is key to moving on with your life.

Confront Your Fears and Worrying

When in a fearful, stressful situation, we generally think the worst will happen. Take control of your fears and worries by identifying them. If it helps, write them down and then list the possible actions you can take to control the outcome of each fear or worry. How realistic is your fear or worry? Many times we let small worries overtake our thinking process, and we forget to focus on the important issues at hand.

Take Control of Your Situation

To take control, you need to set realistic goals, develop an action plan, take action, and evaluate the outcome. At first, you may only be able to focus on taking control of each day. After moving through several stages of the loss process, it will become critical for you to take control of your life and future. This will require you to set goals, develop an action plan, take action, make decisions, and evaluate your progress as you move forward with your plan. Take control of each day and eventually your weekly and monthly time will put you back in the mode to make your life meaningful and to get on with the process of finding a new job.

Recognize That You Are Letting Go of a Loss

Letting go of your past job will help you heal and be more capable of learning how to deal with future loss. It also will let you face the future without emotional baggage. Recognize what stage of loss you are in and accept that the process you are working through is normal and helpful. Be patient with yourself. It takes time, and the way through the loss process usually is not a straight path. You may slip back to experience prior stages as you move forward.

Build a Strong Support System

Coping with the process of change that comes with losing your job is easier if you have strong social and emotional support. Family, friends, and community provide a safety net of support. Recognize how much you need understanding and comfort. Learn to respect and reach out to the important individuals in your life.

Learn New Skills to Move Forward

During this period, you have an opportunity to evaluate your life and set a new path for yourself. If you need new work skills, this is an ideal time to learn them. If you want to change your habit of overworking and spending little time with your family, make a commitment to change this when you return to work. Learn new personal skills while you work through the process of making a job switch.

How Are You Handling Unemployment?

To judge how you are dealing with the transition, check the answer that best describes you.

Have you decided what you miss the most from your previous job?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you taken steps to find outlets to cope with your anger?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you said goodbye to those things that you valued in the job?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you sorted your losses into those that you can retain (old friends), replace (income), rebuild (a new job using current skills), and relinquish (the concept that good jobs last forever)?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you taken steps to deal with your feelings of depression and worthlessness?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you been open and honest in your relationships with family and friends?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you stepped back and looked at where you were and where you want to go in life?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you accepted the necessity of dealing with your loss and going through the healing process?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you created short-term goals for yourself and checkpoints to gauge your success?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you taken action to work to achieve your short-term goals?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you gained an understanding of resources available to help you?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you studied your recent work and life experiences for clues to new possibilities for future employment?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you evaluated how your work skills fit into job requirements today and in the future?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you developed a concrete plan of action to regain employment, including first steps that you are in the process of accomplishing?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Have you experienced feeling in control of your life and future?
❑ Yes ❑ No

Review those questions that you have checked with a No. These are areas that you need to focus your energy on. Turning the experience of unemployment into a new beginning for your life will require you to experience the process of loss and to take control of your responsibility to reshape your life.


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Bridges, W. (1994). JobShift: How to prosper in a workplace without jobs. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Birkel, D. and Miller, S. ( 1998). Career bounce-back. New York: American Management Association.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Adult life transitions: Opportunity for learning and development. In M. A. Wolf & M. A. Leahy (Eds.), Adults in transition. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

Quinn, H. S. and Miller-Lachmann, L. (1997). Downsized but not defeated. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel.

Schultze, C. L. (1999). Downsized & out. Brookings Review.

Prepared by Natalie M. Ferry, former coordinator of special program initiatives for Penn State Extension.