Overcoming anger and fear after layoffs

It is human nature to feel anger and fear after getting laid off from a job. Holding onto these emotions can stifle your comeback.
This is a photo of Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark Goulston, M.D.

Imagine you are a General Motors worker, and you’ve just been laid off. Do you accept their rational explanation for the layoffs or hold on to anger and fear?

Given that GM is a for-profit company, you can’t really fault them for cutting plants and jobs associated with cars that aren’t selling. You cannot blame them wanting to position the company for a future which appears to be heading toward driverless vehicles.

But what about their responsibility to their workforce and the communities surrounding their soon-to-be shuttered plants?

Years ago, when Jack Welch was CEO at General Electric during its most successful years, he was asked: “What is GE’s responsibility to the community and world?”

In true Jack Welch fashion, he answered something along the lines of: “A for-profit company’s first responsibility to make a lot of money and generate a profit. And if it makes enough of a profit that there is enough money left over, the company’s values will determine where that money goes. If the company’s values are to greatly reward executives whose values are to buy extra homes, jets, fancy cars, etc. that is what they’ll do. If the company’s and executive’s values are to fund more charitable concerns, then that is what they do. The main point is that if a for-profit company focuses on anything that gets in the way of making money and a profit, they won’t be around long enough to survive much less help their community.”

It seems that GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, understands the above all too well.

All of this makes sense, but when it is directly affecting you, and you’re the one who is laid off at GM or from your company, it is unlikely that you’re going to be in such a rational and reasonable state of mind. If you’re unable to call upon your calm and rational mind, how are you to emotionally and psychologically deal with being laid off?

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In 1998, a movie entitled, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, came out based on Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic book. In actuality, when it comes to how to emotionally handle being laid off, it is often a choice of fear OR loathing.

When layoffs happen, it is human nature to react with either fear or anger. If you react with fear, you run the danger of that escalating to panic. When and if that happens it can cause you to freeze in your tracks or run away, neither of which will be particularly helpful.

On the other hand, if you react with anger, that can cause you to do something equally destructive.

Here’s your choice: EAR1 or EAR2

EAR1: Event (layoffs) -> Anxiety -> Reaction -> Fight/flight or freeze

EAR2: Event (layoffs) -> Anxiety -> Reflect (consider options) -> Respond rationally

EAR2 is obviously the better choice, but how do you make it happen?

Something I have recently discovered is the power of self-empathy to help people go down the EAR2 path.

If you’ve been laid off, try this exercise.

  1. Remember an event when you were under age ten (for some reason, the people I have tried this will select either age six or eight) when you were rejected, failed, defeated or some other upsetting event happened to you.
  2. Imagine you as you are now going back to meet and then speak to you as that young child immediately after that event happened.
  3. Now imagine asking your younger self: “What hurts, is upsetting you, scared you or angered you (select the one that would best fit the occasion)?”
  4. Now roleplay that young child and answer the question.
  5. Next, imagine asking your younger self: “How hurt/upset/scared or angry are you (select the one that would best fit the occasion)?”
  6. Then go back to being that child and respond with: “I feel awful” and when you imagine saying it, start to feel an emotional wave go through you that enables you to cry (with relief).
  7. Then ask that child: “What does it make you want to do?”
  8. Then be that child and respond: “It makes me want to _______.”
  9. Then tell that child, “I understand why you’d want to do that, but what would be a better thing to do?”
  10. Finally, be that child and respond: “A better thing to do would be______.”

Why do this and what does this have to do with having layoffs?

This exercise in self-empathy helps you “retrofit” your childhood personality with a better way to deal with upsets. This can help you deal with situations in your present life.

How does it do that?

If you’re like most people, when you were a child, it’s likely that a parent didn’t talk and walk you through the upsets in your life following the above steps. As a result, you handled things in the best way that you could, and you got past many upsets, but you may never have fully gotten over them. Because of that, it can make upsets in your present life especially difficult because they may reactivate old wounds that may have scarred over, but never healed.

Using self-empathy might help you heal some of those old wounds that may reverberate all the way through your psyche into your present mind to better handle upsets in your present and future.

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Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest book, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

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