Posted by: deadmousediaries | August 1, 2012

When You Are No Longer Known by the Company That Keeps You

If you are known by the company that keeps you, I knew I was about to become a missing person. At least I had seen it coming. I don’t ever remember any of my career counselors regaling me with what I should do as I was stepping out of my career but that would have been some helpful information. I had dodged a lot of bullets over the years to enjoy a satisfying work life in a volatile industry but the latest round of mergers had finally put me on the fast track for the exit survey. I braced myself for a six-month countdown.
Losing your job after a long career is a lot like losing a loved one. You get a lot of advice from well-meaning friends but you are the only one who can get you through it. Over time, your social life, your daily routines, even the contents of your closet all become linked to the work that you do. Your authentic identity becomes intertwined with the face you glue on daily to hold your spot in the workplace. Even life’s bumps and crashes can be bearable when they rise from the familiar. Without your job to define you, you can easily face the mirror and find a stranger looking back. It’s understandable that the same stages of grieving for a loved one are needed to get past a job loss and the shock of leaving behind all the comforts of the known world.
When my phone call finally came, I wasn’t angry and I had never tricked myself into denying the ugly possibilities. All the previous fire drills had already played out in my head with alternate endings so the one real relief was that the unknown was now my new reality. After one unexpected mini-meltdown in the midst of strangers, I began doing what I do best: making lists.
No matter what the situation: vacation planning, work assignments, averting or containing any disaster du jour, I have always reduced it all to words on paper.  Lists allow me to impose some order on an unruly universe. They give me the power to shine the light into any dark and scary place and help me kick speeding locomotives off the tracks. For me, making lists is doing something when it seems that nothing can be done.
I started with a list of affirmations for the publicly brave but quietly needy right-brain me. That list included entries like: You are strong enough. You are smart enough. You are ready to take this giant step into your new life. I knew those were great ideas but even a believer like me understood you better have an action plan in place to back it up.
The next lists were written to calm left-brain me, the one who always fusses over the little details like how we can cover our health insurance. And the mortgage. And college tuition. Those lists had titles like: 25 Ways to Cut $25 a Month from Your Expenses. I numbered a page from 1 to 25 and considered all of my options. Pay off credit cards now to avoid interest. Rent DVDs only from public library. No grocery treats without a coupon. Cut one unnecessary trip to town each week. It wasn’t rocket science but when I saw it all on paper, the dollars did add up.
Next I made a list to tackle the other side of the balance sheet: generating income. I started small there, too, knowing that I might be fragile for a while. Grieving, even over a job loss, is a process that can’t be put on a schedule. Depression has to be acknowledged and given some time to air out the same as anger and acceptance. The title for this list popped up instantly: 25 Ways to Add $25 a Month to Your Income. Getting 25 items on that list took a little longer. Clean closets and host monthly yard sales. Recycle soda cans and junk metal. Sell the collectibles you never display.
Then the real fun began. A new list started to take shape and I titled it: Changing Gears. It became my personal 12-step program times two as I prepared to travel from employed to unemployed and back again. I was my own map maker and I wrote out step-by-step directions in the language I understood: Take more on-line training while it is still available and free. Max out 401-K withholding to tighten income now. Get facts on severance policy. Implement 25/$25 cost-cutting strategies now. Enhance leadership positions in community now  to heighten networking opportunities. Compile portfolio now. Stay focused on next steps. Left brain liked that because it meant I would take action. Right brain needed reassurance on a grander scale so I added annotations: Recognize this opportunity as an extension of good things. Stay centered. Make others comfortable and you will be remembered. Make time to reward your efforts. Allow others to return the favors you’ve extended. Ask for what you want!
Weeks went by before I realized I had been steadily putting all the hard work behind me. As I had been flipping calendar pages, both sides of my brain had been kept busy with their own assignments and neither kept me up at night. By the time left brain had graduated to making lists about my marketable talents and abilities, right brain had moved on to envisioning my grand new life, demanding I also make lists about what I really wanted and what I would not accept in any new position.
I had never made a plan to leave my job before the end of my career but I designed one as I went. I now have it tucked inside my journal along with life’s other laundry lists. Life is full of good advice and grand advisers but there are times when your head and your heart must listen first to the one who knows you best.

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