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5 Reasons Why a Work Break-Up Hurts So Much and 5 Steps to Get Back Out There

By Staci Taustine

Let’s face it….it has become relatively commonplace to talk about break-ups… people understand break ups.

Person A falls out of love with Person B or vice versa and the two parties agree to split---amicably, angrily, hostility, there are all sorts of combinations to describe how it all falls apart.

Then comes the heartbreak; defined clearly by Merriam Webster as crushing grief, anguish, or distress.

For some of us, it lasts a long time and likely extends proportionately the amount of time we invested in said relationship.

It is a feeling most of us have known at least once and can extend empathy around when someone we know is going through it.

We rush to comfort them. We bring over chocolate, take them out for cocktails and assure them we are there if they need us--- Afterfall, breakups are hard.

But what about when the break up isn’t with a person, but rather a workplace? Either because we have been fired or because we left? Much like person A and person B discussed earlier, there are so many ways that it can come to an end.

There could be budget cuts that leave us blind-sided,it could be a slow burn where they furlough us first and we hang on in hopes that they will take us could be volatile and we sign a non-disclosure just so we can retreat safely from the place that caused us to cry ourselves to sleep every Sunday night dreading the Monday ahead. There might be other players involved, (like cheating) this is often especially insidious--ugly management, unscrupulous leadership, or harassment and exclusion. Toxicity takes so many forms.

Yet, what happens when we face this kind of break up? Where are the friends with chocolate and chick-flicks? Chances are good...they aren’t knocking. But Why?

Most often it is because we haven’t told them.

We are too ashamed, too broken, too disillusioned, and participating in self-blame. Why did it end like this? Could I have worked harder to fix things before they broke? Could I have taken feedback in better?

I am a fighter, a hard worker, I pride myself in my career and my professionalism even in the face of hardship.

We expect ourselves to shake it off, dust ourselves off, and get back out there...and most of the time our financial survival depends on it.

A layoff or unplanned exit often means we have x amount of time before our health coverage runs out, and if we don’t have savings it could mean we don’t know where our next rent/mortgage payment is coming from.

The pressure to act quickly is not imagined.

Still, the call to action and the way we feel are typically in conflict. We know we should just revise our resume and enlist our references but we may be less motivated and more tired than ever.

Why can’t we just snap out of it? Why does this hurt so bad?

  1. Toxicity Kills

When our exit is associated with a toxic boss there may be a great deal of hurt related to the implications of living in unhealthy circumstances. “Employees in toxic workplaces are more susceptible to chronic stress, depression, obesity, and anxiety, all of which contribute to a lowered immune system and make you more susceptible to developing physical ailments.”

“ The longer you stay, the longer it takes to recover. It can take up to 22 months to recover physically and emotionally from a toxic boss. Mental health professionals actually liken this situation to post-traumatic stress disorder and battered spouse syndrome. As with any psychological trauma or stress, the greater and longer the exposure, the longer it takes to recover.” (Harvard Business Review)

Most of us just don’t have that kind of time. So, we say instead, I’ve got this...I just need to shake it off...and get back out there! But, what is it that we are mourning? Why is it easier said than done?

  1. Identity

Our workplace is oftentimes inextricably linked to our self-identity -- we connect our title with who we are as a person...Staci Taustine, Director of Learning and Development, Career Guide, Coach….who am I if I am not those things? Granted, we are whole people with, or without our title...but it doesn’t change how it feels.

  1. Friendships

You know the joke people make about who gets who in the divorce? The same thing applies here. When you break up with a workplace (however amicably) there is loss involved. According to a 2019 Friendships in the Workplace Survey by Mafy Abbajay, 30% or respondents said their greatest fear about making friends at work was that it hurts too much to lose a friendship after the job ends.

We build work families with those we spend more time with day in and day out than we do with our real loved ones. When a job ends we are suddenly thrust into a new way of living that does not include these people. Our thought partners, coffee buddies, and collaborators who brought us comfort, insights and a safe place to ask questions are suddenly gone. While many wonder, can’t you just call them? The reality is that in the absence of shared work experiences the relationship must evolve and it is the sheer change itself that causes us heartache.

  1. Routine

As humans we ache for predictability- we want to know what the future holds. When we lose a job we find ourselves in the land of ambiguity. This is distressing and often disorients us. Suddenly we don’t drink our coffee at the same time, need to pack a lunch, or even commute the way we always have. What are we to do in the absence of these go-to moves.

  1. Unfinished Business

We likely had dreams, plans, goals for what we would accomplish….ideas about how we might contribute to the new product launch or the way we might see the company through the next stage of growth. It’s hard to imagine things will go on without us, and even more difficult to process. We won't be there to see it when it does. Accepting the fact that our plans need to change, our goals may need to shift and that we won’t be executing in the ways we had planned can feel deeply unsettling. For those who have worked in the same place for many years, or for those who deeply absorb their company’s mission it can feel nearly impossible to extract what our personal goals were, much less what they should be now. Suddenly the rug is pulled out and we need to figure out what we want to do and where else we will fit.

Knowing what we know, and also knowing that there are bills to be paid...what can we do to embrace a process, pursue the right resources and get the ball moving in the right direction?

5 Steps to Get Back Out There...

  1. Press Pause

Take time to rest, relax, and unplug. This means fully disconnecting. Stop looking at the company website or checking on what your co-workers are up to now. Focus on you. Make a plan for ways you can show respect to yourself and your body. Make sure you have some vegetables with each meal, set time aside to make sure you are drinking water, and distract your brain with positive alternatives (yes, Netflix counts).

2.Get to know yourself ...Again.

One thing is for sure. We change. As you prepare for the next phase of your career, it is critical that you build self-awareness. The clearer you are about your strengths and skills the better equipped you are to articulate them. Similarly, the better you are able to understand the things that drain you and tax your energy, the more prepared you will be to seek out a strong fit for yourself when it comes to future employment. Try this short workstyles assessment to unlock key learnings about yourself in under 5 minutes!

Want help making sense of your results? Seek a trusted coach to help you piece together what you want more of and what you want less of moving forward. You don’t need to pay someone to write a resume for you, you need a vision for who you plan to be in the next phase of your career and the words to advocate for yourself.

3. Give Yourself Grace

It’s okay to not know-- not know what’s bothering you, not know what you need to feel better, not know the action plan you “should be” putting into effect. It’s okay to be utterly “unproductive” for a little. It is important not to build yourself up about it too.

4. Do things that remind you of who you are and what you love

Think about the projects you loved to do most, the work products that underpin your expertise, or the whiteboarding sessions that used to light up your heart. Schedule time in your week to start doing those things again either through volunteer opportunities, offering to consult for a company you admire, or purely as part of a passion project. You can re-purpose these things later to showcase them in a portfolio!

5. Audit Your Progress… And Act When You are Ready!

Do you...

  • Understand what comes easy and what takes effort?

  • Know what you want?

  • Feel prepared to express your goals?

  • Feel ready to close the door on the past?

If you are clear on your vision for yourself-- Having taken the time to process your experience, you know what you are looking for. Whether you have decided on an industry/ function shift or to return to what you love somewhere else...your reasoning is based on where you want to go in the future and not purely centered on what you are running away from.

It is important that you apply your learning but when our sole motivation is just TO NOT EXPERIENCE THAT AGAIN, our lens isn’t clear enough.

Imagine if we went on our first date back in the market and introduced ourselves by saying we were looking for anyone but Ed?

When you are ready, you can start checking out @LunchClubAI and other online forums to explore your career options. Start to practice introducing yourself with a short Blurb about yourself. As you do this more and more you will start to feel more and more aligned. (Imposter syndrome may still be there but if you are willing to wrestle with it willingly, you know you are making progress!).

Note: Don’t worry, there will be signs if you get out there too soon, and aren’t fully ready.

Sign #1: You find yourself willing to over compromise because you feel lucky that they even took your call. They are offering 20k less than what you can afford to live but are still entertaining the idea to feel wanted.

Sign # 2: You saw and heard statements in the job description that harken back to the overly expansive roles, problematic culture, or mismatched priorities that set you up to fail in the past. Then brush past them ignoring your intuition. -- you might even get a job offer but what this means is that you will likely find yourself replicating the same conditions that resulted in your last professional break-up….it’s a vicious cycle!

Turns out you can’t rush a healing process. This takes time…. It’s okay to double back to steps 1-4 and spend time there. Your future self will thank you.

At the end of the day, break-ups are hard and when we try to move on before we are ready people notice. It may not be what we are saying;it could be in our body language or tone.

Start small, be consistent and progress will come. Before you know it you will be falling in love with your next workplace and if you did the right soul searching, they will be falling in love with you too.

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