Of the many things one loses with unemployment, perhaps there is no greater loss than that of self-esteem. I say this because there are many I know who are unemployed and have lost the ability to believe in themselves.
You see, for many the initial period following loss of employment or commencing a job search after training can actually be euphoric; a period of optimism as the thought of working somewhere outweighs the current lack of work. The job search is new, there’s been no rejections, and they have a sense that they’ll be hired soon. For the person just getting out of school or moving into a new town, there can only be reason to be positive.
However, when the weeks of searching turn into months, and the months start mounting to the point where a year is fully in view, that optimism often turns to pessimism; and the frustration will often get a person looking inward. “What am I doing wrong?” or “What’s wrong with me?” These are two questions people will often ask. And you know it might be easy after seven months or so to look at the person and tell them that they aren’t going about it on a full-time basis anymore, putting in a seven hour daily job search, but realistically, how fair is it to expect someone out of work that long to maintain that level of enthusiasm for a job search that’s become a source of reinforced futility?
Think about it for a minute. Day after day, waking up and in those first few groggy minutes as you lie in bed, your unemployment snaps into sharp focus and your mind starts racing; filled with negative thoughts, self-doubts and possibly depression. The link between unemployment and self-esteem isn’t so strange is it? After all, just see someone get a job and you’ll see a smile, a twinkle in the eye, a quickness in their step, and you’ll hear relief and enthusiasm back in their voice.
Maybe you might argue that a strong person should be able to intellectually separate unemployment from how they view themselves; after all, their unemployment may be impacted severely by factors beyond their control. This is true of course; the economic engine driving hiring cycles may be sputtering or running in high gear, but how often can you expect some job seeker to be ignored completely or rejected from not taking things personally?
Every now and then, when counselling someone out of work, I’ll encounter someone whose self-esteem has become so frayed, that they will literally break down. When those eyes become glossy and the rapid blinking begins, its only seconds until a waterfall of tears cascades and rolls down their cheeks. There is a real injustice I think linking unemployment and self-image, but it’s there nonetheless. Why is this?
So much weight is placed on who we are as defined by what we do. As I’ve often said, it’s because we often ask, “So what do you do for a living?” when we meet someone. Can you imagine if we were sincerely able to turn that question into, “Hi. So what would you like me to know about you?” (Think about it; this is often a version of “Tell me about yourself;” the dreaded interview opener!)
This low self-esteem issue is tied inexplicably to one’s belief in their abilities and self-recognition of their positive qualities. It can be so low during unemployment, that when asked what they like about themselves, the unemployed often can’t name much. And the other group who generally can’t name much they like about themselves are victims of physical or sexual abuse. So are the unemployed seeing themselves as victims? That would be a study wouldn’t it; linking the connections between the unemployed and victims of abuse. And that doesn’t diminish I hope true victims of assault and abuse, but rather I hope emphasises the impact of long-term unemployment. In a way, people in both know they should ‘get out’ as it were, but feel powerless to bring about the change without help.
I myself have had periods in my own life where I’ve been out of work. One year, I applied for a job in August and after applying, writing a test, having two interviews and waiting, I got a letter telling me I was now in a pool to be selected from when hiring occurs. Eventually, I did start work – in March of the following year! All during that period I searched for other work, but my exertion ebbed and flowed and it was isolating. I have never forgot that feeling and each day bring that empathy – and sympathy if truth be told, to the workplace.
Tying our image to our employment is unhealthy in so many ways. How many times do you hear about someone who recently retired and was looking forward to it, suddenly finding themselves with little purpose, and needing to get out and do something? Why? Boredom and lack of purpose. When you go from being someone as defined by a job to being ‘just’ a person seen around town a lot, part of your identity is gone. For this reason people will often say to people they meet, “I USED to be a _______.” In other words, they want you to recognize them not so much for who they are now, but who they used to be.
Remember, you’ve still got lots of good qualities. If you are having trouble believing that, it’s not you; it’s unemployment distorting your perception.
Kelly Mitchell, BA
*First published at: http://myjobadvice.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/the-unemployment-self-esteem-connection/ and republished with permission of the author.
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Wow you really nail it. I graduated in May with my MSW and have had 1 interview despite all the applications I have filled out. Emotionally speaking, the past 6 months has been one giant swing of the pendulum as you stated in your article. I’m working hard at getting back to a health center, staying positive, and trying to educate myself in the areas that I feel weakest. Just yesterday I reached out to my peer group for suggestions and ideas to help build my confidence and my resume. Reading your article made me cry because it rang so true, but it also helped to know I’m not alone in my thought processes.