On a Friday morning, Michael walked to his desk at the educational non-profit he'd been working at for about three months. His supervisor asked to see him in her office right away. He wished she would have given him a bit of time to get his lunch in the fridge, but he made a mental note to grab the bag when he returned. Unfortunately, he never got that chance.
"She basically told me that my probationary period was over, and management decided I wasn't right for the job," Michael says. "I tried to ask questions about why this was happening, but she gave me very little feedback. The bottom line was I was fired and expected to leave immediately."
He returned home stunned and feeling like "someone had just punched me in the gut."
Experts rank losing a job high on the list of stressful life events. Between financial worries, damage to self-esteem, and the embarrassment of having to rehash the details to loved ones and potential future employers, the experience can leave quite a traumatic aftermath.
Here's a look at some of the feelings people often encounter after being fired and what actions can help psychologically and in terms of finding a new job.
Since termination involves the loss of something valuable, mourning and sadness frequently occur. The intensity of such feelings varies by person.
"Grief can be a very real response," says career counselor and former psychotherapist Aricia Shaffer, MSE, author of Unlocking the Secrets of the Successful Career Seeker. "The depth of the grief and how it plays out depends on the individual's reliance on their work environment for their sense of worth as well as for their social needs. If work is their entire life, it can be devastating."
Other emotions people report experiencing include:
Especially if the firing was a surprise or seemed unjustified, everything from bitterness to rage can occur.
The terminated person may regret certain things she said or did that possibly contributed to the firing. Likewise, she may feel bad about how this event will affect others in the family.
Uncertainty about the future, especially in terms of finances and prospects for a new job, can lead to being scared.
A person in a position he really didn't like may feel somewhat liberated. Likewise, someone who had been constantly worrying termination might happen could feel relieved that the uncertainty of status is finally settled.
Despite the swirl of emotions, remaining professional during this time is critical. Rash behavior could lead to unfavorable consequences down the line.
"Don't rant on social media," warns Lisa Sansom, positive psychology executive coach at LVS Consulting. "Don't throw your former employer or boss under the bus. Always take the high road, especially in public. And take the long view – ask yourself if the actions you are taking now will be beneficial in the future, or if this might come back to bite you."
Getting a grip on things
People who get fired sometimes tend toward extremes. They may jump wholeheartedly into a new job search in an effort to forget what happened, ease monetary concerns, and prove their worthiness to themselves and others. On the opposite end are people so caught up in the misery of the situation that they want to hide from the world and lament indefinitely.
Shaffer recommends something in the middle – taking a few days to catch your breath and then starting to consider the future.
"Take the position of an observer," she suggests. "What would you tell a friend going through the same thing? You'd likely commiserate for a brief period and then help them to move on."
Even if you feel responsible for what happened, beating yourself up over it won't lead to the mindset needed for psychological progress and a hopeful future. Rather, engage in thoughtful evaluation so that you can move on to next steps.
"This is a time to learn resilience – to be honest with yourself in a kind, loving, self-compassionate way," Sansom says. "Maybe you did mess up – so what did you learn? Maybe you weren't very adept at the corporate politics – so what did you learn? Maybe you weren't very good at your job and so didn't make it past the probationary period or your annual performance review – so what did you learn?"
Michael eventually asked himself such questions. "Though I still feel blind-sided by that organization, I've come to realize that my distaste for a traditional office environment probably contributed to the problem. The termination forced me to think about what I really wanted beyond receiving a paycheck. I decided to start taking courses toward a teaching certificate."
If progress on your own proves difficult, consider seeking outside help.
"I highly recommend that ex-employees work with a counselor (sometimes this can be part of a lay-off package, as well as placement agencies, and continued access to a former Employee Assistance Program)," Sansom says. "Always ask your employer what support services they will provide, and for how long, for someone in your situation. And if you can't access those, look into your community social support services network – and just start reaching out. Even if you don't know the 'right' place to start, just pick up the phone and call, and someone will refer you to another service if that's a better fit."
And make boosting your mood a priority! Exercise releases tension and increases overall well-being. Volunteer work can help improves feelings of worthlessness by helping others (and it looks good on a resume). Engage in hobbies. Spend time with positive people. The good vibes these activities create will generate energy to pursue the next exciting chapter of your professional life.