Overcoming job loss: how your brain adds a new chapter to your story

Losing your job upsets all kinds of little and large stories, which affect your self-identity, how others see you and your hopes for the future. Why exactly is that? And how can you deal with that?

The start of an eventful ride (Hardknott Pass, Lake District, UK)

Many people have recently lost their job or face losing it soon. The practical implication of losing your job is obviously losing your source of income. How are you going to pay the bills? Weren’t you going to travel and enjoy summer? You had already visualised yourself in a faraway, warm and sunny place. Like a movie inside your head: a little story about you in the future.

Our brain is a story machine

Our heads are full of these kinds of stories. We have stories about our future close by, like next summer’s vacation, and far off like when we retire. These stories usually paint us into a brighter future, when we have achieved what we longed for so long. They are more than just dreams. We believe in these stories as being realistic scenarios for the future. And we gear our actions today to realise these scenarios in the future – a form of planning. These scenarios are our source of hope; they keep us going when the going gets tough. As long as we can imagine ourselves in a better future there is hope.

“As long as we can imagine ourselves in a better future there is hope”

The majority of our stories however are about the past. For example we have many stories about how we grew up and came to be who we are today. Most of us did stupid things when we were younger. Something we can perhaps laugh about now, or say that “if I hadn’t gone through that difficult period I wouldn’t have been where I am now”. We construct stories that explain how past events lead to the present situation.

Most of us have a tendency to make these stories about ourselves ‘positive’, because we want (need) to feel good about ourselves. We also need these stories to be internally coherent and consistent. We will select those episodes from our memory that support our story and conveniently ignore events that don’t fit in. People who fail to construct a story about past adversity in a positive way will often show symptoms of depression (McAdams & McLean, 2013).

Our stories are not scientific truths

As you can see from the references throughout this article, quite a bit of scientific research has been done on this subject. The difference between science and day to day life is that we usually don’t test all those stories in our heads all the time. Because more important than establishing Absolute Truth (should it exist), is that we feel good about the story of ourselves.

Reality is of course that our lives are filled with many conflicting or ambiguous ‘data’. Not just at singular points in time, but also between different points in time. Yet for people to feel and function well the human psyche seems to need to be able to discern a coherent story line moving in a positive trend. Psychologists call our tendency for coherence ‘avoiding cognitive dissonance’.

“The human psyche seems to need to be able to discern a coherent story line moving in a positive trend”

So we just go on, until we encounter something that goes against the story in our head, so much so that we can no longer ignore it. Encountering something that we cannot explain is considered inconvenient if not outright painful by most. It makes us uncertain about ourselves and/or about our surroundings creating a sense of insecurity or unsafeness, reducing our level of well-being.

This influences how we explain past events, but also how we construct perspective for the future. We need to be able to see a way forward that at least maintains the status quo and preferably leads to a brighter future. Without this perspective we have difficulty making sense of our day-to-day activities; we struggle to see them as meaningful and are found wanting for a sense purpose.

Credit: VisualMD.com

Upset stories: dealing with grief

The loss of a loved one, is one of the most upsetting events we can experience and that will impact our story of the world as we know it. The way we deal with these kinds of crises has been popularly described by the Kübler-Ross model, or the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. This model has not been scientifically proven, but I think many people can relate to it anecdotally. Some research has been conducted by Crystal Park (2010) to better understand how this works.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stories shape our identities

So what can we gather from all of this? Firstly, stories make up our identity. And because we want to feel good about ourselves the stories that we tell ourselves and others are constructed such that they emphasise traits or attributes that make us look attractive or are regarded as positive by others.

How losing your job will shake up your stories and hence shake up you

So what happens to our story when we lose our job? This differs from person to person, but for many merely being labelled as ‘unemployed’ brings about all kinds of associations (story components) that may contradict our self-image and the image others (used to) have of us. A nasty voice inside your head might say: “What?! You lost your job? You thought you were doing so well. You thought you were an indispensable part of that great company. You were providing for your family. You were a productive and respected member of society. No more!” Hopefully you won’t suffer from such a bad demon if it happens to you.

Who you are is (not) only determined by you

What makes changing story lines even more difficult to deal with, is that we are not always the sole editors of our book of life. We need others to confirm our self-image by acknowledging and accepting statements we make about ourselves or by contributing opinions that we subsequently internalise. So you may feel ashamed because you think you no longer live up to others’ expectations or their image of you.

This is what makes unemployment such a stressful event. It’s not just about figuring out how to pay the bills. It may redefine who you are today, who you were yesterday and your perspective on who you will become tomorrow.

So the key to recovering from a major blow like that is the realisation that your story is just that – a story. A story that you get to write and edit along the way. And that you don’t need anybody’s permission to re-evaluate yourself.

Hence, you might also discover that every end is a new beginning. It’s an opportunity to redefine yourself. With your old self not holding you back, you’ll have a blank piece of paper to start a new chapter.

Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction

Francis Picabia
The next step is up (in a forest on Kyushu, Japan)

References:

McAdams, D. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100-122.

McAdams, D. & McLean, K.C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current directions in psychological science, 22(3), 233-238.

Park, C. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 257-301.

Blatný, M. &  Šolcová, I. (2015). Well-being. In M. Blatný (Ed.) Personality and Wellbeing across the life span. (pp.20-59). Hampshire: Pacmillan.

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5 thoughts on “Overcoming job loss: how your brain adds a new chapter to your story”

  1. Rik,
    Thank you again for such a thoughtful post. I’m glad that it comes at a time in which many of us in the oil and gas industry have or know someone who has lost their job. Not because of performance, but rather due to the historic low of the industry.
    This article has helped me realize that my story needs to have more than just work. It needs to have other activities that define my other passions in life.

  2. Rik, excellent article. Thinking about widening your audience is important as you have quality texts and thoughts to offer and many could benefit from it.
    On “memory”, in fact neuroscience has shown that we do not remember a memory but the last time we remembered this memory. Every time we retrieve a memory, we corrupt it and take it further away from the actual occurrence of the memory. Every time we bring this memory back, we change it as our emotions, environment, cognition is different from the time of the occurrence and so we weave a story line, give meaning to the memory and when we store it back it has changed but it has become the “truth”, the memory.
    So story telling is at all level, at to what we think our past was, as to what is happening now and as to what we might become.
    The lesson as you pointed it out is to become good at “self-story telling” and choose narratives which are narrative and help us becoming more of who we are.
    Thank you for the opportunity to share.

  3. Quite an interesting article Rick. Very nicely written. As a psychologist I’m immediately triggered when it comes to stress (and burnout) – as this is my core-business. And I think it’s good for people to realise that stress can become a problem in life when it exceed certain levels. Stress is the physical, emotional, and behavioral responses that occur when events are identified as threatening or challenging. Eustress is the optimal amount of stress for people to function well. However stress that has a negative impact is called distress and this is where the threat of burnout comes in. Distress can indeed be caused by several momentums in life, e.g. job loss.
    In the graph you’ve used in the article I’m missing out the job loss as a factor. According to that graph the outcomes result from a study from 1967 though a more recent study produced a somewhat different outcome where nr. 1 is ‘the all-time winner’ with losing spouse/child/loved one. Nr.2 is divorce and nr.3 job loss (one should bare in mind that stress factors differ from continent to continent and from one culture to another – therefore studies should either be done cross-cultural or global when one wants to know the worldwide outcome). Just use this as a guide 🙂
    Keep up the good work, Rick. Your website is looking most promising.

    1. Many thanks for the additional comments Marc!

      I believe ‘job loss’ is item 8 (dismissal from work) in the table shown. Isn’t it interesting how these events are apparently perceived differently in different times and in different cultures? However, I find it difficult to imagine ‘imprisonment’ being less stressful than job loss, so wonder if that was included in the research you’re referring to. One could also argue perhaps that items 1 & 5; 2, 3, 7 & 9, and; 8 & 10 are quite similar and then the ranking wouldn’t be too dissimilar from what you mentioned. Anyway, different research setups will yield different outcomes like you alluded to.

      The point I was trying to make is that stressful events are stressful because they upset not just ‘practical matters’, but the narratives that shape our identities and how we relate to the world. Hence perhaps the variation between different pieces of research could also have to do with the cultural narrative that provides the context within which we experience these events. Conflicting narratives of ourselves and belonging to others is what I want to elaborate on in subsequent posts.

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