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Picking Up the Pieces: Identity After a Job Loss

Whether you walk away from a job or are shown the door, it can shatter your self-confidence and self-esteem, especially if the job search takes a while. Understanding that you’re not alone in your feelings and experience can bring some comfort and even hope into the job search process. Noted social psychologist, Erik Erikson, developed a theory of identity that I think can help with this.

Erikson described a set of stages that people go through as they develop their identities. Each stage lays a foundation for the next. People may revisit earlier stages throughout life because “life happens.” When a person experiences job loss, some of these earlier issues may come up again.

Shattered Trust

In infancy, the focus is on trust versus mistrust. Even adults who developed a strong sense of trust in early life may face feelings of mistrust during a job loss, especially if it is an involuntary loss such as a layoff. They trusted their company or their boss or coworkers, but with a layoff, they were let down at the very least, and they may even feel like they were betrayed. Because people sometimes become brutal when in self-preservation mode, like a massive layoff, some people may be betrayed in reality. In that case, their feelings of distrust are justified.

People who had a secure childhood and developed a strong sense of trust will experience job loss differently from someone who came through childhood being distrustful. Those who developed trust are more likely to have strong relationships and resources that will support them emotionally during this time. Sharing feelings and frustrations with friends or family, and leaning on them can be very helpful. If you are one of those friends or family members, do what you can to encourage and support your loved one during this time.

For those who didn’t develop trust early on, this job loss may confirm everything they have come to believe about themselves and the world. These people will benefit from more support from family, friends, or helping professionals. Sadly, given their level of distrust to begin with, finding this support will be even more of a challenge for them. Nevertheless, it is important to look for.

Shattered Self-Confidence

Another issue laid off workers may re-experience is the conflict of industry versus inferiority. This was based on Erikson’s observation of school children. He noticed some developed self-confidence by working hard and being successful in school, sports, etc. He also noticed that other children saw themselves as inferior to their peers. These children compared themselves with others who were more successful than they were in some way. In their own eyes, they didn’t “measure up” and were inferior to their classmates. This lowered their self-confidence and self-esteem.

So how does this apply to adults who lost their jobs? In the modern world of 24/7 social media, people tend to post their successes and not their failures. If people who lost their jobs or who are having difficulties finding another job spend time on social media, there are plenty of people to compare themselves with. It is easy to compare what they know of their own worst experiences with what they see, their friends’ and acquaintances’ best experiences. These comparisons are likely to make them feel inferior, maybe even defective. Psychologists call this “social comparison,” and it can make matters worse. To learn more about how to counter the negative aspects of social comparison, here’s an easy read.

Shattered Career Momentum

Another issue that comes up with job loss is related to the stage of generativity versus stagnation in adulthood. One aspect of generativity relates to building, caring for and nurturing a family. Another aspect of generativity relates to building and nurturing a career. Erikson saw wanting to continue to grow as a person, have an impact on one’s community, and leave a legacy, personally and/or professionally, as a part of healthy adulthood. Obviously, job loss stops this forward professional movement, and if not handled well, especially if the period of not finding a new job drags on, it can lead to stagnation and self-absorption. This is the other possible outcome of this stage.

Rebuilding Yourself

Here are some ways you can reduce the blow to your identity while in between jobs.

  1. Find a community to engage with. A strong church community or job transition support group may be good places to start. Engaging with people who are willing to be vulnerable with each other, “warts and all,” and who are committed to being there for each other can help (re)build trust.

  2. Join a community recreation team or league. This will provide social connections, a sense of teamwork, and physical activity, which is important during times of stress. Developing or showing off your skill, especially if there are some “wins” involved will help build self-esteem and boost confidence.

  3. Groups that combine professional networking opportunities with community service, such as Rotary, Jr. Women’s League, Lions, etc., offer professional social connections and opportunities to give back to the community, often using or developing skills that transfer well to the professional world. This volunteer activity can also become part of your resume, showing that you didn’t just sit around during your job transition.

These actions will counter the unhelpful tendency to dwell on the situation which often results in a negative attitude, the last thing you need to take with you into an interview. It is important to keep a positive outlook. After all, if YOU were hiring, would you prefer to work with a positive, optimistic person, or a grouchy, negative person?

There are other things you can do to help overcome the hits to your self-esteem you may experience during a time of job transition, so these are just for starters. What are some things that you have found helpful during your periods between jobs? You never know who you might help by sharing your experiences and ideas.


Erikson, E. (1994). Identity and the life Cycle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Erikson, E. (1993.) Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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