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Processing painful work exits

Thoughts on dealing with the aftermath of your job blowing up.

November 5, 2022

Right now I’m feeling raw about the big changes at Twitter, and the implications for so many wonderful, dedicated people I worked with. They’ve been forced to figure out new life plans due to many factors out of their control.

I’ve been down this road before, and struggled mightily to get through it, so I’m sharing what I experienced in case it helps anyone feel a little less alone processing the turmoil.

The identity problem

One major cause of suffering was that I had associated my identity and personal sense of self-worth with my company and its culture. Although I was not an owner of the company, I felt invested in its success over many years. I was a vocal champion of our work, and I was proud of it.

I had failed to reconcile that critical detail: I was not an owner of the company! It all belonged to someone else. And they could do whatever the hell they wanted with it at any time.

Eventually, I realized I could still be proud of the work, and stand by my principles, without working there anymore. Of course your self-worth has nothing to do with your job, and I was foolish to associate them so closely. But it took a while to unbundle all of this emotionally. You can’t rationalize your way out, or accelerate feeling better, you just have to take the time to process it.

The traumatic event

Even if you see this coming, it still hits you like a sack of bricks. On the surface it might sound silly to grieve a job loss, but if you’ve poured a significant chunk of your life into it, and built key relationships and friendships, it’s absolutely a massive change. This is even more profound when the job was a great fit for your personal values, because you naturally developed a strong attachment to it.

It’s exponentially harder when your exit from the company happens without sufficient care or courtesy. A severe, unexpected event can be deeply traumatic, because it feels like a total betrayal of what you believed and built.

The imposter syndrome

Another major challenge I suffered was questioning whether I was even good at my job anymore. After you’ve spent a few years at a company, you’ll develop an internal reputation and institutional knowledge that’s not transferrable anywhere else. When you cut ties, you have to give all of that up and start over.

This gets harder the longer you stay at a job. Going from a 5+ year role to a brand new one can be really disorienting. Some of your skills may have atrophied due to working in a particular way with a particular team. Or maybe the industry has changed and you haven’t. You feel like a newbie, except now you’re an oldie.

This is something you just have to face head-on, and the fresh start might end up being incredibly fruitful. In my case, I learned to work in different ways, made new relationships, and gained wisdom through the process.

Give yourself plenty of grace and time to figure this out. Remember: you’re clearly very competent, or you wouldn’t have lasted at the job you had. You’ll be competent at the next one too!

The financial impact

Depending on your situation, this can be so terrifying. I don’t have a super healthy relationship with money, and I had no experience floating without a paycheck for an extended period. I was also the only person supporting my family. All of that caused a lot of worry, even though we were totally fine for a while.

Ultimately I figured out that you can (and should) take breaks between jobs, and there are lots of strategies for handling that. Those breaks can be some of the best times in life, because you’re unburdened from the daily grind. If possible, try to set aside the worry and be a free human for a month or two.

The subconscious stuff

With all of the above compounding at once, I was having all sorts of trouble. I was sleeping terribly, frequently waking up in a panic, acting cranky, trying to get a portfolio together, overscheduling my calendar with interviews, trying to keep up with former coworkers, etc. There was a low grade subconscious stress that persisted for a long time.

You can’t control your subconscious, but you can help it chill out a little. Get plenty of fresh air and exercise, do meditation or therapy, drink a glass of wine, and pace yourself.

The next steps

You might not know it yet, but you’re already stronger. Literally right now, today, you are stronger, even if you can’t feel it. This will be an opportunity to reevaluate your priorities, with a more sophisticated lens than you had last time.

My only piece of advice is this: don’t lose your idealism or become cynical. Remember the joyful moments, the successes, the friendships, the meaningful things you learned, and bring those with you. Try to set aside resentment or toxicity. It’s not worth wasting brain cells ruminating on stale water under the bridge. (I will admit, this is much easier said than done.)

In order to do that, you might have to sharply disconnect from that past job. Mute or block news about it, delete social media stuff, or whatever you gotta do to put it in the rear view mirror.

In times like these, remember to say, “Thank you, next!” And lean on your support network too, because they will get you through this.