Tell me, who are you?

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”  – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.

You are not your job. Or if you are, then baby, you need to get a life, because as many of us have discovered to our dismay, we might be our jobs, but our jobs sure as hell aren’t us — they’ll continue long after we’re gone, with someone else sitting in the driver’s seat. That kind of relationship is not reciprocal. And you know what they say about relationships that aren’t reciprocal? They suck. And they’ll suck the life right out of you. Tyler Durden knew that for a fact.

I worked for a long time in a big city where I had no moorings, no roots, no anchor, and the one constant was my workplace. I didn’t — or at least only rarely did — love my job, but I felt immense respect for the organization and moreover, I loved that when people asked what I did, I could say “journalist,” name my employer and feel proud of both facts. I wasn’t my job, but my job was a huge part of my identity, and it took up far more real estate in my life than it should have because I worked anti-social hours (that is, while the world was out socializing I was at work), I hated the city I lived in and had no non-work friends or strong attachments there. I used to have hours-long phone calls with a friend in another city every Sunday, and the two of us would delve into the impossibility of our situations (she didn’t like where she was much either) and every so often we would stop and ask ourselves, “would this matter as much if we had actual lives?” And we were pretty sure the answer was “no.”

That’s something that’s more likely to happen to single people; those happily with spouses and families, or those who haven’t moved far away from the social networks that previously supported them in uncertain times, are less likely to lose themselves in their work. But they’re just as likely to let it become an important part of their identity, and that’s why unplanned job loss can be so world-destroying. When you’re your job and you lose your job, who are you?

I have to stop myself now, when people ask me what I do, from saying that I’m a journalist, though sometimes it still slips out (and sometimes I rationalize it by thinking that just because I’m no longer directly involved in daily news gathering doesn’t mean I’m not still a journalist in my heart), and I’ve wrestled with what to call myself. For now I’m using “writer.” Sometimes “writer-editor.”

Don’t forget to factor this in when you’re making plans for a possible layoff or job change. What will you say when you’re asked but can’t give the usual answer? Who am I if not …? This is a good exercise even if your employment is reasonably stable, to make sure that you still have an identity outside of it. Many of us, while building our careers, forgot to have lives as well.

I was just reminded of a rant a former colleague used to go on when a woman was referred to in a story on first reference as a “mother.” “Before she was a mother she was a human being, a woman with a life,” my colleague would roar across the newsroom. (My personal pet peeve is referring to a woman as mother twice in the same sentence, “The mother said she was worried about her son…” instead of “the woman” which gives her agency outside of motherhood. But I digress.)

Early settlers used to build cairns — piles of stones that would mark a route or a cache of goods. When you’re building a cairn, you need it to last so you give it a good foundation, and make sure that the rocks you place on top  of it are stable. Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” What is your Descartes statement — the thing that you know about yourself that is the foundation for everything else? Use it to start building your cairn. What is the next thing about yourself that exists unrelated to anyone else? Start adding in your other important identities — son, daughter, mother, father, husband, wife. Bowler. Lover of wine. Storyteller. Listener. Damn fine card player. It’s a way of prioritizing the important things. In a perfect world, your job — not your vocation, if the kind of work you do is important to you, but your current, changeable job — should be a little pebble at the top. If it’s not, if the thing that can be taken away from you at any moment by the vagaries of the economy is part of your foundation, then maybe it’s time to reexamine your priorities.

And if there are places where things become unstable because the rocks won’t sit together properly, or if your cairn stops short of where you think it needs to go, examine for yourself what’s missing, and consider where you might find the stones to shore it up. And if that means getting a life, so be it.

 

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Making your lists — and unpacking them

At the end of 2015 I uncorked a bottle of champagne and bade good riddance to a memorably bad year. I welcomed 2016 with open arms, confident that it couldn’t be worse. At the end of 2016 I viewed the coming of the new year with relief, but was not crazy enough to tempt karma again by kicking the old one out the door. I’d learned my lesson. And now I’m wondering whether I broke a mirror a few years ago without realizing it…

Ever since I bought my house I’ve been known to grumble that I wasn’t built for home ownership. Every time something goes wrong I say it again. This fall when I had to replace my furnace and I started in on the old refrain, my brother offered a bit of perspective — listen, he said, you’ve cut down your dead trees, replaced the windows and doors, the dryer, and your furnace died, what else can go wrong? Well, I said, there’s the roof. And the rest of the appliances. And the plumbing… But really, he’s right. Barring major catastrophe, we should be good for a while at least, and maybe it’s OK to relax. A bit.

What does any of that have to do with being laid off? In a word, fear. I live in fear of the house collapsing around me, but realistically, barring catastrophe, that’s unlikely to happen. It’s more useful to think about the things that could happen, and figure out how I’ll deal with them.  So let’s extrapolate that to the workplace: if your fear is losing your job, what are you afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen?

I’m a BIG fan of making lists, I make them all the time, mostly because of my crappy memory, but also because I’m a linear enough thinker that I find a visual representation of my thoughts helpful.

So think about your worst job-loss fears, and write them down. What’s the worst that could happen? I lose my job. Now unpack that. Why is that bad? Well, there’s no income. That’s a huge and highly legitimate fear. So think about what you can do if you lose your job and have no income. What resources do you have? What do you have for the short term, what can you tap into for the long term? What can you do now to increase your resources? Can you take an extra job? Is there work you can do on the side, or more hours to pick up? Is there any way to cut down on your expenses? Anything you don’t need that you can sell to add to your nest egg? Write it all down. Make a plan. And no matter what you do, remember to pocket the money instead of spending it somewhere else.

What’s the next-worst thing that could happen? Work through every fear individually. Why you’re afraid of it, and how you’ll confront it if it happens. Make sure that your planned actions and outcomes are realistic because while setting goals is very helpful, not meeting those goals depletes your confidence, even if those goals never existed in the realm of possibility in the first place. Be firm, but don’t over-promise to yourself.

Obsessing over your fears makes you feel helpless, puts you in the victim position; having a plan and working the plan helps to give you confidence — you’re taking positive steps and creating results.

And here’s to 2018 — may it be a good year for all of us.

 

The longest most awful day

The first time I was laid off, I was called into my boss’s office, out of the blue, and told my job had been cut. Just mine. That was an awful day.

The second time I was laid off, everyone in the newsroom was called into a ‘town hall’ meeting in the middle of the room and we were told that most of us were losing our jobs. That was a really awful day.

But it looks like I’m going to have to refine my definition of ‘awful.’

My workplace has been undergoing a self-assessment process for three years and some of my co-workers started asking three years ago about layoffs. The answer was always layoffs if necessary, but not necessarily layoffs. But a board decision in August made layoffs in some way inevitable, and we were told then that, Board decision notwithstanding, there would in fact be layoffs. Later, we found out that the board would decide on this first round at their Nov. 24 meeting. And then the executive said that anyone affected would find out on Dec. 6.

Three years. Three months. A month. Two weeks.

We knew this day was coming. Dec. 6 comes every year. Wednesday comes every week. But this was … Imagine the tension building since August, but starting to peak around Nov. 24. Everyone in the office has been looking at each other thinking ‘Is it you?’ ‘Is it me?’ No one had information so the rumour mill — and the speculation mill — went rampant, as it does when people are afraid and have no facts. I’m astonished we didn’t invent a god and a religion in that time, the superstition had reached such a level in some quarters. The tension was beyond thick, especially with the people who were pretty sure they were on the list. It became a poison that leached out into the atmosphere, soaking into our skin. Think I’m indulging in hyperbole? One of my colleagues has strep in her eye — doctor says it’s probably stress-related. Who gets strep in their EYE? Poison, I tell you.

All day long today we read the entrails. The HR director had booked a boardroom for the afternoon, was seen entering it with boxes of tissues. Coats had been removed from the communal closet. Someone was seen looking vaguely sad. I think I can safely say very little work got done today. Even in my department where, with one thing or another, most of us felt reasonably certain we were ‘safe’ – at least for now, we spent a lot of time talking about what was happening, what might happen, weighing the probabilities. I think we all made it through the day with our jobs intact. We’ll find out for sure tomorrow who did not.

I didn’t realize how tense I’d been until I was driving home, and the usual start and stop and idiocy of other drivers was making me irrationally angry. I went to my usual drugstore to drop off a couple of prescriptions and when they told me that it would be 40 minutes before they were ready, I nearly cried. The thought of waiting 15 minutes more than usual completely defeated me. I’m not a drinker but I have a real urge to pour myself a stiff shot of something and then maybe another.  If I wasn’t sure I’d make myself sick — because my stomach is already grinding — I would. This was a fucking awful day.

How not to panic if you’re panicking

The last time I saw my doctor I told her that I was under tremendous stress because of things going on at work, and that I was starting to have panic attacks — that I was waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air, heart racing, in full fight-or-flight mode.

She told me I need to reduce the stress in my life.

I told her that was a little hard to do when the stress that I was reacting to was coming from my workplace and was nothing that I could control. What I was controlling at that moment was my urge to kick over my chair and scream, “Are you fucking kidding me? THAT’S your advice?”

My somewhat dysfunctional relationship with my doctor aside, her advice wasn’t entirely wrong — if you’re stressed, the way to be less stressed is to reduce the stress. Bit of a tautology, but there you go. And if I had been talking about everyday stress, I’d have probably laughed and gotten on with it. But the last time I was this stressed was not, if you’ll believe it, the last time I was laid off — though that was stressful. No, the last time I had actual panic attacks was 10 1/2 years ago, when I’d taken a new job in a new city and had two weeks to find a new apartment and move.

I was leaving a company where I’d worked for 17 years and while a lot of those years were unhappy, it was nonetheless a job I was good at, that I could do with my eyes closed. I was jumping to a completely unknown quantity — a job that hadn’t existed two months earlier, a startup workplace where I would be called upon to use the skills I’d been begging my previous employer for years to let me use. Now I’d have to prove I had the chops. My imposter syndrome was setting off alarm signals at all hours of the day and night. I found a new place to live fairly quickly, but then had to move 11.5 years of my life, including shutting down and setting up utilities, getting quotes from movers, dealing with a dickish landlord about notice, and packing, packing packing, getting around Canada’s biggest city without a car in a heatwave where daytime temperatures were around 45C with the humidex and at night they went down to around 43.

I’d be walking down the street and all of a sudden be unable to breathe. My heart would pound and my knees would shake and I more than once thought I was having a heart attack.

Today I woke up with a list of four things to do — happy things: laundry, call my parents, finalize my list of Christmas cookies to make next weekend, finalize my Christmas shopping list. Easy peasy. What stress? And then I got a bit of news I wasn’t expecting and all of a sudden panic is setting in again because I want to solve the problem but can’t.

The platitude-spouters say when you can’t control your environment, what you can do is control your response to it. I despise platitudes and don’t have much time for most of the people who spout them, but I do accept that this sort of received wisdom works for some people and they pass it along in the most well-meaning of ways. This is one platitude I’ve tried to implement in my own life, examining my response to a variety of stressors and discovering that I can choose, sometimes at least, to not react in a certain way.

So. There. That’s one thing you can do to control your panic. Choose not to panic. That advice is less helpful for when you wake up at 3 a.m. in the throes of a full-blown attack, but when you see the stressor coming, and recognize it for what it is, sometimes you can steel yourself for it and not give into the atavistic urge to go batshit crazy because of it.

What else can you do?

Again, when you’re compos mentis and know what you’re dealing with, deep breathing will help you through an attack as it’s happening. Concentrate on drawing air in through your nose and letting it out, in a controlled way — or as controlled a way as possible if one of your symptoms is not being able to breathe. And if you have a paper bag nearby that will fit over your head, try that.

A quick Google search will give you advice such as:

  • Stop and think -The thing you’re panicking about isn’t actually happening, it’s all in your head.
  • Confront your fear – When your thoughts are spiralling out of control, rein them in and try to work through the problem as rationally as possible (coincidentally, this was supposed to be the topic of today’s blog). This is especially important if you’re a catastrophic thinker, which I am — e.g., someone late isn’t just unavoidably detained, he’s dead in a ditch somewhere. Get out pen and paper if necessary and work it out, or work yourself back to the most reasonable explanation. Remember Occam’s Razor. And if you can’t regain control that way, count. Count whatever works for you. I find counting in a different language helps me focus, so if you have a second language or two, use them. The point is to impose order on your thoughts.
  • Relax your muscles. I know, funny, right? Who is she kidding? But sometimes stress begets stress, and the fact that you feel tense makes you more stressed. So stretch, take a walk. I have a four-minute yoga exercise video pinned to my toolbar, I do that sometimes at work sitting in my desk chair. Just taking a time out can be helpful.
  • Try to laugh. Reader’s Digest had it right, laughter really is the best medicine. Laugh at your fear. Or at yourself. And when I say laugh, what I really mean, I think, is to express your emotion. Laugh, or cry, or punch your sofa (so that you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else) but own the emotion that led up to the attack.

It’s OK to be afraid — there’s some scary stuff out there. But if you let the fear take hold, it can keep you from doing that you need to do. The trick is to neutralize the fear before it gets to that point.

Also (quoting my doctor again): get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat proper, regular meals.

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Go on, what are you afraid of?

One of the worst things about chronic depression isn’t just that you’re sad all the time, although that’s not one of its high points, it’s that your brain works to keep you that way. Ask any chronically depressed person about negative self-talk. It’s your brain taking the things you hate about yourself (and also, strangely, stupid things you said 30 years ago in a conversation the other person has likely forgotten) and magnifying them, then throwing them at you with darts. Eventually you’re prickly like a hedgehog with negative talk and you roll into a ball and stop trying to fight back.

One of the best ways I’ve found for overcoming that negative self-talk is to take the harmful words out of my head and write them down on paper. The first time I did that I looked at the paper and cried at the nasty things I said to myself. And then they lost their power. Astonishingly quickly.

So working from the theory that giving the nasty thing air removes its sting, let’s talk about fear — specifically, what fear is keeping you from looking for a new job if you don’t like the one you have; or better yet, if you don’t like what you’re doing, what fear is keeping you from switching careers?

For the record, I have four brothers so I don’t tend to make my fears public — I’ve had them thrown in my face too many times. And I don’t expect you to tell all your friends (or your big brothers) either. But when you have a quiet moment, get a pen and a paper and write down what you’re afraid of. Be brutally honest with yourself or it won’t work.

A typical fear for women especially is that they’re not good enough. A lot has been written over the years about the difference between the way men and women apply for jobs — men will apply even if they have 25 per cent or less of the required skills. A guy who’s well-known as a first-rate speechwriter told me that he’d never written a speech when he presented himself to a newly elected prime minister as a speechwriter — and got hired. He had a decent background as a journalist, but no proven skills at the job he applied for. A woman would never do that. Or most women wouldn’t, they have to have 80 per cent of the qualifications or better before they’ll apply and even then they’ll dither and moan about it. Google “imposter syndrome” for more information. So you’re not alone if you think you’re not good enough, but chances are good that you, in fact, are good enough.

Another perfectly standard fear is that they won’t like you. And that’s a valid fear, nobody’s hiring any more for straight skills, “cultural fit” is also important these days. No one wants to waste time and energy on-boarding someone who’s going to jump ship because they don’t like the atmosphere. And then there’s the worry that you might be aging out of the job market, especially if you’re anywhere near 50, and extra-especially if you’re older than 50. Ageism is something that you have to be aware of. When it comes to changing careers, the need for more education is often an obstacle, as is money.

In short, there are many things to be afraid of. Write them all down. Think about them. Let them lose a bit of their sting. And then start fighting back. Why are you afraid you’re not good enough? What do you do well? Write that down. Even if you think you’re a complete loser there’s something you do well and you know it. Admit it to yourself, there, in private. The day I admitted to myself that I might not be the world’s worst writer, I gained 10 pounds of self-esteem. I don’t brag about it, I don’t always believe it when other people tell me they think I’m good at it, but deep inside I know that I’m not bad. It’s a candle in a dark room sometimes.

Now, what else do you do well? Write those things down too. Create your little nugget of gold, “these things I know.”

And now start listing things you need to do in order to find a better job, but don’t do as well. And start thinking about how to cross them off your list. Can you take a course? Can you ask for advice from someone who does it well? Taking positive steps for yourself can be a huge boost to your self-esteem and overall mood.

And then make another list of the things that make you happy. Study that list to find patterns and possibilities. Do any of those things look like a job? What if you looked at them sideways? Do some research, talk to career counsellors. I know I’m guilty sometimes of  having a limited imagination when it comes to jobs — I simply can’t imagine that a job might exist, or that there might be a market for it. And then someone goes and does it and … whaddya know?

The moral of the story is: Face your fear to remove its power. Write it down. Then write down your counter-argument. Create a roadmap around — or through — your perceived obstacles. On a professional level at the very least, figure out what you’re good at, what you have enough confidence in to sell to an employer. But spend some time also figuring out what you’d like to do if you weren’t doing this, whatever “this” is. Gaze deep into your navel. The answer might surprise you.

Leaving you is sometimes easy

Believe it or not, layoffs are not always a bad thing.

Granted, there’s the gut-churning worry about making the mortgage and all the other payments, and that’s as real as it gets, especially if you, like me,  have been living paycheque to paycheque and not setting anything aside for the bad times. That is unequivocally double-plus-ungood.

But for your head and your heart and even your career, a layoff or buyout can be breathing space, a time to sit back and consider just what it is that you really want to do with the next five years — or the rest — of your life, and maybe take some tentative steps toward that thing.

I was talking the other day with a woman whose company seems to be moving toward layoffs and she’s pretty sure that if they come, they’ll come for her. And she’s fighting the feeling of relief that this is bringing. She feels like she’s been swimming in a toxic muck for years. Asked why she hasn’t just up and left before now, she admitted that her current workplace has drained whatever self-esteem she might have once had — she’s not confident enough to go out and sell herself on the job market.

Boy, did I understand where she was coming from. I spent the best part of my career working for a company whose mission I believed in — still do. It was the only place I wanted to work when I graduated from university. And many of the people I worked with were wonderful. But it was an extraordinarily toxic workplace for me because while I was frequently seconded to work at a higher level, my bosses made it clear over and over again that I lacked that certain je ne sais quoi to actually get promoted to that level permanently. I was of far more value to them as a pawn on the board that could move anywhere. Not only did I come to lack confidence in my skills, the lack of a saleable job title on my CV was evidence of my employer’s lack of confidence in me, so even when I applied for jobs I got hit by the double whammy. I did eventually get out and move on, but my lack of progress there remains my secret shame. I still can’t explain it, and that doubt remains at the back of my mind.

It’s really hard to believe in yourself when others don’t believe in you.  And even harder to just quit a sure paycheque, as harmful as it might be to earn it, on principle when you’ve got no safety net. So no judgment, please, about this woman’s failure to get out of the poison pool.

But she is taking steps, and that’s a positive thing. She’s getting therapy for her self-esteem issues. She’s getting her ducks in a row so that she’ll be ready when the layoff comes. And she’s trying not to be too overtly relieved about the idea about getting paid to leave her job. I told her to stop fighting it and embrace it as a natural result of the way she’s been feeling about her job. Because sometimes a layoff is freedom. You no longer have to work with the people who were making your life miserable. You leave with severance pay so your immediate concerns about paying the bills are assuaged, giving you time and space to think about your next move — which might be completely different from your last one.

Here are some ways to prepare yourself for a layoff:

  1. Use your benefits. If you need new glasses, get them. See your dentist. Buy your prescription meds. Get the massages that you never get. Take advantage of all of it — you’ve been paying for it, there’s no sense leaving money on the table. And if your company has an Employee Assistance Program that provides a certain amount of free counselling, use it. It’s confidential, won’t come back to haunt you at this workplace or the next, and could be the key to getting out of whatever rut you’ve been in.
  2. Put together a list of contacts, complete with contact details. People who’ve been helpful to you or to whom you’ve provided good service.
  3. Set up a non-work email address and use the first email to send yourself that list of contacts. Also make sure that you have copies of — or access to — any work product that you’re particularly proud of — papers or reports or whatever. Your personnel assessments. If you’ve received emails telling you what a great job you did or thanking you for going above and beyond on something, make sure you have copies of those too. You’ll want to be able to show this stuff to your next employer, plus it’s always good to look back on the work you’ve done and say to yourself, “Damn, I’m good!”
  4. We all know we’re supposed to put aside money to keep us going for a few months, but few of us actually do it, mostly because there’s always something to spend the money on, like gas for the car or a new roof. It’s hard to plan for an uncertain future when the very certain present has its hands in our pockets. But if you know something’s coming, start cutting back where you can, and pay off what debts you can. Start getting used to reduced circumstances.
  5. Sometimes you can see layoffs coming from miles away. If so, look at your resume and check for holes. Is there a course you can take — online or in person — that will fill that hole, either by upgrading existing skills or adding an in-demand skill? Your current employer may have a budget to pay for continued learning, but be careful — if the training isn’t directly applicable to your current job they may not pay for it.