While I was healing from a foot injury this spring, I spent a lot of time thinking about the similarities between injury and unemployment.
You're moving along, living your life, getting things done, and then all of a sudden everything screeches to a halt. Your life feels smaller and more constrained, defined by the things you can’t do. Your only option is to be patient and do things that support getting better.
It was a frustrating month, but the experience surprised me with some hidden gifts that I want to share with you today.
8 lessons learned from a month on the couch
- Not everything happens for a reason, but you can create meaning to reduce suffering.
- Don’t force gratitude, but notice it when it arises.
- Let yourself rest.
- Detach from any roles you’re currently over-identified with.
- What opportunities does this situation present?
- Things may be happening behind the scenes.
- Learn to be okay with asking for help.
- Notice and appreciate your abilities when they return.
1. Not everything happens for a reason, but you can create meaning to reduce suffering.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. However, how you choose to interpret what happens can have a big effect on your outlook. Reframing an unfortunate event (like unemployment or injury) as a challenge and a potential source of growth is an incredibly powerful practice.
This doesn’t happen quickly for everyone. Depending on your circumstances, you might have to move through your grief, anger, and disappointment before you can start looking for the gold.
I would never compare my experiences to that of concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, but I often find comfort in his words: "We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves."
2. Don’t force gratitude, but notice it when it arises.
When someone tells me to “look on the bright side,” I usually feel like throat-punching them. That being said, I’m surprised by how much gratitude I felt once the worst of the pain was over. I had access to help and resources that made my situation much more bearable than it could have been.
You might not be ready to look for the positive in your situation, but I suspect that it’s there. Check out my blog post on gratitude journal alternatives for ungrateful people if you’d like a little help reframing your situation.
3. Let yourself rest.
I spent the first few days after my accident sleeping on the couch. I told myself that I was putting all my available resources towards healing. Even though I’d given myself permission to rest as much as I wanted, I started feeling restless and wanting something to do after only a few days.
If you’ve just become unemployed, whether or not it was voluntary, you might have some detoxing to do. Give yourself permission to slow down.
I think it’s likely that if you let yourself truly rest without guilt, you won’t need nearly as much downtime as you might think before you’re ready to start taking action again. Check out this article if you have trouble with guilt-free rest.
4. Detach from any roles you’re currently over-identified with.
After my accident, I temporarily lost my identity as an avid walker and hiker. I had to reconcile myself to becoming more dependent and sedentary than I was comfortable with. That didn’t feel good!
Identity shifts are a part of life, but that doesn’t mean they aren't jarring. If you really identified with your former profession, or as an employed person, you might be looking around and trying to figure out who you are without those labels.
It can feel vulnerable and awkward, but it’s helpful to remember that you never were those external markers - you just carried them around for a while. What are the parts of you that are impervious to loss or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?
5. What opportunities does this situation present?
This is the big question, the one that’s hard to ask when all you can see is lack and limitation. For the first few days after my accident, all I could think about were the things I couldn’t do.
But then: I rekindled my love affair with crochet. I spent more time learning tarot, something I’d picked up right before my accident. I hobbled to the library to check out books on neuroscience, work habits, and contemporary spirituality (also Squirrel Girl, because sometimes a lady needs a break).
What opportunities are you being given here? Unemployment often comes with the gift of time. You can’t spend 100% of the day researching, applying to, and interviewing for jobs. What are you going to do with the rest of the day? Volunteer, cook, build something, take a free class?
I understand that you have to be at a certain place mentally and emotionally before you can even start contemplating this stuff, but know that these options exist for you when you’re ready.
6. Things may be happening behind the scenes, even if you can’t see them.
The first week of wound healing is dedicated to the "inflammation period," when it looks like nothing is happening. My toe looked just as terrible on day 5 as it did right after the accident. But by day 7, it didn’t just look a little better - it looked a lot better.
So little of the job searching process is in your control. Sometimes it feels like you’re constantly waiting for people to get back to you. When you get frustrated, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you’re planting seeds to see what will sprout.
One of my clients got invited to an interview for her dream two months after she applied. Another didn’t hear back at all and it turned out to be because they were rewriting the description to something that actually suited her better.
This is a good time to let go of what you can’t control and focus on areas where you can make a difference. Brush up on your skills, take a class or a training, or throw yourself into a personal project. Satisfy your need for progress in another area of your life while you’re waiting for this one to bear fruit.
7. Learn to be okay with receiving help, because sometimes you don’t have a choice.
I’m an independent person. “No problem, I can do it” is a personal motto. There was a lesson for me here, too. My husband cleaned and dressed my wound twice a day. He also brought me things, helped me shower, and listened to me complain.
Receiving without giving back brought up a lot of emotions: humility and frustration with my limitations, guilt that I wasn’t able to reciprocate, fear of being too much of a bother - and then finally gratitude and appreciation.
The bootstrapping myth is strong in our culture and it can be difficult to overcome that conditioning. But I’ve seen over and over again that the fastest way forward is by getting help. Practice asking for support, information, advice, an introduction. It feels vulnerable, but the worst you’ll get is a “no” and the potential payoff is enormous.
8. Notice and appreciate your abilities when they return.
I’m newly appreciative of things I'd taken for granted before: wearing normal shoes, walking to the end of the block, showering without standing in a plastic bucket.
Humans are quite adaptive and I’m sure I’ll be back to showering bucket-free without a second thought in no time, but for now I’m reveling in the novelty of ease.
When you do return to work, take the time to notice what becomes easier in your life. It may be financial breathing room or a sense of stability, security, and personal value. It might be the pleasure of meeting new people and learning new skills.
What did you miss about having a job? Let yourself enjoy having those things again.
Who knew limitation could be such a profound teacher?
If you’re feeling discouraged, I hope there’s a useful takeaway or two here for you! And if you liked this and could use some extra support with your career exploration, I've got you covered.