The Identity Crisis in Unemployment

When I got home from my last day of work, I put my key in the door and it struck me that something was wrong with my key chain. I panicked for a second, thinking someone had stolen my keys; then I realized the only keys I owned in life anymore were my house key and car key. All my work keys were gone. While it seems like a small detail in retrospect, I didn’t realize how much keys define the things we possess and the things that possess us. That empty key chain was a reminder of a place I no longer belonged.

The unemployment experience can shake the foundation that defines you in significant ways. What I began to learn in those first few weeks following my job loss was how much of our lives revolve around where we work. A job patterns our day and gives us a sense of identity. One of the tasks of unemployment is to ground ourselves in the fullness of our identity in Christ.

Shameless

The end of my employment came at the same time my nephew’s high school baseball team was in the post-season playoffs. On the day of the regional tournament, I was wearing a shirt from my institution (the colors were a perfect match for my nephew’s team!) when another player’s grandparent asked me about my job. I told him with great enthusiasm about the work I did. He was a fellow Baptist, so he knew a bit about my work and was encouraging to me. My nephew’s team advanced to the state tournament.

That week, my colleagues and I were blindsided by an ultimatum: we had ten minutes to decide whether to stay in our jobs or give our allegiance to a person and a cause I did not believe was in the best interest of the students or the institution. Unable to agree in good faith to the terms of staying, I made the painful decision to leave even though my work there was unfinished. At the next game, the same grandfather asked with great enthusiasm, “So, how are things at your job today?” When I responded that I didn’t work there anymore, we exchanged an awkward glance followed by stony silence. I wanted to help him in the awkwardness, and at the same time I wanted to slide under the bleachers out of both shame and pain.

After my job loss, people would often ask a version of “How are things at your job?” When I had to answer that I was currently unemployed, I felt as if I owed them an explanation for why I left my job. While no one said it, my internal voice was telling me that everyone assumed the worst. Surely, they assumed I did something wrong or acted out in some way or underperformed, and that is why I lost my job. In fact, none of those things were true, yet I found myself unemployed.

I was embarrassed at how many times I had found out about someone’s job loss and immediately assumed the worst about the person. I was now forced to consider both sides of the story, but I knew that not everyone does. I feared some people were standing in judgment of me, and I felt ashamed. I had always thought of job loss as something that happened to bad people, but that narrative was no longer adequate.

I also felt a sense of shame that I immediately did not find a new job. People must assume I am lazy, I would think. People must assume I am not good enough to find a new job. But in fact, my self-judgment was much harsher than the rest of the world’s. When I stopped caring and guessing about what other people might think, I found those awkward conversations about my unemployment less and less uncomfortable. If other people were uncomfortable, that would have to be their problem. I knew I could hold my head high and account for every action I had taken that led to my unemployment. No one had the ability to lessen my character unless I gave them that power.

One of the first things I did in the days and weeks following my job loss was to begin telling others. I could not and did not tell them the circumstances, but I did send texts, write emails, and make phone calls to friends and colleagues in ministry. They usually went something like, “Hey, I wanted to let you know yesterday was my last day. I’m glad our paths crossed in this job and look forward to when we might see each other again.” Some people closest to me asked why sending these messages was so important to me. The truth is that I wanted to author my own story. I did not want people hearing about my departure through rumors or my bounce-back email address. I did not want clouds of by secrecy and silence to create to incorrect assumptions. Without having to give details, I found people to be warm, receptive, and supportive.

Of course, my departure was told and heard through different lenses. Occasionally, I would hear rumors or innuendos that were simply not true. I wish I could say I shrugged these off and moved on, but admittedly, the untruths fueled my anger and grief. Part of me wanted to rail publicly against them, but I knew reacting would be counterproductive. Others’ gossip and assumptions were simply outside my control. Chasing down rumors will exhaust you, so quash rumors when you are made directly aware of them and otherwise let your reputation speak for itself.

Own your story, and do not let your assumptions about what others think make you second-guess your own integrity. You have enough grief to walk through; do not add unnecessary shame to your life.

“What Do You Do?”

Until you lose your job, you never quite realize how many conversations begin with, “What do you do?” During the summer after my job loss, I attended two events for my undergraduate alma mater. Of course, every conversation began with, “What’s your name? What year did you graduate? What do you do now?” How many ways can you creatively answer the last question? I finally settled on a definitive, “I’m between jobs.”

Unfortunately, telling people you are between jobs usually leads to the question, “What did you do?” I know the story in your head is much more complicated than the simple answer they want to hear. You want to tell them how you were a minister, but then a hundred things happened to you that you didn’t ask for and now you don’t have a job. Some people who know you may be ready for such a story, but most people just want to hear that you were a minister who is looking for a new position.

The stranger will often ask, “So what field are you in?” I found that question even harder to answer. I was not sure I wanted to be in ministry any longer, so that did not seem like an accurate description of what I did. But it was also the last piece of identity to which I could lay claim. It was the trade for which I had trained for over six years. I didn’t want people trying to find me another ministry job, so I was reticent to say that’s what I did. Instead I chose to give people the information appropriate to our relationship. For those who had some prior relationship with me and knew the circumstances of my departure, I would say something like, “I’m not sure ministry is the right fit next. I’m still exploring what options are out there, but I am considering some nonprofit work.” Sometimes that would invite more conversation, and those ended up being moments God used to affirm my gifts and reorient me to what was next.

For those I had just met, I would simply mention that I was exploring some nonprofit job opportunities. Sometimes that would yield a job lead or open me to a particular area I had not considered. Answering those questions did not confirm for me what career path was next or help me to nail down that part of my identity, but it did help me get some clarity about the things that most interested me. Begin getting comfortable with not having the answer figured out to the question, “What do you do?”

Humility

One way I occupied myself (and my bank account!) during unemployment was through a meal-delivery service. One particular day I had to drop off a sub sandwich at a college dorm room. As the twenty-year-old strode out of his dorm room to greet me for his $16 sub and drink, I laughed to myself at the irony. I had a doctoral degree and had packed my lunch in the car that day while this kid was studying for undergrad midterms and paying a ridiculous amount for a lunchtime treat.

No one I delivered a meal to cared that I had a doctoral degree. In some ways that was refreshing, and in other ways it was humbling. I felt like my former identifying markers were insignificant. When those things were stripped away, I began to get a clearer sense of who I really was. The things I had worked so hard for did not define me. My degrees and accomplishments were and are important, but it mattered more that I was faithful to use the gifts God had given me. I wasn’t sure exactly what faithfulness meant at that point, but I also knew that in the meantime, my focus should be on my character and not my accolades.

Life-stage Crisis

My job loss came three months before my fortieth birthday. My twenty-seven-year-old, fresh-out-of-seminary self had imagined a life of “success” at forty that did not involve losing my job. The summer after I lost my job, something inside of me really wanted a job before I turned forty so that I could walk into the next decade feeling confident of arriving at the right place. But job loss lasted much longer than those three short months.

I know my situation is unique. You may not be approaching a milestone birthday, but job loss can still cause you to reassess your hopes and dreams for this stage of your life. Where did you expect to be right now? “Unemployment” probably wasn’t on the list of goals your younger self wanted for your older self. The challenge is to see this loss not as a failure but as a moment to take stock of your gifts and goals and to dream new dreams.

In those early stages, dreaming dreams is not easy. (Some of you are still living nightmares from your last job!) Try to find ways to create space and not panic. Read new books and begin to try on new ideas. Don’t waste this crisis.

I took the opportunity to read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. I had picked up a copy of that book about a year earlier at the recommendation of a few people who told me what a gift it was. At the time, I was not ready to fully appreciate it and didn’t finish it. I picked it up again after my job loss and light bulbs went off for me on every page. I began to see my life in a different perspective, with my job loss marking what Rohr denotes as the two halves of life. You may find other resources in your library or in your network that will awaken you in a new way to reassess your dreams and goals.

I did not have a job at age forty and did not begin my fifth decade with the accolades my younger self dreamed about. But I did begin with a new sense of self rooted in God’s abundant love and grace. I began to realize that all the things I wanted in my twenties were now replaced by a deep sense of how I would use my gifts to their fullest. I also saw that those original goals were not as important to me anymore. A more mature me had far less to prove. I recognized that my next job might be in ministry, but it might be somewhere else and that was OK too. I redefined success not as achieving a goal but as living out my truest self with all the gifts God has given me. That realization helped me take a step back and not assume I had to find the “perfect” job next; I simply had to be faithful to whatever doors God opened for me.

Enough

It’s possible that this job loss has unearthed your greatest insecurities. You hear the voices in your head saying you aren’t good enough or smart enough or savvy enough.

Enough.

Replace that sort of self-talk with language that affirms that you are, as God created you, enough. You are enough to change your corner of the world. God has uniquely endowed you with gifts the world deeply needs. Don’t allow a temporary setback to rob the world of your long-term impact.

Make sure your life includes people who will affirm you and highlight your gifts. Sometimes you may need to ask for such guidance, but other times just be attentive and not so overly pious that you miss the moments when people say, “You know what you’re really good at?” Listen for the places of affirmation and hear them as moments of grace.

Take this time to do some good soul work in rooting your identity wholly in the unique person God designed you to be. No one else has been given the same story you have, so embrace that story and let the world see God’s goodness through it. You are not just enough. You are more than enough, and God wants you to share that with the world.

So Who Am I?

For too long in Western culture, we have identified ourselves by what we do. Somehow we allow our productivity or lack of productivity to define us. Take a moment to list all the ways you can be identified besides your job. Some suggestions: daughter, son, spouse, parent, aunt, uncle, pianist, hiker, singer, artist, athlete, runner, leader, dreamer, advocate, etc. Finally, make sure you underscore this title: beloved child of God. It matters far more than any other title you will wear. It’s yours. Own it.

Questions for Reflection

1. When people ask you, “What do you do?” how will you answer with confidence?

2. Are there areas related to your job loss where you feel shame? If so, how might you address them?

3. Ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, what did you imagine your life would look like today? How is it different? How are you disappointed? How are you grateful?

4. What self-talk is happening inside of you? How can you celebrate the goodness of all that God has created in you and not allow the negative talk to bring you down?

This post was originally published in Lost & Found: From Losing Your Pulpit to Finding Your Passion by Melissa A. Fallen.

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