I Lost My Job: And Gained My Identity
So you may know that I lost my job over the summer. It was a really, really awful moment and the fallout was horrific. I wanted to share my story because I know that it’s not entirely unique to me, and I came out on the other side SO MUCH BETTER. It’s a little long and there will be some choice language, so reader discretion is advised.
I knew it was coming for at least a few weeks but still, when the time came for it to actually happen, I could not believe that I was losing a job that I’d started just six months prior. It was unfair. It was cruel. I worked so hard and I knew that the lines my boss was feeding me about “budgets” and “arithmetic” were bullshit and the reason I was being “let go” was because of my struggle with mental illness, impending victory over self-harm, and re-adjusting to my medication. I couldn’t find the words to fight on my own behalf; I was shaking, sobbing. The best I could do was to conjure a shaky “fuck you” hurled in the general direction my boss when he asked if I wanted to stay through the rest of the week. (Seriously.) In that moment, I felt helpless, alone. I’d always found so much identity in my career—or at least having a career—that I’d lost sight of who I was outside of it.
If I cared about what these people thought of me, I’d say that it was probably the most embarrassing ten minutes of my life. It felt like an eternity. I had to hand over my key, and of course I didn’t know which of the 10 keys on my janitoresque keychain was the office one. Trembling and uselessly trying to hold back tears, I fumbled with eight keys before I found the one that belonged to the two assholes who were silently watching my pathetic display, more than likely fighting back laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. (I don’t blame them.) I tossed it towards them and headed towards the elevator (why didn’t I just take the stairs?) as I waited, I called my mom. My voice shook as I told her, “I just lost my job.” She tried to convince me that it was okay, but I was inconsolable. As soon as I reached the ground floor, I ran outside and vomited on the sidewalk. I was rebuilding my savings after two years of running my own startup without a paycheck. I could barely make rent. I knew the reason I was being let go was unfair and though, to be honest, I was starting to really dislike my job and knew it was a toxic culture, I felt that I’d grown comfortable enough. (To put things in perspective, I spent the night in the hospital a few months prior. I was working from home the next day, and in the office the day after.) Still though, as I wandered down Walnut street, up 15th, then turned into Dilworth Park to descend the stairs to the train, these motions that felt almost second nature still seemed to foreign to me. Who was I?
I remember being thankful that they waited until close to the end of the month to do it, because I’d spent $96 on a monthly transit pass three weeks earlier. I remember feeling a twinge of sadness as I scanned my SEPTA Key card, realizing that I actually really enjoyed taking the train and realized that something I’d been so scared of, something I’d gotten much more comfortable with, something that had become a part of my day, was gone. Just like that. As I waited for the train, I realized that I wasn’t the same person anymore. I wasn’t “E.M. Ricchini, brand storyteller at [agency name redacted because I don’t want to give them any traffic]” anymore. I was just E.M. Ricchini… blank, blank, blank. I wasn’t a startup founder anymore, I wasn’t a tv news writer. I was just… me. And I couldn’t be alone with myself.
The more I thought about it, the crueler it seemed. Why did I let so many other people determine my identity and my worth for so long? I wanted to rage against the system. I wanted to raise a middle finger to the machine that demanded long hours for little else besides modest pay. No security. Nothing. My trust issues came out in full force, and I was angry. I wanted to stick it to the man but I knew so little about myself outside of my work ethic and career identity that I didn’t even know where to begin. How did I get here? How could I get out?
I did what most newly-jobless folk do: I went through the entire mourning process. Before reading through advice for the newly-unemployed, I wrote this short journal entry:
I'm feeling strangely unmoored, disoriented, and very terrified of what's to come. I was rebuilding my life after not making a paycheck in over a year and a half, moving FIVE TIMES (I know...) and other huge life changes that had been occurring. I thought I was doing fine. I feel angry and embarrassed.
Then, I got to Googling. I laughed out loud when I heard some of the advice for people who’d just been laid off. “Take your time finding a new job.” “Don’t find a new job too quickly, allow yourself to get out and live!” It all sounded lovely but because of the whole “owning my own startup” thing, I was far less prepared for this curveball than most responsible 26-year-olds are. (Side note: I now have a new job and a healthy savings. More on that later though.) I laid in bed one night, sleepless and worried about the short-term future. I was hurt. I felt useless. I was SO mad.
I spent the first few days in this haze until one night, I was laying in bed, physically pained by this existential upheaval. Out of seemingly nowhere, it occurred to me: what if it wasn’t money that was holding me back? What if the largest force standing in my way was… myself? Instead of dwelling on the bad and the sad, I hopped out of bed and grabbed my computer. I jotted down a quick note about the positives. They included, “I’m not full of anxiety about going to work tomorrow, I can go to the park this weekend instead of working all day, I don’t have to constantly live in fear that my next mistake will be my last, I don’t have to worry about my boss stomping around and slamming doors and treating me like shit after something happens that’s out of my control.” I realized that I was no longer exploited by an abusive man in pastel chinos holding an insultingly meager salary above me like a carrot on a stick. I was free. The world was my oyster. (By the way, I didn’t come to this conclusion on my own. The most supportive people in my life were nudging me in that direction and I was too stubborn to figure it out right away.)
I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed for the first time in years. I was still a little worried about making ends meet but it didn’t seem to matter as much anymore. I had a positive outlook, and that’s worth its weight in gold. I set out to look for a new job (and braced for a ton of rejection) but still did kind things for myself. I would dedicate three hours to sending out resumes, then I’d meet with a friend for coffee. Then I’d research jobs for another few hours, send out more resumes, and then work on things I’d neglected. (Read: my blog.) I finally finished my media kit. I sent pitches to brands I’d always wanted to work with. Between the brands and the job prospects, I had a LOT of rejection. But it felt good because I owned it.
Free will is a wonderful thing but I realized that a lot of us give up our agency for this unattainable ideal of success as defined by someone else. It’s a moving target, and it’s so easy to let “struggle porn” get in the way of an otherwise healthy life outside of work. I was made to feel shame for my mental illness. I was made to find my worth in the money that was given to me as an arbitrary means of determining how I deserve to be compensated for my hard work. I lived in constant fear of losing my job and losing that piece of myself since I was 21 years old. And once my biggest fear finally happened, and I was able to go through the motions, let myself grieve, and process through the inadequacy, I realized that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I needed to know that I could get through it. I found myself.
I was no longer beholden to my salary. I was bigger than the number on my paycheck. I was more than my job title. My possibilities were limitless. I was bigger than someone else’s view of my capabilities. I could determine that myself. I didn’t have to accept a job title that I felt I was bigger than, and I started going for jobs that I was intimidated by. No one was going to decide my fate for me. If I felt I could do it, I would go for it. I was in a good place, and I probably wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t shaken to my core by job loss. It needed to happen. It seemed like the timing couldn’t have been worse, and it probably couldn’t have been—but it made me so much stronger.
I budgeted and made it work. I even traveled to Western Canada instead of cancelling my trip. I scraped by and found a new job a week after I got home, a job that I would have never thought I was qualified for because I was talked down to so much throughout my career and often fell victim to imposter syndrome because of it. You know what though? I love my job and I’m kind of killin’ it. I’m thankful that I can appreciate that, and for the extra boost to my newfound confidence. Interestingly enough, I started exactly six weeks after I lost my previous job. It’s not too shabby, but I found some sort of significance in those 42 days. There’s a cosmetic surgeon who, back in the 1950’s, discovered that patients take about 21 days to get used to their “new” faces. They also say it takes at least 21 days to start a new habit. Twenty-one days to get to know myself again, 21 days to start to become the best version of myself. As difficult as it is to say, I’m thankful that my last boss treated my like shit. I rose above it, and now I know what I want, need, and how to get it.
When you’re confident in yourself and realize that a job is a job, you start to see your work much more objectively. I took every little thing personally because my job was just an extension of my personality. Now, I haven’t sacrificed any work ethic, but I’ve separated myself enough to see my connection to my job with more objectivity. Just because I made a small mistake, that doesn’t mean that I’m unfit, or bad at my job, or that my career choice was a mistake. I can compartmentalize enough to sever ties from email and Slack on nights and weekends. I can admit that no matter how hard I work, work will still need to be done, and that’s just a fact.
I’m still not perfect, but I’m proud of where I am. If I could choose, I would definitely not want to experience job loss again, but should it happen in the future, I think I’m equipped to deal with it in a healthy way. (Savings account, contingency plan, and all!)
Thanks for listening to my story, hopefully it helped you a little bit as well.