Laughing in the Face of Layoffs

by Gorkin, Mark Friday, January 09, 2009
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"How can the person displaced or downsized see both the danger and opportunity in career change or disruption? Can we learn, even, to both cry and laugh at this career crisis turning point?"

To be able to see the comic in the crisis requires two achievements. First we must embrace Charlie Chaplin's penetrating insight: "A paradoxical thing is that in making comedy the tragic is precisely what arouses the funny...we have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and (in order) not to go crazy." And we must turn a grief process into a growth process by exploring new possibilities and developing new skills. As a psychiatrist whose name escapes me, observed, "What's was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at." And as the Stress Doc inverted, "What was once feared and is laughed at is no longer a master!"

The key to letting go is embracing our pain. And, with the focused support of others, we can turn emotional exhaustion and guilt, fear and rage into exploration, new skills and acceptance. As noted French author and philosopher, Albert Camus, observed: "Once we have accepted the fact of loss, we understand that the loved one [or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain."

And the "possible" includes discovering and realizing genuine desire and talent. Yet, perhaps, most rewarding is going through the grief process and also "Laughing in the Face of Layoffs." How do you gain this liberating perspective?

Laughing, Layoffs and the Art of Letting Go
Layoffs-the "L-word" is back. Whether framed as "reorganization," "downsizing," or, perhaps, most cutting of all -"rightsizing" – layoffs can create feelings of betrayal, a loss of face and faith, and anxiety about the future. As one woman caught in the throes of her government agency's reorganization exclaimed, "I once had a career path. Then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it."

People experiencing a layoff need to let go and transform their emotional pain, fear, and aggressive energy into exploration and acceptance. Those going through this grieving often overlook positive facets of their layoffs:

Job worry reduction. What a relief, you can finally stop worrying about the prospect of losing your job. Anticipation can be worse than any termination.

Less stressful rituals. Not having to set an alarm clock is definitely a stress reliever. What about a real daring act - gradual withdrawal from the morning coffee fix? And consider my radical 'Old Age" (as opposed to 'New Age") meditation technique: I find a quiet place, then close my eyes and chant "N-A-P, N-A-P" for 10 to 20 minutes in the afternoon and/or evening.

Family highs. Layoff transition means more opportunity for you and your family to share personal and meaningful interaction. Now there's time for family dinners and in-depth discussions of, for example, the relationship between homework, television, and migraine headaches. (Of course, too much joy with the family too fast can induce culture shock. Don't try to make up in two weeks for 20 years of benign neglect.)

Boredom breakout. When we invest much time, energy, money, and/or ego in a position, it can be difficult to recognize or admit it's time to move on. Before the layoff, were you increasingly frustrated, restless, or underwhelmed at work? Well, now's the time to "fireproof life with variety."

Transitional vacation time. Make the shift from being "laid-off" to having "time off." Instead of thinking of yourself as unemployed, consider yourself in transition. (Wouldn't you have liked a semester off during college to reconsider direction and options?) Don't just conduct a job search-use the free time as a catalyst for self-discovery. Explore these questions: What are my true talents, interests, passions? What do I really want in a career/position at this juncture? What is no longer acceptable to me? To my family? Rushing into jobs or judgments usually confines people to less creative and meaningful paths. So here's my prescription: Take an incubation vacation to rejuvenate the mind-body-spirit connection and to hatch new perspective.

Existential capitalism. This is my pioneering philosophy; the source of inspiration from the challenge of not knowing where your next dollar is coming from. Money, of course, can be a cause for worry during this trying transition, but wouldn't it be nice to simplify your life a bit? Now's the time to get in touch with wanderlust or bohemian desires. Live on the edge. Paint. Write poetry. If you can't move to Montana, become a freelance consultant. Consider part-time work.

And don't be brought down by false pride: Even van Gogh regularly got money from his brother and Thoreau would routinely escape Walden Pond for his mother's Sunday dinner. (It's true.)

Pursuing a genuine, fulfilling, and creative life that's respectful of one's essential talents, nature, and spirit is a challenge. But there's no better time than transition time to take it up. So explore and remember: We're not human doings, but human beings. Learn to laugh at the difference. And, finally, seek the higher power of humor: May the farce be with you!