Getting fired is one of the more traumatic events that can happen to us. I know, because I’ve been fired twice.
The first time was uber-traumatic. The second time was less so.
The difference was mainly in how I was treated. The first time, I didn’t see it coming. And I was treated with what felt to me like great cruelty. I was summoned to a lawyer’s office where a Board member read a statement to me that essentially said “your employment is over effective immediately.” No reason was given. No discussion was permitted. I was not allowed to return to the office to retrieve any of my belongings. Nor was I ever to be allowed to set foot on the premises again. Because I was using a cane after a hip replacement, the 4 Board members involved offered a car service to take me home but my pride refused it. I’d take the train, thank you very much. When I got to the train station, I learned that my company phone had been shut off, so I couldn’t call anyone. And the severance I got didn’t even meet industry standard of 2 weeks per year of employment.
The second time, I saw it coming. I had a personality conflict with the founder. The way I was told was with compassion. I knew why, and had it confirmed in a discussion with the Board Chair. He offered a certain amount of severance and when I cried, he doubled it. I was able to return to the office to pick up my belongings.
Which place do I have better feelings about? The second, of course.
The first place is one with a mission I still care about. I did eventually realize that I was better off not being there any more. I eventually realized I had outgrown the organization and that it was time for me to move on. I eventually understood that the universe did for me what I could not do for myself. And I eventually forgave those people for doing their not-very-good best.
What I had to do to get there was walk through a loss of identity, deep self-doubt, loads of anger and pain, and fear. Would I be able to support myself? What had I done wrong? Would they speak badly about me, making it hard for me to get another job? Was I really such a terrible person to merit such treatment?
You see, I took it personally. And I don’t blame myself for doing so. It’s perfectly normal to take personally something that affects our very survival. Getting fired affects our sense of who we are, what we do, how we literally take care of ourselves. Our amygdala is immediately activated – the primitive survival brain, the seat of the fight or flight reaction, the part of our brain that lashes out at those responsible for the threat to our existence or retreats in the face of the threat.
When given enough money, or treated with humanity, being fired isn’t as traumatic – at least in my experience. And in the experience of many women and men I’ve talked to and worked with. It’s when you don’t know why you’re being fired, and you get almost no severance, and you’re escorted out as if you are suddenly a criminal … that’s when it’s difficult to recover from being fired.
What helped me was talking about it. I was lucky to have parents who were completely horrified by what happened and validated that I was a good person and a talented worker. I had colleagues who validated me, and former employees who did so as well. I read William Bridges’ Transitions, an incredibly compassionate book that didn’t urge me to “buck up” but helped me understand that I was going through a huge emotional shift. And I joined a jobseekers group that was so supportive. It was where I began to find that I had a talent for coaching other jobseekers, and began my new career. Above all, I gave myself time to heal.
I paid no attention to those who said “getting fired was the best thing that happened to me.” Because it was not the best thing that happened to me. It’s as if being traumatized is somehow good. Would you tell someone who was mugged that it was a good thing? I think not. Just because I was able to make lemonade out of that bunch of horrible lemons – meaning I can help others who were fired – doesn’t mean I wish the experience on anyone.
There are always going to be job endings. But they can be done with more grace, compassion and kindness. I have no residual pain from the second time I was fired. I still do from the first. I wish it weren’t so, but it really was awful. And acknowledging that is powerful. Like the “me too” movement, I hope we who have been treated so inhumanely when we were fired can shine a light on how unnecessarily traumatic firing has become.