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Sudden Loss Syndrome: Unemployment and Identity

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Back in 2008, the Boston Globe reported on a massive increase in therapy clients from the financial world:

With the sinking stock market and hordes of rich, angry investors, psychologists have a new diagnosis: Sudden Loss Syndrome. And therapists are increasingly busy trying to remedy the predicament.

I wrote about this in October of 2008 and, given that I have no knowledge of economics, assumed it would be irrelevant today. Sadly, it’s just as important now, whether change is in sight or not.

Right or wrong, a large portion of the general population views lawyers in the same vein as the finance people: well paid. Therefore, many of you fall into the public’s unsympathetic, “cry me a fucking river” response to losing jobs, bonuses, raises or all three. Fair? No. And what most people miss is that whether you were making seven figures annually or $7 per hour, unemployment almost invariably means more than just the lost paycheck.

It is our natural tendency to become psychologically disrupted when circumstances change. We are creatures of habit and don't often take well to adjustment. Positive or negative, we develop a foundation around our jobs, families, friends, religion and/or home and very few can experience major shifts without some sort of psychological response. That is why good psychologists enquire about a patient's psychological state when she is getting married or has been promoted in the same way as when her husband has had an affair or she is about to have surgery.

On another level, however, this Sudden Loss Syndrome is about identity. Healthy or not, these people see their jobs and/or their wealth as who they are. "If the ship goes down, who am I?" said one hard-core rich client of mine. While not all of these clients have little else in their lives, my practice has seen its fair share of well-to-do people with not much to fall back on: poor marriages, rocky relationships with their kids and very little recreation time because of the work that generates all that cash. If they aren't wealthy anymore, how will they define themselves? Helping clients develop their own answers that question is how a therapist makes a living, without judging or ridiculing.

To highlight the emotional rollercoaster of unemployment, I asked a young, jobless lawyer (1Y guess who it is) for a take on what it means to lose your career:

I'm sure there's a lot of variation among industries, but from my experience being laid off from a law firm, the first thing that really hits hard is a sense of betrayal. My firm had posted record profits just months before. When things were going well, the partners made bank, when things slowed down, the folks at the bottom got canned. When work picks back up again, someone else will be hired, the firm won't come back knocking on your door. It's not just seeing your own boss act callously, but seeing that the whole system is set up in a head I win - tails you lose scheme.

There's plenty of talk about how jobs aren't charities, and you're not entitled to your job, yadda yadda yadda, but when you're expected to be on call every single day, ready to cancel your weekend to meet a fire drill's artificial deadline, you expect that the sacrifice will be a bit of a two way street. You're expected to be loyal to the firm, and unless you're a deeply cynical person, it stings to learn the firm doesn't give two shits about you.

The way law firm hiring works, there are certain career paths that you can only get in to straight out of law school. If big law is your goal, once you're out, you're out for good. No amount of time working in a third tier market doing personal injury cases will land you a position at a big law firm. It's like asking how long you have to work at Waffle House before Mario Batali wants you on the line at his new pizzeria. The answer is never.

So, in addition to losing your current job, a layoff from big law likely means losing your entire career path. Plenty of people have tremendously happy lives working in other types of law firms, but often that's what they set out to do from the start. I'm sure lots of people playing minor league baseball really enjoy it, despite the high pressure and terrible pay. But, I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who got bumped from the majors down to a farm team who has the same love of the game.

Losing your job, especially at the start of your career, when you have little savings and a big student loan bill, often means also losing your home. I don't think anyone who my firm laid off at the same time as me is still in New York. Moving to a new place can be exciting, but only when you're moving towards something; a forced retreat doesn't have the same sense of adventure. So, you lose your job, have to come up with an entirely new career path, you're forced out of your home, and you also won't be seeing any of your friends, eating at your favorites restaurants, or going to that park you like.

You lose a lot, and you lose it all at once.

After that, there's a sense of helplessness. This is probably more pronounced in a recession where long term unemployment is more common. There are few job openings, and far too many people applying for you to have a fair shake at getting it. As time goes on and you're unemployed longer, you become increasingly unattractive to employers. Colleges are still graduating kids with the same degree and experience as you, so that's who'll get hired instead. Once you do a little number crunching and figure out the number of job openings per year versus the number of more attractive applicants, you start to have thoughts like "How happy is the manager at The Gap?"

You'd think the progressively worsening situation would force you to fight even harder, but depression kills your ability to self motivate. And, even if you do get yourself to fight and really give it your all, that's typically not enough. You have to fight day after day. It's like being dropped into the middle of the ocean. The threat of drowning should be proper motivation to swim as hard as you can, but when you look out and all you can see is blue all the way to the horizon in every direction, what are you really going to do?

Depending on where you are in your career and your financial situation, these points may be more or less relevant. Those who might not be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment certainly have more important things to worry about than psychological identity. However, for those of you who are not grappling with basic human needs, this is a way to learn how to build a meaningful life outside of the law arena (which, as we all know, is a demanding mistress anyway).

Think deeply about what else is important to you: your education, family, friends, religion, sexuality, health, whatever. You have to really focus on these things. It’s not optional. I had a client who was a lawyer for a few years and then got let go. He suspected a layoff was on the way and mentally prepared for it. He went to work, did his job, worried about it while he was there. But he then came home, meditated, ran 5 miles, had dinner, rocked his wife's sexual world (so he says), and fell asleep. "I worried at the job but then focused on purely what makes me happy once I left the office,” he said. “I could only do so much planning for the future as an attorney. But I could do so much more as a husband, dad, fitness guru and superior lover.“

He decided that his life is not his job, that his personal Pie Chart has more slices in it. He focused on those other pieces, and while not anxiety-free due to the financial stress, he has positioned himself to be a much happier person. If you want to label this distraction, denial, the power of positive thinking or anything else that calls Bullshit, that’s fine, but recognize that training your mind to think in certain ways does in fact work with some practice. Give it a go yourself and see what happens.

[Read more from Dr. Rob]

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