Psychology Today: Here To Help

You've Just Been Fired: What is happening to you emotionally?
What WILL happen to you emotionally?


Few of us have the time in our lives to make really important emotional commitments. The few in-depth commitments we make may revolve around immediate family members, a small group of close friends, a job, a professional identity, a company, etc.

Based on our worked with fired executives, what is the emotional process involved in de-commitment? Understanding that emotional de-commitment takes place in stages helps you to understand where you are in the normal de-commitment cycle. And where you are likely to be next. There are indeed some fairly typical reaction phases that people go through in adjusting to involuntary termination. These phases are "It's Not Happening to Me," "Why Did This Happen to Me," "If Only....," "I'll Show Those SOBs," "It's Over," and "Let's Get on With It."

You may not go through all the stages in the sequence outlined here, but you will probably go through ALL the stages outlined at some point as you travel to Let's Get on With It.

It's Not Happening to Me

It is fairly typical for managers to emotionally block out the news of their termination, particularly if it is unexpected. Some managers report experiencing a feeling of unreality about the entire situation. Others express supreme confidence in their ability to quickly locate new positions. This sense of confidence is often not based on an objective analysis of the job market, but on a "gut feel." That is more often wrong than right. And "good friends" you can count on will often turn out to be nothing more than political allies who drop you because you cannot help them achieve their objectives.

A key danger during this stage is refusing to accept the ex-boss' efforts to provide assistance (retained search, contacts, job leads,etc.) on the grounds of "I don't need my boss' help. With my solid track record, I shouldn't have any trouble finding a new position." Another mistake is to request a lump sum severance arrangement based on the assumption that the job search will be a short one. A salary and benefits continuation program may be in the better interests of the person.

Why Did This Happen to Me?

During this phase, anger is a major and typical reaction. Dismissed employees point to political factors outside their control as causing the problem. Indeed, sometimes these complaints are legitimate, and sometimes they are defense mechanisms to avoid thinking about their own contribution to an unhappy outcome.

During this phase, it is likely that managers realize how few true friendships they have developed at work, as formerly "close" colleagues now avoid eye contact or speak about them as though they were dead. On the other hand, it is often the case that work associates that job seekers do not feel particularly close to turn out to be true friends during a time of need. This knowledge can result in bitter disappointment combined with genuinely pleasant surprises.

If Only....

During this phase, anger wears off and executives begin to question their own competence. "If only I had....." becomes a familiar refrain.

This phase is a difficult one. Dwelling too much on the past can easily rob job seekers of the self confidence they need to conduct an effective job search. On the other hand, refusal to learn from mistakes robs them of the opportunity to avoid repeating past errors. Clearly, the common notion of "Only Look Forward...Never Look Back" does not make sense in doing an executive level job search. The key is finding the right balance between looking towards the future while simul-taneously learning from the past.

I'll Show Those SOBs!

During this phase, employees are convinced they were treated unfairly. There is a strong desire to seek "revenge." Revenge is often defined as becoming a tremendous success in the very areas where hated political opponents stated that job seekers could never be successful.

An advantage of this phase, is that it provides a potent psychological incentive to conduct an aggressive job campaign. The chief disadvantage of this phase is that if revenge is the KEY goal of the job search, then the focus shifts away from what ought to be the major objective: finding a position which best fits the job seeker's abilities and interests for the long term.

A common variation of this theme is for job seekers to wish for a mirror image of the organization that fired them. Thus people from large companies might seek small companies; people who were in high tech yearn for low tech; employees want to become entrepreneurs, etc.

Finding a mirror image of the last firm may or may not be in the interests of the job seeker. The key issue here is that these feelings are quite common and may decrease over time. As with the earlier phase, it is important not to take these feelings at face value, but to analyze them.

It's Over

This phase is the classic stage of depression. It is common during this period for people to report waking up early in the morning, feeling restless, loss of appetite, loss of interest in sex, etc. Obviously, a supportive family or friendship system is important during this period of stress.

During this phase, it is common to move out of the normal business sleep-wake cycle. Instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour, you find you can't sleep. You stay awake until early mornings. And then you awake with a sudden start very early in the mornings. This type of sleep-wake cycle is common during a period of depression and a diagnostic sign of depression.

Keep in mind that should this new sleep-wake cycle continue, you will teach your body a new biorhythm. And that new sleep-wake cycle may make you feel groggy at exactly the same time when your business colleagues are "up." This won't help you with job interviews.

We encourage our clients to get involved with an aggressive exercise program, particularly one that involves "bashing:" tennis, baseball, squash, etc. Buy a punching bag! If this technique does not help, consider talking with your physician. Avoid self-medication for depression, such as increasing alcohol consumption. Rather than reducing depression, it may actually make it worse.

The depression should be viewed as a necessary phase in the reaction cycle and as a "badge of honor." As we mentioned earlier, people tend to have time to develop only a few major life commitments. Such commitments are not easily made, and often take time to develop. The process of de-commitment is also not easy. And it takes time. Expressions of grief are both natural as well as an indication of how seriously the organizational commitment was. Those who genuinely manifest little grief were probably never really committed to their jobs in the first place.

Let's Get On With It

At this stage, job seekers accept the dismissal as final and seek to develop a mature analysis of the events leading up to the termination. This analysis often takes into account their own contribution to the problems. The time for recrimination is over. It's time to move on.

Is it possible to psychologically "leap frog" past the first stage and immediately land on "Let's Get On With It?"

As we said earlier, it probably can be done if the person had little commitment to the organization at the time of termination. On the other hand, if the commitment is strong it may not be possible to avoid at least coming into contact with most of the phases.

An important benefit of looking at the adjustment process in terms of phases, however, is to realize that some of the very real feelings that may be gnawing today will in all probability change dramatically over time. And those feelings will change in fairly predictable ways. One should not make a major career decision on the basis of powerful but transitory "gut feelings."

A competent retained search consultant can help you harness your current emotional stage towards a rapid and successful completion of the job search campaign.


Dr. Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are co-founders of Stybel Peabody of Boston and Waltham. Since 1979, Stybel Peabody has assisted companies seeking "smooth transitions" for very senior executives. Core services include retained search, coaching, and helping executives find new chapters in their professional lives. Stybel Peabody has a Special Relationship with the Financial Executives Institute. It's programs are the only ones endorsed by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Hospital Association.

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Stybel Peabody can be reached at 781-736-0900.

Through its membership in Lincolnshire International, it can assist companies in 48 cities in North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Australia.