Being There: Handling Unemployment
by Tom Washington

(Used by Permission)

Unemployment steals our self-respect, damages the quality of our lives, changes our personal relationships, and undermines our faith in society, our friends, and ourselves.

It’s a crisis that can’t be fully understood until you experience it personally. As it continues, your situation worsens; and the more important it becomes that you somehow learn to cope.

Begin By Accepting a Few Facts

Emotions of anger, depression, fear, guilt, despair, and isolation are normal.

Your situation is not unique. Your problem is shared by millions of others who are unemployed. Many of those cases are not as critical as yours. Others are worse.

Your situation is not static. If you persist in your search for work, you will find a job.

How well you cope in the meantime will depend on the quality of your attitudes, feelings, and actions.

You have the ability to control your attitudes, feelings, and actions.

Know the Pitfalls


Immobilization is the inability to move or to act toward changing your situation. It’s staying at home; sleeping a lot; putting off until tomorrow what you don’t see much sense in doing today; not making the phone calls you meant to make; and going around in a daze. Immobilization is putting everything on “hold.” People who are unemployed are sometimes immobilized to the point of not being able to file for unemployment insurance benefits or other services, even though they desperately need the help and know they are eligible to receive it. And they don’t even know why they don’t do what they don’t do. Immobilization is a symptom of severe depression.


Depression doesn’t necessarily mean crying all the time. Frequently, the depressed person seems to be functioning normally with the possible exceptions of seeming a little withdrawn or being in a bad mood. Of all the pitfalls, depression is probably the most dangerous because it starts feeling comfortable. You can begin to like it. Sometimes, your depression nets you some attention you otherwise would not have received. And there’s another reason it’s dangerous. It gets better; or it gets worse.

Unless and until you turn it around, it gets worse; and the worse it gets the more difficult it is to turn around. That’s bad enough, but there is a face-saving factor here too. After all, how can you—after going around for days, weeks, or months with a long face—suddenly give all that up and start smiling again? How? You just do it. You make a conscious decision to alter your frame of mind. It’s difficult, but it’s better than the alternative of going through life depressed.


Paranoia is difficult to avoid at a time life has dealt a dirty blow. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re the victim of some big conspiracy because you’re too young, or too old, or a woman, or a man, or a minority, or too tall, or too short, or too smart, or not smart enough, or too outspoken, or too soft-spoken.

While all of the above would be more interesting reasons for unemployment, it is probably more realistic—and undeniably more productive—to assume that you are not being singled out. You’re unemployed because of the economy; because there aren’t enough jobs to go around; because you had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; or for any of a million other reasons all of which are beyond your control.

But some paranoia is justified. Unfortunately, your family, friends, and associates are not psychologists. More often than not, they aren’t very good at dealing with someone who is unemployed. Consequently, they seem to develop the knack of saying all of the wrong things, like, “Maybe if you didn’t do this, or change the way you do that...” Things that ultimately translate to a rejection of who and what you are.

Or they may avoid you. They don’t mean to; and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. On a subconscious level you frighten them and threaten their sense of security. They don’t know what to say to you. They are afraid that any of their good fortunes—no matter how insignificant—might depress you.

It is important for your sake that you understand their behavior. Expect it. Accept it. Forgive it. Then, focus your energy on changing it. Let your friends know that you have no intention of becoming a recluse, and that you welcome invitations. Discuss your unemployment openly and frankly; and whenever possible, use your sense of humor about it.


Of course you’re angry. You have every right to be. You want to work, but you don’t have a job. And chances are you’re not even sure at whom to direct your anger.

While anger is a negative emotion, there is a great deal of energy behind it that can be put to positive use. That same energy can stimulate your imagination and put some innovation in your search for work. That same energy can be used to better organize and accelerate your work search. It can be directed toward a multitude of positive, productive accomplishments.


Isolation can be a by-product of anger, paranoia, depression, or immobilization. And not having any money can isolate you, too. But there are other reasons we become isolated when we’re unemployed.

We’re embarrassed, so we avoid people. Obviously, we assume the blame and the shame for our unemployment. In addition to being counterproductive and futile, this kind of unnecessary guilt trip is, in all probability, totally without justification.

Sometimes we keep to ourselves out of a misguided concern for others, in that we’re afraid our presence is depressing; or because we want to avoid making others feel uncomfortable.

The key word here is “misguided.” Your family, friends, neighbors, and contacts are more important now than they’ve ever been. You need their help and support.

A Sagging Self-Image

A sagging sel`f-image seems inevitable at this juncture. You have no money, and no paycheck to remind you that somebody thinks you are worthwhile.

This is one area that requires constant work. You had a job before and you will find one again. Concentrate on your strengths and assets. Review them daily. Write them on your bathroom mirror, because those strengths and assets will be your survival.

Loss Of Identity

After asking your name, they want to know what you do for a living. When you were working, that was easy. Now, what do you say? This situation won’t be so painful if you prepare a response. Without hesitation, look them straight in the eye and say, “I’m a very good mechanic and I’m looking for a job.” Or, “I used to be a secretary, but I’m looking for something in sales.” Don’t be at a loss for words or apologetic about your situation. Instead, seize the moment to promote your job search.


Fatigue is the direct result of any or all of the above, from immobilization to loss of identity. Other contributing factors might include a subconscious desire to escape through sleep; worry and anxiety over your situation; insomnia (caused by worry and anxiety over your situation); or just plain boredom.

And drinking too much, smoking too much, eating too much, or doing anything too much tends to fatigue, also.

A healthful diet (even though you’ve lost your appetite), physical exercise (despite the fact you have no energy), and restful sleep are the obvious prescriptions. Keep busy, even if it requires forcing yourself; but make sure your agenda includes recreational activity.

But if you’ve been getting your eight hours sleep (not four and not sixteen), eating right, exercising, keeping busy, and you’re still fatigued; don’t overlook other health-related possibilities.

Developing a Coping Plan

Organize and take charge of your life. Live by a schedule as rigid and as disciplined as you would if you were working; with set times to get up, eat, and sleep. Pursue your work search during certain hours as though it was a job. Include special projects in your schedule. Try to accomplish something every day, including learning new things. You’ll find that having a routine and following a schedule focuses your energy and puts some direction in your daily life.

Organizing your life and taking care of yourself will enhance your self-image and make you feel good about yourself. You’ll feel healthier; have more energy; and, more important, you will increase your odds of finding a job.

Get Help

Financial help is probably the first kind of help you need. Find out everything you might be eligible to receive and apply for it—unemployment insurance, food stamps, public assistance, medical coupons, social security—don’t overlook any possibilities. And should it be necessary, remember there are food banks in your area, too.

Beyond that, don’t forget family and friends. Ask for help if you need it. There are people out there who would appreciate the opportunity to help because they have a sincere desire to be useful. Accepting their generosity will undoubtedly help you both.

Free help in finding a job is available too. Inquire at your local Job Service Center about Job Search Assistance Workshops. Find out if you’re eligible for programs that will give an employer tax credits for hiring you; or training programs; or retraining programs. Investigate all possibilities and follow up.

Psychological Support

Psychological support can come from many sources. Frequently, all we need is to talk to someone—anyone—to let it all out. For that kind of therapy, family, friends, or a member of the clergy can give the support you need. Medical research confirms that people who have positive, supportive relationships are physically and mentally healthier. A friend to talk to, a shared laugh, a word of encouragement, and a hug can be more valuable than any prescription.

Another resource is support groups comprised of people in similar situations who understand and can relate to everything you are going through. Call your local Mental Health Association to find out about support groups in your area.

If you feel your situation is severe, professional help might be the answer. Again, contact the Mental Health Association for referral to the resources in your area.

One of the best antidotes for depression is doing something to help someone else. You have time, talents, and skills that could mean a great deal to your family, friends, an elderly person in your neighborhood, a youth group, or a volunteer agency. You’ll find that helping someone else helps you more than it helps them.

And there are other antidotes. Give yourself a treat now and then. Certainly, unemployment infringes on your lifestyle but don’t abandon all of life’s pleasures. An occasional movie, ballgame, or evening out is as important as meeting your other basic needs.

Don’t forget to laugh. Humor can protect you from some of the pain, and it can help those around you through this, too.

Accomplishments are great medicine because they make us feel good about ourselves—even minor ones like cleaning out a drawer, working in the garage, darning a sock, or writing a resume. Make sure you accomplish at least one task every day.

Pursue New Opportunities

While unemployment is inevitably a time for worry and a certain amount of grief, it is also a time for reflection, change, and growth. Your new freedom may have been thrust upon you, but take advantage of it. It’s an opportunity to evaluate where you’ve been and where you’re headed; and determine whether or not you should change course. This could be the time to start a new career. After all, you might be placing unfair limitations on your potential if all you want is your old job back.

Finally, have faith. Whether you put your faith in yourself, the future, or a greater power, a hopeful outlook will do more for you than any of the advice herein.

You are an important person. You can do anything you want to do or have to do. Every day you survive makes you stronger.

And remember, this too shall pass.

Reprinted by permission of the Washington State Employment Security. Being There was produced by the Washington State Employment Security, in cooperation with the Washington Mental Health Association and Life/Work.

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