Being embarrassed or in denial about losing your job

Following the classic pattern of grief, people often get over anger only to move into a period of denial, feeling that, either someone will call and tell them it’s all been a mistake, or that a new job will arrive very quickly, without too much effort on their part. When denial is no longer a possibility, it is often superseded by embarrassment. Both feelings are rooted in a fear of being judged. We worry what people will think of us. We dread being thought of as incompetent, sacked, a skiver or a doley. For conscientious, hardworking people, this is the stuff of nightmares.

In previous recessions news stories told of people who would dress in their suits and go out to ‘work’ every morning, pretending to their families, neighbours (and sometimes themselves) that they hadn’t actually lost their jobs. These stories are far less frequent now, as society doesn’t place the same stigma on redundancy, mainly because there are so many people in the same boat.

As of September 2009, 2.47 million people in Britain are out of a job and signing on for Jobseeker’s Allowance. That doesn’t count those who are living off savings or redundancy payments, or who are claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA – the replacement for Incapacity Benefit) but still looking for a job. The rate of job loss, at 210,000 for the summer quarter in Britain alone, is the highest since records began. Some pundits are already predicting that as many as 3 million people could be out of work in Britain by the end of 2009, and as many as 4 million could be signing on by 2012.

It seems that unemployment hurts less the more of it there is around. But, even though the stigma is less, it’s often difficult to come to terms with the change in how we present ourselves to the world. Our position in society is bound up with our job title: we use it to show how competent we are, and how far we’ve risen in our field. Losing our job brings the fear of looking incompetent, rejected, and of losing the respect of our contemporaries.

Dealing with embarrassment

Think for a minute about why human beings feel embarrassment. We tend to feel embarrassed when we have inadvertently done something that contravenes our social code, such as insulting someone, being too obvious about our own needs and wants, or over-sharing our emotions. When it happens, we cringe, or want the ground to swallow us up. Our fear of embarrassment helps us keep consistent with our own social code.

We would worry less about what others think of us if we realized how seldom they do.
~ Ethel Barrett

Why, then, should we feel embarrassment about not having a job? It is because unemployment contradicts the identity we want to project to the world, and this makes us feel exposed. And, yet, it is a very subtle contradiction of our personal standards compared to, say, getting drunk and making a pass at someone.

The truth is, you probably notice the change in your projected image a lot more than anyone whose opinion you would worry about. You, yourself, are closest to the consequences of that change – staying at home instead of going to work; maybe making some economies in your spending. Other than your closest family, few people will see any real changes, and most will think of you no differently. It is only your own insecurity that makes you think others perceive you differently.