Paul’s Situation: I’ve been unemployed for 6 months. I had no idea it would take this long to find a new job and I’m feeling really frustrated and down on myself. I’m about 10 years away from retirement. I’m afraid my age is making it harder for me to get hired.
Paul’s Question: How do I deal with this long stretch of unemployment?
Julia’s Answer: This is a hard situation, there’s no getting around it. I wish I had a stash of secret job-searching tips to magically make you irresistible to potential employers. Unfortunately, I don’t.
What I do have are a few suggestions for keeping your sanity intact until you find that next position.
I don’t suggest trying to incorporate all of these into your life at once – pick a couple that sound appealing and see how they work for you.
1. Acknowledge the hard (but don’t get stuck there).
Positive thinking has a time and place, but it can end up backfiring if you try to force it. Even if you’re feeling the pressure to put on a brave face for your family and friends, you can still tell the truth to yourself: this sucks!
I like journaling for this because it gets all that frustration out of your head without dumping on the well-meaning people around you. Your journal won’t judge you for being petty or tell you to cheer up.
Start with “I’m feeling…” or “I’m noticing…” and go on from there. UT professor James Pennebaker found that writing for just 20 minutes a day for 3 consecutive days about emotionally charged episodes had a long-lasting effect on physical and mental well-being.
You can also practice “even though” statements, which acknowledge your feelings while leaving room for change.
- Even though I’m anxious, I know I can get through this.
- Even though I’m frustrated, I’m going to try to be nice to myself anyway.
- Even though I’m discouraged, I’m open to feeling a different way about this situation.
Acknowledging the truth of the situation can actually make it easier to move into a more positive and accepting place.
Stay aware: you don’t want to get locked into an endless cycle of feeling helpless and bitter. If you feel worse after trying these out, move on to one of the other suggestions or work with a counselor or coach who can keep you from getting stuck.
2. Remember other hard times and how you got through them.
I’m guessing this isn’t the first time you’ve been through a difficult situation – it might not even be the first time you’ve been unemployed. See if your past experiences have some clues for your present difficulties.
- What helped back then?
- How did the situation eventually get resolved, and are there any lessons from that time that might be applicable here?
- What kept you from giving up, and what does that say about your values and strengths?
- How are things different from the previous situation? What resources do you have now that you didn’t have then?
If nothing else, take your history as evidence for your resilience and hardiness. You got through that and you can get through this.
3. Take it one day at a time and focus on what you can control.
I know it feels like there’s not a lot in your control right now – your age, your situation, whether that hiring manager calls you back for an interview. Add to that the amount of time you’ve been working on this and it’s easy to feel discouraged.
When you find yourself brooding on these things, see if you can narrow your focus to the present moment. In this moment, what productive action can you take? How would the best version of yourself behave in this situation?
One of my favorite self-help books reminds us that when we feel like we’re failing at life, many of us are “actually doing a good job with an unfair mess, trying to do honest work, take care of relatives, and be good friends. […] Indeed, soldiering on when you feel diminished, lonely, and out-competed takes great strengths and is one of life’s ultimate accomplishments.”
So look around and take pride in what you are accomplishing despite challenging circumstances. Look for the exceptions: what is going well?
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman swears by this practice: “Every night for the next week, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well…the odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”
4. Be aware of how your thinking is affecting your actions. See if you can start telling yourself a better story and find evidence to back it up.
Paul’s predominant story about his job search was, “This shouldn’t be taking so long” which caused him to feel frustrated and depressed. He started to wonder if he could do anything and became more self-conscious about reaching out.
When I asked Paul what he would like to feel or believe in the situation, he said, “I’d like to feel empowered and confident. I’d like to believe that I can get through this. This is going to lead me to what I want. Every step I take is getting me closer to a position I enjoy.”
I asked him how he would act if he really believed that. He said, “I would be taking more action, like setting up a schedule. I’d take better care of myself, mentally and physically. I’d be more willing to push through the uncomfortable parts.”
I’ll let you in on a little secret about the way our brains work: while we’d like to think that our beliefs are based on evidence, we often decide what to believe and then find evidence to support that conclusion.
We can use this tendency to hack our brains: if you want to believe something different, give your brain some evidence to back up the new thought. If Paul actually starts doing the actions he cited, his brain has a good chance of following the path he’s laid out to those new thoughts. He’ll feel more positive about his situation and be more likely to do things that will help with his job search.
5. Practice self-forgiveness when you forget to do any of this.
One of my friends and I talk on the phone about our goals every week. “Progress, not perfection,” one of us always says when the other is discouraged. Take your cue from #3 and gift yourself with a fresh start when you forget to do any of the things that help you feel better. Just take a deep breath and get back on track.
None of this is easy, but I hope some of these suggestions make your way a little smoother.
Which of these are you going to try? What helps keep you motivated when times are tough?
Client Feedback on Working with Julia in a Cardy Career Coaching program:
“Julia expertly led our conversations and provided me with insights that helped me to think about my situation in new ways. I thought she asked great questions, summarized our discussions well, and provided concrete ideas to help me move forward.” – Just Get Me Pointed in the Right Direction Client