Stages of Loss and Failure
A summary hand-out from the second chapter of
When Smart People Fail, Rebuilding Yourself for Success
by Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb There are few things worse than feeling you have failed. You feel pummeled, destroyed, violated, betrayed terrified, angry, guilty, depressed, vengeful, lethargic, impotent and occasionally relieved and resolute. Your defenses have been shattered.You have sustained a severe blow, a loss of your very sense of self. And the more closely you identified yourself with the job, the greater that loss. Career failure is unlike any other loss; it is a sudden, brutal destruction of self-esteem. Even the death of a loved one does not attack our ego. Mourning for another does not obliterate our sense of self. Career failure often does.
This time period is remembered as being wildly disordered. Actually it is not. The “negative” phases of failure actually perform a positive function. Like the steps in mourning, the stages of failure force us to accept our loss and prepare us for the task of rebuilding. They are:
3. Anger and blame
- The speed at which people pass through these phases varies greatly.
- First reaction is disbelief, shock, numbness; the mind blocks the pain; it is even possible to be cheerful; the mind denies what it cannot process
- State of numbness and disbelief gives way to the awareness of a terrible blow. Can feel like death. When you are your job and someone destroys that job, they have in a very real way destroyed you.
- Do nothing; absorb the blow. It is a mistake to make any major decisions during this stage. You may think you are behaving rationally; probably you are not.
- What you need is a sympathetic listener, not someone who will offer advice.
- Close on the heels of shock come the terrors, the ghosts that lie in wait to attack the mind at four in the morning. At first they may be quite specific and even appropriate, but they can escalate quickly to unmanageable proportions. “What if I never work again?”
- Specific fear can be useful; exaggerated, unfocused fear is paralyzing.
- When feeling a failure, fear can be a hydra-headed enemy, almost impossible to grasp. Task is to break it down into manageable size, to confront one terror at a time. It is easy for the mind to flit from one terror to another. By taking fear out of the shadows, by not looking at it not as one giant problem, but a set of discrete issues for which solutions can be found, fear becomes manageable.
ANGER AND BLAME
- Anger is an important stage because it is a sign you value yourself.
- Sense of outrage is so appropriate that the people who do the firing expect it.
- Can be a wonderful stage when anger translates into revenge fantasy –
almost everyone indulges in it. Just be sure to keep it a fantasy
- For some, the only satisfactory revenge is in achieving greater success. Acting from a desire for revenge is acting for the wrong reasons and can lead to very poor decisions.
- Everyone engages in blame which is a perfectly logical response to an unsupportable event. It is an attempt to pinpoint causality and therefore keep the world rational. Can be against oneself or others. Although everyone engages in it, it is almost always inaccurate. It will be your first impression and not a very accurate one
- Anger and revenge are temporary and highly useful emotions. They reassert that we are valuable people. Blame helps us continue to believe that the world is ruled by order rather than chance.
- These feelings serve a definite function. They become a problem only it they persist.
- Shame owes its existence to the authority we give other people to judge us. “What will ‘they’ think of me?”
- Shame is an unproductive feeling. If you take back the judgment for yourself, if you like and forgive yourself, you cannot feel shame. No one can make you a victim but you yourself
- If ever there was a time for deception, it is during the stage of shame. Save your true feelings for one or two close friends. When facing the career world, it is smarter to wear a mask.
- “How are you?” “Are you all right?” This is your opportunity to take control and program how others will think of you. Have a well-rehearsed speech that emphasizes the future. Remind yourself that you are in power here.
- Activity , at any level, begets another activity and is the best antidote to shame.
- Despair can strike whether or not you have failed, and many people who fail never know its anguish. If you believe in your own worth (self-esteem) and believe in your ability to provide a better future (self-confidence), you will not fall into despair.
- What is the connection? It occurs when there is a massive ego loss with no subsequent ego gain and no apparent way out. One of the best ways to hasten this stage is to give in to it and allow yourself to mourn.
- “Sit shiva” on your job for a while. Talk about it, think about it, take out the old reports you were particularly proud of. Take out your commendations. Embrace your loss rather than run away from it.
- Task is to sort out the person from the loss. You have lost something, but you still exist. If you have a loss, it is important you replace it with a gain. The goal is re-own your positive side.
- Remembering our successes in the job we lost not only lets us mourn in a healthy way but also enables us to retrieve parts of our ego.
- Almost as helpful as friends during the stage of despair is a change of activity.
The good news is that most depression is self-limiting. No matter what you do, unless you are seriously mentally ill, after a period of a few months at most, the depression will usually have run its course.
The stages of failure are as predictable as the stages of a disease and are just as survivable. Almost no matter what you do, you will get through these “negative stages.” What is important is to let them happen so that you can get done with them. The only real danger is getting “stuck in a stage, remaining so fixated on anger, or blame, or shame that you do not get on with rebuilding your life.
All these “negative stages” have a positive function. Like the stages of mourning, their value lies in bridging the time between hurt and healing.