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:

1. Shock
2. Fear
3. Anger and blame
4. Shame
5. Despair

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 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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane October 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

This article is very helpful. I recently lost a job I thought I would have for a long time.

I worked there for almost 2 years. It was a small business, with only 5 people, 2 of them were the owners. I worked long hours, helped them merchandise, listen to customers and relay their needs for more sales and much more.

I think because I became to personally involved with the lady who supervised me the most, I never thought she would humiliate me the way she did.

A big and very hard lesson learned. I know I worked extra hard for these people; never took sick days when I was, went the extra mile. Up until I lost the job I never had a clue what was happening. Sometimes employers don’t communicate any issues they may have.

I left a good job to work at this place. They came to me, asked me what I wanted to work for them. Along with the pay I wanted I had asked for 2 weeks vacation. The first year vacation was alright, then the second year it became an issue. I was fired for something I didn’t do. Let go without an explaination, but I know someone else wanted my job. I felt railroaded out of my job.

It now has been 3 months since my loss. I am only now beginning a new job search. Its a very tough go these days, especially with winter coming on soon, household bills increase etc.

I am an older worker, it’s hard to find work with pay commensurate with my skills.

Thanks for listening


Deborah Knox October 28, 2013 at 11:30 am

Thanks for taking the time to share your story. It’s so important to take the time to do the emotional grieving that results from a job loss, especially when it is sudden. The good news is you are out of there and you can begin to build a new picture of what you want to do. It’s especially challenging when you haven’t received timely feedback so you will have to be honest and objective when evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. Good luck getting through the stages.


Nate September 21, 2014 at 5:49 am

I ‘lost’ my job on June 13 2014. It’s been more than 3 months now and I am still mourning it deeply.

A company approached me and offered me a job in April 2014. I signed the contract and emailed it back to them on May 5 2014. On May 2014, I handed in my resignation letter to my boss as I had accepted the offer of the new job. I was sad to leave this role however excited to be starting a new role; closer to home with better pay. A week later, the new employer rang me and withdrew the offer without any explanation. I was devastated and asked my boss if I could have my job back. He said ‘no’ as he had employed someone else. My world turned upside down. My boss kept me until June 13 2014 and let me know. I was in this role for 1 year and a half and was very faithful to them.

The worse thing was I just applied for a mortgage loan and was looking for a place to buy. My mortgage loan also just got approved. I shouldn’t have taken the new job offer. Lesson learnt.

3 months later, I am still mourning that job. Feeling sad and broken inside. I am 42 now. It’s hard to find another job in Sydney Australia.

Thanks for listening to my story.



Deborah Knox September 21, 2014 at 2:40 pm

it’s hard not to second guess yourself when it doesn’t turn out the way you want it too. I’m sorry for your loss, and wonder when you’ll be ready to move on. Hopefully sharing this with others, will get you moving. Start of with another list of all the reasons why you’re glad to be out of that job – and start the list of what you’d really like to be doing. if you’re 42 now, where do you want to be in 5 years; 10 years. How do you want to be feeling in 6 months. Anyone of the exercises on my website will be helpful to get you moving. you’ll find them on the resource link.

BTW. what field/industry are you in? good luck


Kirsten Toh November 24, 2014 at 1:57 am

I just quit my job. I just cannot imagine doing the same thing for the next 20 years. I sat in a meeting recently and just felt indifferent and that was when
I thought to myself, if i am feeling this way about my job, its better that i quit and seriously think about doing something else.

I handed in my resignation shortly after and this thursday will be my last day at work. THough i thought about the consequence of being out of a job but actually living it, is another thing altogether. I am really only internalizing it now…especially the part about not having an income.

While i have savings to last me for a while, i am feeling the loss of both the salary and also a career that i worked on for the last 16 years.

I am feeling sad…and feeling the loss deeply even though it was I that made the decision to quit.

I was doing law school part-time before i quit my job… …and I have completed a year already with 3 more years to go, including a year of bar examinations and a year of apprenticeship which makes it 5. I am already 40 and will be 45 by the time i am fully qualified… At times, I feel that i am still a very long way from building a career in a different field…and do get discouraged…time and time again i have to remind myself to be strong and to keep to my goals….but i cant help from time to time, i get this nagging thought if i had made the right decision….

Thanks for listening…


Deborah Knox November 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Hi kristen – YOu said it in the first paragraph – Time to start thinking AGAIN, about what you want to do.
It sounds to me like you acted impulsively, but maybe that was the only way you could really wake up to what you want to be doing. Five years invested in I presume a new career direction (or is legal the old one?) shows me you are committed to your personal and professional growth. you’ll get through this. Give yourself time to grieve – can’t say how important this is. And start writing… write about the job you just left – or talk it out.

Let me know how it goes. I wish you the best. Keep me posted!!!


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