Moving On After a Setback At Work

November 09, 2011 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Early in my career, I worked in an extremely nasty environment. By the time I quit, my confidence was in such tatters that when my boss said, without a trace of irony, “You will never work in this town again,” I actually believed him. That was despite being in my thirties, and old enough to know better.

At some point in our working lives, most of us will have some kind of hideous work experience. The cause could be a mean boss, a public failure, a serious lapse in judgment, or a job loss, but they all lead to the same outcome – a crippling crisis of self-confidence.

We ruminate obsessively about what happened, second-guess everything we do and don’t believe things will improve. Even though the experience is work-related, self-doubt spreads virus-like into all facets of life, leaving many depressed or anxious.

The effects can be long-lasting. A woman I know was unfairly fired almost 10 years ago, and says she still has nightmares about her former boss “which make the ‘missing the exam’ dream seem soothing.”

She obsessively monitors the former boss and takes pleasure when she hears about a misstep. A decade later, she is behaving the way some people do after they’ve been dumped in a relationship.

Such troubles are acutely felt in the early career years, when people are most likely to question themselves and their abilities. They have had less feedback in the form of accomplishments and performance appraisals about strengths and competence. So when things go wrong, younger workers really take it to heart.

But older people are also vulnerable to reversals of fortune. At this stage of life, opportunities to undo the damage narrow. Men are particularly at risk. I know of several men in their fifties and sixties who lost their jobs and searched long and unsuccessfully for new work; they finally simply packed their bags mentally, and spent their days drinking and watching garbage television.

Men initially may be at more of a psychological advantage because they tend to lash out and fight back with anger; as a defence, anger does provide some self-protection. But over the longer term, when they can no longer blame others, they experience a more profound and lasting blow to self-esteem.

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to initially blame and criticize themselves for causing the problem. But they tend to gradually bounce back from a reversal. In part, this is because women tend to define themselves more broadly in terms of family, friends, and interests, while men’s self-esteem is more closely tied to career success. Men also have fewer friends and interests outside of work.

There is another difference in defensive responses to bad work experiences. Women will often describe, sometimes in excruciating detail, what went wrong and how they screwed up; this helps them process what happened and gain emotional support. Men, however, often find it difficult to acknowledge failure because it connotes weakness. This leaves them isolated.

One man I knew gave up after a two-year job search and passed his time playing online poker. But if asked how he was doing, he would enthusiastically bellow, “Great, great.” Sometimes the disconnect between how I knew he felt and what he said was so great, I wanted to shake him.

Of course, it’s not all about age and gender. Some people are more vulnerable to reversals. Workplace stars who have known only repeated success, for example, often don’t have the emotional resources to deal with failure and crumble. Some never completely recover.

And some people are simply more thin-skinned. A cross word, much less a poor performance review, can send them into a tailspin and they start to question core beliefs about themselves. Rather than telling themselves they screwed up, they think, “I am a bad person.”

A reversal doesn’t have to be a crushing blow, however. When a job becomes intolerable or your reputation is in tatters, the first step is to end the agony. While it is tempting to try to turn things around, “once you have fouled your nest, the nest always smells,” as one boss put it to an employee who had shown serious misjudgment. He advised the staffer to find a fresh start at another job.

Although reversals feel awful at the time, they are not the end of the world. Nobody is perfect. Look objectively at what happened. Maybe you could have handled things differently, but that doesn’t mean you are a failure. Learn from your mistake.

The longer you berate yourself, the worse the toll on your well-being. Reappraising how you think about what happened, and doing something to counteract it, will help curb the emotional hemorrhaging. And doing something positive, such as reaching out to others in your network, will counteract depression.

Occasionally, I still have nightmares about my early, nasty experience. But I know that, though shaken, the day after I quit was the first time in a year I felt like a human being again.


Be objective: Could you have handled things differently? You are not a failure, but perhaps you can learn something from the experience.

Do something to feel good about yourself: Set small achievable goals that can be realized in a short time frame.

Review compliments you have received: Write down positive things people have said about you in both your work and personal life.

Invest in your personal life: You are not defined by your professional work. Do something to stretch yourself so you can enjoy the rewards of accomplishment, whether completing a five-kilometre race or refinishing a piece of furniture.

Separate your identity from criticisms of others: If your confidence is crushed by a bad boss, do not allow him or her to define who you are and what you are capable of. Think about what others who like and respect you say about you.

Don’t withdraw or wallow in self-pity: Depressed people become their own worst enemy. To alleviate depression, people need to engage in pleasurable and confidence-boosting activities. Force yourself to do things you don’t feel like doing, whether writing your resume or attending a networking event.

Get support: If you can’t shake your blues, consider getting professional help to gain insight into your feelings and learn how to better cope.

Watch what you say, and to whom: If you decide to embark on a job search, edit what you share. Even if you don’t feel it, act upbeat. And mind your anger if you feel you were treated unfairly.

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