“You end a relationship and your friends come round with booze and sympathy. You’re unemployed and suddenly the respected wisdom is that feeling sorry for yourself won’t solve anything.”
Work nights out are never much fun, even when they’re your own. But this one I’d agreed to come along to with a mate. It wouldn’t have been all that uncomfortable if it wasn’t for them talking shop so much. As the night moved on, and the conversation refused to, my mind wandered to the thoughts of a bacon butty at home. The clincher came in the form of question: a latecomer arrived, was introduced, and then asked me, just as a lull descended on the group, ‘and what do you do?’
There’s a reason people ask ‘what do you do’ before you’ve barely had a chance to smile at them: it’s the next best thing to asking ‘who are you?’, ‘are you important?’ and ‘is it worth me talking to you?’ all at once. So when the answer to the question is effectively, ‘nothing’ it’s pretty hard to feel good about yourself.
Unemployment regularly features in the most stressful events in life lists: below the death of a family member and going to jail, and competing with ‘the end of a marriage’. Losing money is no doubt a pretty central reason. But that alone can’t account for the slash to well-being that it causes.
Being without a job is one of the few entries in those lists we aren’t able to grieve over. You lose a family member, and there is an outpouring of grief. You end a relationship and your friends come round with booze and sympathy. You’re unemployed and suddenly the respected wisdom is that ‘feeling sorry for yourself won’t solve anything.’
And the more it goes on, the worse it becomes. There’s only one obvious culprit here – you. You are responsible for your own job-search, and by proxy you are responsible for your unemployment. The perpetrator, victim, and solution all stand in the one body. It’s no wonder your friends and family never quite know whether to give you a kick up the arse, a shoulder to cry on, or a wide-berth. If you’re lucky you might get a spectacular combination of all three in one of those exacerbated, half-baked pep talks I’ve got so used to hearing.
Prisoners from Guantamo Bay often refer to not knowing how long they’d be there for as one of the greatest tortures – could it be weeks? months? years? even life? It’s impossible to come to terms with a sentence when you don’t know its length. Further still, with joblessness, every passing week can feel like yet another point lost in the battle against how people perceive you and how you perceive yourself.
So is there anything that can be done to plug the leaks to your self-esteem, and make you feel a little better? How about try harder; fill in more applications; spend longer looking for jobs; rework your CV again. If this gets me a job, then great, I feel better. But if it doesn’t? I’ll probably feel worse. Which is not to say I shouldn’t try, just that I shouldn’t expect trying to make me feel any better.
How about volunteering? Now, this will make me feel better. If I’m able to volunteer for something I care about, not only will it improve my employability, it will also give me purpose, and a much better answer to the ‘what do you do?’ question. But it won’t do anything about that itching doubt at the bottom of my stomach asking ‘will I ever get a job?’
So what then? Of course, do all of the above, but above all be kind to yourself. Suffering, as the king of dole-ites, Buddha, loves to remind us, comes from our desire for the world to be different to the way that it actually is. The more we want a job the more unhappy we become at not having one. And that is why unemployment is so difficult to get over – It is not OK that I’m unemployed, and it never will be. But as long as we believe that we will always suffer.
Instead, remind yourself that to a large degree, getting a job is out of your control. If it wasn’t then why would unemployment ever be a problem? People only get over the loss of a relationship when they accept that it won’t be rekindled. We can only get over unemployment if we accept that we might not get a job, for quite a long time. And actually, that might not all be that bad. If you mentally prepare yourself for 6, 12, 18 months out of paid work, then think of all the projects you could start, and commit to.
The less you give a crap about being unemployed, the easier it is to fill out application forms, the more relaxed you become in an interviews, and the easier it is to shrug off another rejection. We’ve known it our whole lives. Meet someone who desperately wants a relationship, and what do we tend to do? Run a mile. Meet someone who seems to really enjoy their life the way it is and what do we do? Hang around them. They seemed to have figured it all out, and maybe you’d quite like them to figure you out a little too.
As the saying goes: ‘you can’t get rid of your fears, but you can learn to live with them.’ So the next time unemployment turns up to take a stab at your well-being, give it a smile, offer it a cup of tea, and tell it it’s ok, you’re accepted here. You never know, after a while it might just stop barking and start purring instead. Maybe it’d even stop trying to bury its poo in the flower bed too.
And if you’re the friend of one us dole-ites? Empathize, sympathize, and be a mate, but just don’t tell us it’ll go away soon, and don’t suggest solutions. After all, solutions imply problems.