“So, what do you do for work?”
"Did you find a job yet?"
“How's the job hunting going?”
I hated these questions when I was unemployed. Even when I left a job and was optimistic about my options, I hated these questions. The only ways I knew how to answer were to deflect or get into a complicated conversation. Even when the question was harmless or well intentioned, it felt like a personal challenge. Our identity is so tied to our jobs. If I am without work, I am without my full self, without social status, or at least it feels that way when someone inadvertently puts you on the spot.
A year ago, I thought I had my dream job, and then suddenly I was unemployed. It was hard to talk about. I was embarrassed and usually even with people I knew well; I didn’t really want to talk about it. I didn’t want to get into what I was looking to do next. Didn’t want to admit things hadn’t gone to plan, and that I was still trying to make sense of what happened. Yet, there were some moments when I did want to talk about it. I needed to talk about it. A year later, I still do sometimes. I remembered this quote from Trauma and Recovery, a book I read in college by Judith Herman, “The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud, is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” I don’t equate my experience of losing my job to the stories of violent trauma and atrocities that Herman analyzed, but that central paradox still feels true.
Not having a job threatened my identity. I didn’t want to share my fears or doubts and be vulnerable in a social setting. I didn’t want to look weak in front of casual acquaintances or close friends. I wanted to feel like everything was normal. I kept thinking any problem I had was insignificant compared to the newsworthy problems of the day, or what billions of other people around the world were dealing with daily. Still, I needed some help. I needed help to make sense of what happened, needed help to figure out what to do, and as ridiculous as it sounds, I needed to know that people I cared about would not think less of me just because I didn’t have an interesting job. I’m fortunate to have a support network of friends and family and professional connections and even a trusted therapist, but I could barely talk about being unemployed or looking for work. Rationally, I knew it was in my best interest to connect with others, but reason didn’t stop me from feeling ashamed and wanting to retreat into my own comfortable turtle shell.
My discomfort wasn’t always one sided either. On some occasions where I felt like talking about how I lost my job, or how the job search was going, other people didn’t want to listen. The topic itself made them uncomfortable, as if unemployment were contagious. Other people immediately jumped to trying to reassure me, or offering random uninvited suggestions. All of this was well-intentioned, but it made me more reluctant to share with others. Sometimes, the more I needed to talk about all the questions and fears in my head, the harder it became to bring up in conversation.
Over time, I realized I couldn’t navigate being unemployed alone. I needed to open up and ask for help from people I trusted. Through trial and error, I got better at knowing who would be good to talk with and how to ask for the conversations I needed. Even when we’re super lucky and have the luxury of career options as I did, it’s too hard to navigate unemployment and big career choices alone. As Herman says, “Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.”
Fortunately, I found my way to Teal, where I have the incredible privilege of helping others navigate their career journey and find jobs they love. Hopefully, I can take the things I’ve learned and shape the tools and community I wish I had when I was unemployed. At every inflection point in my career, I wish I could have turned to a community of people that could immediately relate because they were going through or recently went through the same experience. That’s what we’re building at Teal. A professional community where people understand how hard it is to unpack our professional and personal identities. A place where it’s ok to share your story but ok if you don’t. A space where “So what do you do?” or “how’s the job search going?” never feels like an attack.
Erik Martin is the Chief Community Officer at Teal