Researcher James Pennebaker writes, “Emotional unheavals touch every part of our lives. You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are – our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves…writing helps us focus and organize the experience.”
When I lost my job a few years ago, one of the first things I did (after reporting to work was no longer on the agenda) was start a new journal. I got out a blank book and wrote “December 2016 – What Comes Next ” on the first page. I didn’t know it at the time, but spending a little bit of each day jotting down what was going on, what I was feeling about things, making notes about my inner dialogue – that act of writing was what I needed at the time to navigate the uncertainty of what was happening. I didn’t write for very long, just a paragraph here, a journal-sized page there. The errant one or two liners on days when things felt too hard to do anything that required focus.
Pennebaker says when we write about things, we make them more “graspable” – and this was true for me. By journaling in those limited spurts, I was able to more effectively deal with this unexpected life transition. Fleshing out my frustration, fear, and sadness alongside all the things that were still good about life was illuminating when I went back to read those entries from the first few months of being unemployed. The act of writing itself, and then going back to re-read it, helped me claim the meaning my life still had (love, a sense of purpose, the capacity to welcome a new adventure into the unknown) while at the same time grieve what had been lost (a sense of security, self-confidence in my professional abilities, and good health insurance).
I was able to see the stories I was making up – “that it was no wonder I’d been let go, it was only a matter of time before they figured out I had no value as an employee” to “I can’t publish this book – it’s all about living with intention, and now I’m going to have to sell out and commute three hours a day to a job I hate in the city” (back story: I’d signed a publishing contract 4 days before getting the news I was being laid off, for a book that is all about living close to nature and working from home) to “we’re going to have to sell the house and move in with my parents.” When experiencing emotional unheaval, the stories we tell ourselves often grow in unhelpful ways. Writing about it helped me call out the parts that were speculation or assumption or simply untrue. As Brene Brown writes, “Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
I lost my job. After ten years at the same place, it was a tough bit of news to process and accept. But that’s what happened, and when I own it, I get to say, Yes. I lost my job. This is what happened. And I will choose how this story ends.
We all get to write the end of any story that is ours. Even if it’s not the story we would have chosen, we get to choose how to respond to it. At the end of the day, turns out a job is but one small piece of a life. And so the story continues.
To read more about my experience with navigating job loss, pre-order What Comes Next: Between Beauty and Destruction today. Available March 26th from Homebound Publications.