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Getting Your Bearings Post-Layoff

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By Joseph DiCenso

Twenty-seven years ago, my father was the general manager of a regional wholesale musical instrument company heíd worked for for 20 years.

In his early 40s, with his two oldest in college, he was "let go." The company was relocating to New York State, and my father, refusing to uproot, was cut loose.

As the general recession intensifies, you may find yourself staring into the same uncertain future my father did. Job loss can bring panic, insecurity, identity crisis, loss of direction and a blow to self-esteem. Especially in US/Western culture, we tend to tie a lot of identity and self-worth to our jobs, our careers, and our earning power. So getting laid off can bring up feelings of shame and powerlessness, which can drive into shadow the very things that could help us respond with resilience to the loss of a job—or to any crisis.

I want to offer some survival skills for managing such a major transition, should you be facing it now or in the near future. Iíll focus on three simple, deceptively deep, strategic questions and on what may need to be brought out of the shadows as you answer each of them.

The three questions are:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What do I have?
  3. What do I need?
These three questions offer bearings and ballast. They can help you chart a course through what, for some, is a murky — if not a harrowing — passage.


Harrowing would describe my fatherís experience. Work had been his identity. When that was stripped away, he went into shock, anger, self-loathing and depression. The loss of his job left him exposed and disoriented. Gone were the suit and polished shoes waiting on the valet by his bed; gone the role, the mask, the false self that had been the only self heíd known. Eventually, with a lot of help and hard work, he began to uncover a deeper sense of self that had been buried in his years of working three jobs to support a family of five.

In his early teens my father had begun teaching drum lessons in his parentsí basement (and heís been teaching ever since). He loved to teach but had never considered it a viable career option. Groping in the dark of his post-layoff passage, he stumbled onto that calling and felt its vibrancy in a new way. What he wanted more than anything was to teach. And he wanted to do it in his own retail drum shop, where he could offer private lessons, sales and repairs.

"What do I want?" is a question that will take you as deep as you care to go and challenge you to be as honest as youíre ready to get. In return, it offers peace: the quiet mind and pile-driven resolve of knowing what you are called to do. The deeper and more honest your answers, the more rooted and resilient you will likely feel.

Here are some tributaries of this question:

  • What do I love?
  • What is calling me?
  • What fulfills and enlivens me?
  • What life/lifestyle have I been envisioning for myself?
  • What kind of a world do I want to foster and live in?
Your answers to these questions will become your guiding star. They will provide direction, courage and motivation — at a time when you may be lacking in all three.

One could argue that, a generation later, we donít lose ourselves in our jobs the way my dad did. We donít expect or grant the same loyalty or longevity we once did when it comes to employment. To which I respond: these questions can serve folks anywhere along the spectrum of the impact of job lossófrom massive blow to blessed relief.


Each question may also reveal your shadow beliefs. Hereís a short list of what may have to be pulled out of shadow in order to answer that very powerful question, "What do I want?"

  • I donít get to know or have what I really want.
  • If I say what I want, Iíll betray _____ (e.g., a loved one, an agreement).
  • If I claim what I want, no one will care-take me any more.
  • If I say what I want, Iíll have to change my life.
  • If I say what I want, Iíll get shot down.
If you bump into one of these beliefs (or discover one I haven't listed), you have done more than half the work already. You have become more conscious about what may have been running your show from below your radar.

The next step, in my view, is to examine the validity of your belief. Simply asking, ďIs it true?Ē — another powerful question — invites a step back and a second look at what has been assumed to be valid.

From this detached stance you might then ask, ďWhat is even more true?Ē Try this with any of the three questions.

Hereís an example:

Belief: If I claim what I want, no one will care-take me any more.

Is it true? Well, not necessarily. It may or may not happen.

What is even more true: When I really claim what I want, I feel more energized, capable and resourceful. I donít need (or actually want) "care-taking."


"What do I have?" is a question about resources: inner and outer, hard and soft (as in skills or ware). Once youíre clear about where you want to go, itís time to provision yourself for the journey. What do you already possess that could be assets, resources?

Take stock of your skills, education, personality traits, relationships, and experience. Then ask, Of these, what will serve your endeavor?

For my dad, it was his teaching, both his love of it and the devoted following heíd earned over 25 years. He also had his experience as a wholesale provider to retail store owners. I imagine him rubbing those two sticks together and creating the fire that warmed and fortified him as he prepared to take perhaps the boldest plunge of his life.

Especially in the wake of a layoff, you may want to ask a trusted friend or colleague to help you answer this question. Even in our best moments we can be hard-pressed to list our personal assets and get a true accounting (shadow, shadow!). Whom do you know who can help you name the resources inside and around you that could help you get where you want to go?


Hereís what might be locked in shadow regarding this question:

  • Itís arrogant to list my strengths or assets.
  • I'll have to do what Iím good at. (If I list my strengths, Iíll limit myself.)
  • If I show my strengths, Iíll have to be responsible.


Once youíve taken stock of what you have, the question "What do I need?" asks whatís missing. To get what you want, what else do you need in the way of resources or support?

To answer this question, include things like information, training or education, money, encouragement, mentoring, practice, etc.

For my dad, what he needed was a storefront and a loan. He tapped an old friend for a newly vacated retail rental and his brother, a tradesman, for the remodeling. His neighbor, a practicing accountant, helped him with the loan application process.

Asking this third question can help you identify some other things you already have, especially people you know who can help you get what you need.


Things you might find in the shadow on this one:

  • People avoid those who are ďneedy.Ē
  • Asking for help is a sign of weakness.
  • Iím not worthy of this investment. (Or, my vision/goal/want isn't worthy.)
  • Itís best to go it alone.


Taken together, these three questions quiet and focus the mind, ground us in reality, and remind us of what enlivens us.

Each question may be an invitation to discover whatís really true for you. You may benefit from outside help from friends, family, clergy or a professional helper: a coach, career counselor or therapist. The truer your answers, the deeper your roots and the greater your resilience when weathering the winds of change.

My father sold his business in 2007 and still teaches more than 30 students a week. Heís glad to be free from the stresses of running a retail operation, especially in these tough economic times. Speaking to him in preparation for this piece, I learned that the last 25 years were the happiest of his career, by far, and that he looks back at that layoff as a blessing in disguise.


Joseph DiCenso is a life and leadership coach in private practice. He has been helping individuals and groups bring more of themselves to life for over 20 years. Contact him via his website, or by email at

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in 2009. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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