Psychological Self-Defense for the Newly Unemployed

Got a pink-slip?  Are you one of the unlucky ones who had to face the chopping block?  Here are a psychologist’s ten best suggestions for managing emotionally when economic bad times hit your family.

(1) Make a pact that hard times come and go, but your relationship, your family, is here to stay.
Financial pressures destroy bonds between people, if you let them.  When the wolf is at the door, it’s no time to argue about who invited him.  Regularly sit down together for the sole purpose of sharing feelings-frustration, hopelessness, anger, sadness, shame, futility, irritation-without ‘blaming’ another family member.  And don’t forget to look at the moments of happiness and positive feelings, too.  Pull together to fight the circumstances, or you might pull apart.  Say “I love you,” more often and “We’ll pull through this,” even though you have your doubts at the moment.
(2) Find alternatives that can be used to vent frustrations.
Then take a walk or do some other form of exercise.  Keep a daily journal.  Start a blog. Recognize that there are better ways to express your anger than targeting your family members.  Conduct a personal inventory to identify character traits that make undisciplined spending possible, including low self-esteem, need to impress others, loneliness, or depression.
(3) Look squarely at gender roles.
You may say “I’m fine with my wife earning the money,” but take a closer look. Quite often when both people are working, there is a balance of power.  When men become unemployed, it is important to look at not only how the shift in domestic duties may (and should) shift, but also the impact of doing so. The couple’s idea of what “clean” is or what constitutes a “dinner,” or what is a productive way for the unemployed person to spend his/her day, (and whether the other partner should have a say,) can all bring about increased tensions in the relationship.
(4) Don’t dodge the emotional issue of spending cuts.
The loss of a needed job means spending less money or going into (or deeper into) debt. Those are your two options. Getting another job soon may be a goal, a desirable wish, but right now these are your options.  Too often the blow of losing a job is so damaging to one’s sense of self, that trying to maintain the rest of your life “like normal” is tempting. But it is a mistake. Sit down with all of the bills in front of you, and make a list of the ones you are going to pay, the ones you will pay later, and the monthly expenses you are going to stop spending money on.  Each of you take a turn adding a bills to the “spend” column until your income stops. This is a “values clarification” exercise.
(5) This is no time to rehash “perpetual problems”
You may notice that a conversation about cutting expenses can easily turn into an argument about who leaves the lights on, who never used the gym membership, or whether you really need a smart phone with those many minutes to talk to your Aunt Helen.  Put those issues on a separate piece of paper to discuss later. For now, if one thing has to be paid first, which is it?  The rent/mortgage?  Weekly food bill? Heat for the winter? Health Insurance? Yes, I know, they all have to be paid, but what is the most essential right now?  Draw a line where the “buck stops” in terms of steady available income. Then ask yourself if anything below that line is really worth going into debt for.Elizabeth Warren did a fantastic job explaining why families today, living on two incomes and losing one, are more vulnerable than families in the 70’s who had one- earner families. It’s not because they’ve been spending all of their money on clothing, electronics, or gadgets.  They’ve been spending it on fixed costs like mortgage and health insurance.  And while income has gone up 75% over the last 30 years, fixed costs have gone up 400-600%.
(6) Explore what it “means” to your partner that he or she is unemployed.
I was shocked when my husband told me, once things had stabilized for us, that as he was losing his business, he was certain I would leave him.  Had I explored with him what it meant to him to have the business fold, I might have saved him months of fear and insecurity.  What does it emotionally “mean” to you when you lose your job?  What does it mean to your family to not be able to (a) spend on the things you used to; (b) have to rethink the ‘typical’ holiday season; (c) eat differently to cut costs; (d) reduce the amount you spend on your children. Who are you, now that you aren’t working?  What dreams, expectations of what tomorrow will bring, have been violated?  When you are able to explore these questions in a safe environment, they are often accompanied by a lot of deep emotion.  Let it out.  Talk it out.  Then move on.
(7) Find different ways to spend your time.
Everyone in the family may have to find alternative ways to enjoy themselves or relate as a family together.  A teenager might be able to find a job, and he or she could contribute some income to the household budget, or help pay for essential expenses.  The stimulation of a shopping mall or movie theatre is sometimes a tough thing to go without for many people.  What can substitute, that will bring that same level stimulation or one that is equally satisfying?  A hike in the woods?  A pot luck with friends?
(8) Give Back.
Studies show that helping others is more rewarding than being helped.  Now that you are unemployed, use some of that time to volunteer.  A soup kitchen, food pantry, animal shelter, or your child’s school, gets active in community projects are all suggestions.  Work with other unemployed people to set up community labor exchanges.  Damage to self-esteem and depression are common side-effect of being unemployed.  Social engagement is an effective way to combat it.
(9) Talk directly about damaging behaviors
Suicide is a serious risk to the long-term unemployed. So is depression, which isn’t the same as being sad. So are increases in drug and alcohol use.  Talking about suicidal intention doesn’t give someone the thought, if they don’t already have it.  Be direct, and proactive if you hear from a loved one that they want to hurt themselves, or are doing behaviors that are self-destructive.  Get professional help, call a suicide hotline, or talk to a trusted friend or religious leader.  Don’t ignore these feelings.
(10) Be proactive in seeing alternatives
So much of the problem in losing a job for the middle class is their reluctance to be proactive about seeking alternative sources of income or assistance.  Talk to a tax accountant or financial planner.  Speak pro-actively to a bankruptcy attorney while you still have options. Investigate social services that can help you, including your religious institutions.  Accept these actions as potentially humbling experiences, and allow yourself to see the positive side of becoming humbled. You may be out of money, but you are not poor.  You can use your wits to figure out how to find every stop-gap measure to keep your family “boat” afloat.Your period of unemployment will make you more sensitive to others who experience the same thing.  If it has happened to you, and you know of someone else it is currently happening to, reach out. Go out with them and have a heart-to-heart. Share your own experience, and invite them to do the same.  You’ll deepen your friendship with that person, in all likelihood, and lessen their pain.
About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.

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