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5 tips: Coping with job loss in culture that assumes success

More than 10 million Americans lost their jobs in the past two weeks as a result of a coronavirus-related economic slowdown, which means that many are both struggling to provide for their families and also grappling with the social stigma and psychological ramifications of being unemployed.

While a cultural emphasis on professional success is widespread in America, it’s historically been central to the American-Jewish story. During the first half of the 20th century, most Jewish families were part of the working class and relied on income from multiple wage-earners. However, American Jews “experienced a particularly rapid rate of upward mobility in the postwar decades, often outpacing Americans of other ethnic backgrounds,” Rachel Kranson, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in her book “Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America.”

This phenomenon helped create a cultural narrative of professional success, in which the typical American Jew is a high-achieving breadwinner able to provide a comfortable lifestyle to his or her dependents. Pressure to fulfill these expectations may feel especially intense during a period when unemployment and job insecurity is on the rise.

The Forward spoke to several therapists with experience counseling patients on job loss. Here are their strategies for maintaining mental health through a period of unemployment.

  • Maintain a routine: For those accustomed to spending most of the day in the workplace, unemployment can result in a disorienting loss of daily structure. Marriage and family therapist Neal Brodsky advises patients to “reconnect to some sort of schedule,” whether they do so by committing to online classes or support groups or simply assigning themselves chores in the home. Psychologist Nicole Andreoli added that a sense of routine doesn’t just fill time; it also helps people “keep their minds active and engaged, so that they are not ruminating all day” on the challenges ahead.

  • Push back on thoughts of failure: Andreoli said that these days, she often hears statements from patients such as “I’m a failure,” or “I’ve failed my family.” Losing a job can be “a real blow to people’s personal identity,” she said, especially if professional success had always formed a core part of self worth. Andreoli encourages patients to challenge these thoughts by asking themselves questions like “Was it my behaviors that resulted in layoffs?” or “Did I cause businesses to close?” Acknowledging that the current economic crisis is beyond anyone’s individual control can help combat the preconceived notion of unemployment as a personal failure.

  • Focus on what you can do today: In times of uncertainty, trying to predict the future can result in “catastrophizing,” or relentlessly imagining the worst possible outcomes. Many therapists advise patients to avoid catastrophizing by focusing on steps they can immediately take, either to improve their mental health or plan for the economic future. For example, Andreoli advises patients to break a daunting job hunt into small steps, like reaching out to professional networks or filing for unemployment.

  • “Observe, describe, participate:” To help patients focus on the present moment, psychotherapist Rae Rotman has a three-part process. First, she asks patients to “observe” their long-term anxieties, from losing health insurance to being unable to pay rent. Naming those worries aloud helps patients take a step back from them. Next, patients describe their day-to-day activities: helping a child with homework, doing some sit-ups or cooking. Taking stock of those small accomplishments helps divert the mind from worrying and focus on what’s actually happening now.

  • Practice “radical acceptance:” One way to avoid catastrophizing is to face up to unpleasant facts. Rotman says she encourages patients to “ fully acknowledge all the facts of his and her life — the good, the bad, and the ugly — without denial or avoidance. We need to accept the pain of the present in order to move forward.”

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

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