Getting laid off isn’t pleasant. It can feel like a rejection or a personal failure. It leaves you raw, vulnerable, and uncertain of what will happen next.
But layoffs don’t have to be the end of the world. In fact, getting laid off can be an incredible opportunity to reevaluate where you are and move closer towards what you really want.
I say that with confidence because I’ve been there. I got laid off and had to deal with all those anxieties and fears. But I came out on the other side on a career path I’d always dreamed of.
In this article, I’ll share how to cope with the emotions of a layoff, and how to get back on your feet and moving in a direction that feels true to you. My hope is to not only give you tools for dealing with the anxiety of a layoff, but more importantly share how you can make it a launching point for the next chapter of your life.
Table of Contents:
- PART I: Layoffs aren’t the worst thing in the world
- PART II: How to deal with layoffs and get back on your feet
PART I: Layoffs aren’t the worst in thing in the world
Getting laid off turned out to be one of the best things that’s happened to me
After college, I found myself working in project management for a company I loved. It was a good gig: I made decent money, worked 8:30am – 4pm, rarely worked overtime, and took plenty of paid time off for vacations.
Project management wasn’t exactly my field of interest, but I was fine with that. In college, I studied Marketing and fell in love with making videos. I had taken this job because I loved the company’s branding and wanted to get my foot in the door. My thought process was that once I’m in, I’d network my way over to the advertising side, and maybe eventually work in video production.
But it never happened. For years, I networked, took up extracurricular leadership opportunities, and made a name for myself across the company. The needle didn’t move.
Five years later, I found myself – a creative at heart – doing a technical job, managing projects I didn’t really care about. Towards the end of my time there, I was doing the minimum to get by. I had golden handcuffs on, afraid to leave without a concrete offer to work in video production. I was an overachiever throughout school and college, but now doubted my own ambition.
Then our company went through a huge merger. A quarter of my department got laid off, including me.
Even though I didn’t love the job, getting laid off was still a blow to my ego. I felt like a failure. Not only that, but I was terrified of not knowing where my next paycheck would be coming from.
Eventually, I took the layoff as a wake-up call to start being honest about what I really wanted. And what I wanted was to make my side hobby into my career, or at least try. I wanted to work in video production, to be the person behind the camera.
So I started introducing myself to professionals in the local film industry. I got gigs as the lowest person on the totem pole. I spent all my free time networking with camera crew members and learning the equipment.
A year after getting laid off, I was finally on the path to my dream of being a professional camera operator. I was regularly working as a 1st Camera Assistant (the role directly below the operator), making almost as much money as I had in my corporate job. Most importantly, I was once again engaged with my work, pushing myself with the passion that defined me as a student.
My life did a complete 180 after that layoff. It was surreal to finally be on set, working in the industry I had been curious about for so long. I got to work on commercials, indie films, and even the occasional concert. I had to pinch myself on more than one occasion while talking about my job or seeing myself in behind-the-scenes photos.
I never would’ve found myself climbing the ranks to my dream job so quickly if I didn’t get laid off the year prior.
I’m sharing my story to demonstrate that what feels like a devastating loss right now could become an opportunity to take your life in a direction you never even dreamed possible.
Why a layoff could be the best thing to happen to you
Here’s the truth: You have more options when you get laid off than when you’re employed. A layoff can be an opportunity to move your life in a direction that feels most authentic to you.
I don’t know what living more authentically means to you. Maybe it means exploring a career in a completely new industry. Maybe it means finding a job that’s more stimulating, or offers more work-life balance, or gives you more of a leadership role. Maybe it means starting your own business. Perhaps it means taking a year off work, or traveling, or being a stay-at-home parent for a little while.
The beautiful thing about a layoff is that it opens you up to all the options you may not have even considered while you were employed.
When I was employed, I wasn’t able to make any career moves in the direction I wanted because the majority of the film industry is freelance work. It felt too risky to give up my job with its salary and benefits for the uncertainty of gig work.
But when I got laid off, I suddenly had a blank slate. The golden handcuffs came off. I was forced to take the next step, whether or not I felt ready.
Once I got over the shock of losing the security of my job, I realized I could explore career options that seemed too risky when I was employed, like freelancing, moving to another city, or starting my own business. This was incredibly liberating.
That’s the good thing about a layoff – it gives you a chance to consider options you otherwise wouldn’t have while employed, and forces you to make a decision. Frankly, if it wasn’t for getting laid off, I would’ve probably still been at the same job, waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself.
And look, even if you loved your last job, isn’t it worth at least exploring options that might better align with what you want in life?
In this guide, we’ll first cover how to deal with the emotions of a layoff. Then, we’ll get really honest about where you are now and where you want to go next. Once we know that, we’ll figure out the most important actions to get to that goal. Finally, we’ll put your plan into the calendar so you can stat to work it.
But first we gotta deal with those emotions.
PART II: How to deal with layoffs and get back on your feet
Step 1: Process the emotions of getting laid off
After a layoff, it can be really tempting to dive in and try to figure everything out right away. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. Doing something that feels productive, like immediately applying for jobs, can make us feel like we’re in control.
I know it’s hard, but resists the urge to do anything or make big decisions right away. Give yourself time to process.
Why? Because you just got laid off! That’s a stressful event. You may be feeling self-doubt, anger, fear, and a whole slew of negative emotions. These feelings put you in a reactive state of mind, which is far from an ideal headspace to make important decisions in.
If you start reacting before you’ve had a chance to process what just happened, you risk overlooking opportunities that may only present themselves when you have a calm, open state of mind.
Not to mention that when we’re stressed, we tend to gravitate towards what’s familiar because it feels safe. When we give ourselves space to think clearly about what we want, we may find ourselves drawn to goals that feels truer to us.
Give yourself time to breathe, take a step back, and look at the situation objectively.
Talk to your manager about your remaining time with the company
Ask your manager about what they expect your workload to be leading up to your last day, and how soon you can start transitioning your projects to your peers. They should be prioritizing transitioning you off projects anyway, since it’s in their best interest to give their remaining staff as much time to ramp up on new work as possible.
In my case, my manager almost immediately scaled back my work. I still had workflows I managed until my last day, but they took about a quarter of the time they did before.
Take time to yourself
Over the next few weeks, prioritize giving yourself time to process and reflect. Do whatever you need to recenter and get grounded.
Take the first few hours of each day to yourself, before you have a chance to get swept up by work and life. Do your best to stay away from your phone or computer; give your brain some time to process without distractions.
A few suggestions (but find what works best for you):
- Take a long walk or drive.
- Go to a viewpoint or park you love.
- Meet with your therapist. If you don’t have one, see if your company or health insurance provides free sessions (I was able to get five per qualifying event through my employer’s Employee Assistance Program).
- Do what you always wished you had more time for. For me, this was doing Paint by Numbers or tossing a football with my boyfriend.
- Talk to someone you know will cheer you on (and give it some time before you break the news to people who may respond in a way that adds salt to the wound).
Write about what you’re going through
Layoffs come with a lot of emotions and feelings of uncertainty. Writing makes these worries feel more manageable by getting them out of your head and onto paper. It’s easier to handle feeling overwhelmed when you can articulate what’s bothering you.
If journaling isn’t something you’ve done before or are comfortable with, try the following sentence completion exercise. For each prompt, write 3-5 different sentence endings as quickly as you can. Whatever pops into your mind is great – it doesn’t have to make sense or be grammatically correct. You’re just giving yourself some space to observe what you’re going through.
- My fears about getting laid off include…
- A few reasons I might feel hopeful or relieved about this layoff are…
- Some things I feel uncertain or worried about include…
- If I got a visit from myself 20 years in the future they would tell me…
- If a good friend was going through a layoff, I would tell them…
Figure out your financial runway
One thing that really helped me deal with uncertainty after I got laid off was knowing my financial runway. I was able to calculate how much time I had to try working in a new field, before I absolutely had to cut my losses and find another job.
This was huge. Knowing my financial runway freed me up to explore a new industry because I knew I could put off worrying about money until a specific day in the future. It gave me financial independence, allowing me to take low-paying entry-level gigs, and eventually turn down those same gigs when I was ready for the next level.
You can do the same with some basic math. Figure out how many months you have before you absolutely have to get another job:
Tip: If you don’t use a budgeting software, you can figure out your average monthly expenses by seeing how much money you withdraw from your checking or savings account each month to pay bills.
If you want, you can also include your savings (liquid assets) along with your severance and unemployment amounts. Obviously, you want to avoid dipping into savings (let alone draining them) for as long as possible, so don’t get too comfortable with this second equation. But if you’re thinking of taking some time off, starting a new business, or getting into something less “sturdy” such as freelancing, it helps to know how much cushion you have if you run out of unemployment and severance money.
Step 2: Take inventory of your life now and where you’d like to go in the future
Once you’ve had some space to process, spend a bit of time reflecting on the last few years of your life leading up to this layoff, as well as where you’d like to go in the future, and what’s stopping you from getting there.
This part contains prompts and writing exercises, so grab a journal or pull up a blank document on your computer.
Some of the exercises will be sentence-completion prompts, others will be questions. Aim for at least 3-5 answers to each bullet – this will help you go deeper, beyond the obvious and superficial stuff. Write as much as you can, without judgement. You don’t have to write in full sentences or edit. Just jot down whatever pops in your mind.
Writing helps us get grounded when we feel overwhelmed or stressed by getting our thoughts onto paper, instead of just swirling around in our heads. It also helps solidify our intentions. Seeing what we want written out gives us a lot more clarity than just thinking about it.
Be completely honest. Take advantage of this blank slate. Remember, this is an opportunity to pivot your life in a direction that better aligns with what you really want, if you can get honest about what that is.
I. Where did you end up?
First, let’s take an inventory of the job you got laid off from. Think about what you learned about yourself in the time you were there. Be honest, what did and didn’t work for you?
Questions to ask yourself:
- The things I liked about my previous job, company, and/or industry were…
- The things I didn’t like were…
- Some things I felt were missing included…
- Were the challenges of this job too hard or easy, or were they the right difficulty level to keep me engaged?
- Did I grow? Did I feel fulfilled? Or was I mostly going through the motions?
- Was the work important to me?
Look, you don’t need to be Mother Teresa to feel like your work is meaningful. It could’ve felt meaningful because it made a difference in the lives of your coworkers or customers. Maybe you improved a process that was regularly causing customers frustration. Maybe you helped your team learn to overcome challenges.
Every job provides some sort of value – after all, that’s why you got paid to do it. Ask yourself, was that value something you’re proud of?
II. Where would you like to go?
Take this as a chance to be radically honest with yourself. Get off of autopilot and think through all the possibilities. Let yourself indulge that crazy idea. Even if you don’t end up pursuing it or make a few compromises along the way, your dream will help define your values and give clarity about the direction you want to go in.
Stay open-minded and curious about the future. Put away judgement and notions of practicality for this exercise. Don’t poo-poo your options before you’ve had a chance to really explore how you could bring them to life.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Something I’ve been wishing I could do is…
- In an ideal world, a year from now, I would be…
- At the end of my life, I would regret not having tried…
- If I had to start over completely from scratch, what would I want to do?
- Find a similar job? Try a new industry? Take on a leadership role? Find a career with more work-life balance? Start my own business? Freelance? Work for a nonprofit?
- Even if I don’t end up pursuing this exact idea, the fact that I have it tells me that my next chapter should include…
When in doubt, remember that this isn’t all-or-nothing. Your goals may change as you explore. There may be some compromises along the way. This isn’t about creating a perfect career or having everything figured out; it’s about moving your life in a direction that feels more authentic and fulfilling to you.
III. What’s stopping you?
Got an idea in mind? Good. Now let’s figure out what’s getting in your way.
Moving into the direction you want after getting laid off requires you to be honest with yourself about your fears. If you don’t address your fears head on, they will keep you from realizing what you truly want.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What’s really stopping me from pursuing this?
- What fears are keeping me from going all in?
- What beliefs do I have about myself that make this feel out of reach?
- What obstacles are in my way, and what could I do to overcome them?
- What’s the worst case scenario if I try this? How might I overcome that scenario?
If you don’t know enough about a career path, could you meet with industry professionals to learn more? If you’re worried about being judged, could you talk to a mentor, therapist, or coach? If you don’t have enough financial runway, are there compromises you can make while still moving towards your goal, like taking part-time work?
If fear is holding you back, check out Tim Ferriss’ TED Talk on why you should define your fears instead of your goals.
Step 3: Figure out the most important steps to get to your goal
So far, you’ve gotten real with yourself about what you really want. Nice work, that takes a lot of guts. You’re moving in the right direction.
Next, we’re going to define the most important actions to focus on.
Use the 80-20 rule to your advantage
Sometimes, when we’re afraid of going after what we want, we find ourselves spending time on tasks that feel productive, but don’t actually get us closer to our goals.
Have you ever spent hours researching something online before finally starting a task? Was every video or article you consumed actually helpful, or was this just a way to procrastinate?
We’re really good at keeping busy with things that aren’t important. Here’s where the 80/20 rule comes in.
The idea behind the 80-20 rule is that 80% of our results comes from 20% of our efforts. For example, a company might learn that 80% of its revenue comes from 20% of their customers. Knowing this, the company decides to spend a larger portion of its budget marketing to those customers; it knows that money it invests in those customers will result in the highest return.
The 80-20 rule can be applied to many areas of life aside from business. When we identify and focus on the handful of tasks that produce the majority of our results, we can be more effective with our time.
Here’s how I used the 80/20 rule
When I was laid off, I wanted to start working in the film industry. But my approach was all over the place, and I got nowhere the first few months. I was spending my time:
- Looking for jobs on Linkedin
- Networking with anyone in the film and video industry who would meet with me
- Studying cinematography online
That all sounds dandy, but the problem was:
- The film industry is mostly gig work. The handful of full-time jobs are reserved for producers with years of professional experience, roles I wasn’t qualified for or interested in.
- I was networking with a lot of folks who were in the industry, but either not involved in the kind of productions I wanted to work on or unable to speak specifically about the camera department. Sure, it was nice to meet people, but my efforts would’ve been better focused on networking with producers who were hiring regularly and with camera crew members who could help me understand the path into that department.
- Studying high-level concepts is important, but it didn’t get me work. Not to mention, most of the training is done on the job, so all that researching didn’t actually help me prepare.
I realized I was spending 80% of my time on tasks that were getting me very few results. Those tasks felt productive – I was applying to jobs, networking, and researching – but they weren’t getting me hired.
I eventually stopped applying for jobs online and started asking people about entry-level gigs. I started networking with camera crew members and asking more specific questions about what I had to do to get my foot in the door. I connected with a local rental house to get practice using the camera gear I’d ultimately be working with. In other words, I started spending more time on the 20% of the tasks that would get me 80% of the results.
That’s when I started getting consistent gigs and gaining momentum.
Today, 80% of my gigs come from referrals from the camera rental store that trained me and from other camera crew members. It was key for me to focus on those specific relationships and get hands-on learning.
Figure out the most important steps to getting to your goal
It might take some trial and error to figure out what you need to focus on to get to your goal, and that’s okay! The important thing is that you’re deciding proactively how to spend your time, rather than reacting to whatever job posts or networking opportunities come up on your radar.
Questions to ask:
- What are all the possible tasks I may need to do to achieve my goal?
- Of those tasks, which feel productive but in reality don’t get me closer to my goal?
- What kind of people might help me get closest to my goals? What specific questions do I have? What’s my goal in networking?
- If I had to pick just three tasks from this list, which ones are likely to get me the furthest towards my goal?
- The most important things I need to do to gain momentum are…
If you’re spending a lot of time researching, how actionable is your learning? Will it help you take the next step, or are you just over-preparing as a way of procrastinating? Don’t let learning and administrative tasks dominate your time and keep you from the larger picture.
Do strong connections in the company increase your odds of getting hired from a pool of applicants? If so, prioritize meeting employees from that company.
If finding clients is the most important step of starting to freelance, reach out to those people first to find time on their calendar. Don’t wait until your website, and portfolio are done to start building relationships.
If you’re starting a new business, spend as much time working on your business strategy as you do on studying theory.
Yes, you’ll probably need to spend some time on the rest of the things on your list. Researching, updating your website, and applying to jobs online are important, but they may not be the most important things to focus on.
Decide now which tasks are the most effective in getting you closer to your goal. Prioritize those tasks by spending 80% of your time on them. Limit most everything else to the remaining 20% of your time.
Step 4: Put your plan in your calendar and start working it
Once you know the most important steps to get to your goal, the rest is easy. Set your schedule. Start broad – think about how much time you want to give yourself to work towards this goal. Get more and more granular as you set due dates for the key steps you identified in the last step, and allocate time in your daily schedule for them.
Physically putting things in your calendar takes your goal from being just an abstract idea in your brain to something that’s concrete on paper. It’s easier to motivate yourself to work on something when you have a deadline to working toward.
Set an overall deadline for your goal
How long are you giving yourself to try this? For example, if you have 6 months of financial runway before you have to go into savings, mark that date in your calendar.
The point isn’t to drop your goal entirely if you don’t reach it by this date. This might be the day you check back in, reevaluate your financial runway, adjust your goals, take on a part time job if needed, etc.
Set due dates for key steps
What milestones do you need to achieve to get to your goal? When could you have them done if you focused on the most most important tasks first? Put those due dates in your calendar.
For example, if you need to network, a milestone might be “one month from now, I’ll have talked to 15 new people.” If you’re writing a book, it might be “in 100 days, I’ll have my first draft done.”
Schedule daily blocks of time to work on key steps
Create a schedule of what you want to work on in each part the your day. For example, you might spend the morning working on your portfolio and a few hours in the afternoon connecting with people in your industry.
Put your new daily schedule somewhere you can see it easily, like a sticky note on your monitor. If you want to go above and beyond, create a daily block of time in your calendar for each task.
The structure of a schedule allows you to start every day with clarity. Knowing when you’re working on each task takes the effort out of having to decide what to prioritize every day.
Our brains love routines because they’re predictable. This is why schedules are so important when pursuing something new. When your brain knows what to expect (for example, heads-down work in the mornings and networking in the afternoon), it’s easier for it to focus and switch gears efficiently.
The more you can establish a routine out of working on your goal, the fewer decisions you have to make about how to spend your time, and the more you can focus on getting the real work done. We gain momentum through repetition. We gain repetition through routines.
You’re on the right track.
If you’re still with me this far in the article, I can tell you’re serious about taking advantage of getting laid off and want to move your life in a better direction. You’ve started to think about what you really want and what it would take to get there. Way to go, it’s not always easy being honest about what we want!
If this is starting to feel overwhelming, take a breath. It’s OK to feel out of your depth. Layoffs can be stressful. Be kind to yourself.
A layoff can be an opportunity to pursue your dreams, but remember, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. The goal is to move your life closer to what feels more authentic to you, and that sometimes requires baby steps. Stay honest, open-minded, and curious; you don’t have to have all the answers right away.
And when the fear of uncertainty starts creeping back in – and it will, because humans are wired to want certainty – come back to what you’ve written. Reread your inventory of where you were and where you want to go, it’ll remind you why you’re doing this in the first place. Write about what you’re going through; even if you don’t have all the answers, the simple act of putting your fears on paper helps make them feel more manageable.
Things aren’t going to be perfect. You might fall off your schedule, not meet a deadline, or realize you’ve been spending your time on the wrong things. That’s okay. Just keep coming back to the bigger picture, again, and again, and again.
You’re on the right track already.
Now go get ‘em.