Why Layoffs Lead to New Lows in Self-Esteem


It wasn’t easy for Sara, a 28-year-old sales manager, to choose to leave her well-paying job at a telecommunications company to work for a friend’s business hot to recruit her. Yet with promises of equal pay, better hours and increased time off, Sara followed her heart and took the job, only to be let go almost immediately, after her friend’s company took a turn for the worse. With mass layoffs taking place, Sara understood that as a new employee, the reasons she made the chopping block had little to do with her skills or accomplishments. Still, she couldn’t seem to quiet that nagging voice that told her she had failed.

Ninety miles away, on another spot on the economic spectrum, Laura, an executive, managing a large division of an international hotel brand, was laid off after eight affluent years with the firm. While the layoff was, once again, due to downsizing and came with an extremely generous severance package, Laura just couldn’t shake the cruel thoughts that she was worthless, dispensable and lacked value.

On the very opposite end of the spectrum, Amy, the president of her own company, who had taken a small firm and built it into a successful international business, was faced with a large decline in profit. Was she angry about the economic situation? Was she considering who she may have to lay off? No, she was attacking herself: “All of this is your fault! You should be able to save the business. And now you are firing people? You are going to ruin these people’s lives!”

In spite of each of these women’s unique circumstances, what caused them the most grief was not their individual economic statuses, but the fact that they had turned against themselves. Even as Sara found herself unemployed with no idea how long it would take her to find a new job, her biggest struggles came from this internal enemy telling her how stupid she was to have given up her old job. Even Laura, who knew she’d be able to live more than comfortably on her severance for a long time to come, was miserable with self-hating thoughts.

It is sadly typical for a negative event, even one that is beyond our control, to awaken our self-critical thoughts. Every one of us harbors an internal enemy ready to pounce: evaluate our every move and judge our every act. This cruel life coach often develops in us at a young age, when we are emotionally vulnerable and impressionable to any negative attitudes directed toward us. As we grow, we internalize this critical point of view and begin to experience it as a first-person form of self-evaluation. Just as Amy thought of herself as a bad boss, Laura as a useless employee and Sara as a fool for being left without a job, we all possess some form of these oddly self-deprecating attitudes. When we experience these attacks, rather than feeling empowered or compelled to take action, we often feel demoralized, dejected and  not confident to make the next move.

“The truth is that all of us are divided within ourselves and have a basic conflict in relation to our goals and aspirations in life,” said Dr. Lisa Firestone, psychologist and co-author of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice. “On the one hand, we have feelings of warm self-regard, and traits and behaviors that we like or feel comfortable with in ourselves. We have natural tendencies to grow and develop and to pursue our personal and vocational goals, …to be close in our relationships and to search for meaning in life. These tendencies represent who you really are, the real you, because they are made up of a friendly, compassionate view of yourself.

“Then, on the other hand, we have an unfriendly, critical view of ourselves. This negative side, and its destructive thoughts and attitudes, is referred to as the critical inner voice, because it is the part of you that is turned against your real self. It encourages and strongly influences self-defeating and self-destructive behavior. The balance between these two points of view is easily tipped. Under stressful conditions, our negative way of thinking can become intense and take precedence over our more realistic or positive ways of thinking.”

As the current economic situation impacts people’s lives directly, the difficult circumstances tip the balance between their real self and their critical view of themselves. The negative conditions fuel deep-seated feelings of unworthiness, shame, failure and a basic sense of being bad. The critical view becomes dominant, and people find themselves under attack from their critical inner voice.

“To deal with these critical thoughts, we must first begin to see them as an alien point of view, as oppose to accurate perceptions of who we really are, “ said Firestone, “People should begin to look into where and why they’ve taken on such mean attitudes toward themselves and actively respond to these attacks with a more realistic way of seeing themselves.”

Responding to these “voices” means rejecting them, as you would a real outside enemy and not avoiding taking the chances that they tell you you’ll fail at. As millions of people experience the painful impact of this economic crisis, they must remember their danger is not just in the practical effects it can have on their lives, but the psychological effects it can have on their minds. For more on identifying and dealing with your critical inner voice, click here.

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