The Psychology of Unemployment: Why it’s not Just about the Paycheck

The good people at ConstitutionalDaily.Com asked me to comment on the psychological effects of unemployment. This was a hot topic in late 2008 (psychologists called it Sudden Loss Syndrome) when the market crashed and, sadly, it’s just as relevant today. Take a look at an excerpt below and click here to read the entire piece.

Sudden Loss Syndrome is about identity. Healthy or not, these people see their jobs and/or their wealth as who they are. “If the ship goes down, who am I?” said one hard-core rich client of mine. While not all of these clients have little else in their lives, my practice has seen its fair share of well-to-do people with not much to fall back on: poor marriages, rocky relationships with their kids and very little recreation time because of the work that generates all that cash. If they aren’t wealthy anymore, how will they define themselves? Helping clients develop their own answers that question is how a therapist makes a living, without judging or ridiculing.

To highlight the emotional rollercoaster of unemployment, I asked a young, jobless lawyer for a take on what it means to lose your career:

“…there’s a sense of helplessness. This is probably more pronounced in a recession where long term unemployment is more common. There are few job openings, and far too many people applying for you to have a fair shake at getting it. As time goes on and you’re unemployed longer, you become increasingly unattractive to employers. Colleges are still graduating kids with the same degree and experience as you, so that’s who’ll get hired instead. Once you do a little number crunching and figure out the number of job openings per year versus the number of more attractive applicants, you start to have thoughts like “How happy is the manager at The Gap?”

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14 Responses to “The Psychology of Unemployment: Why it’s not Just about the Paycheck”

  1. chris says:

    It sucks to lose your job for whatever reason. It definitely confirms all your fears about life. You start to think the end had clocked in. Even your friends, ‘who are obviously so busy with work’ will not have time for you anymore.

  2. T.J. says:

    Right now I work at a grocery store and have for about a year now. It’s shit work, lots of cleaning and grease for dick for wages. But I’m union and have very little chance of getting canned randomly since people always have to eat.

    My family and girlfriend are always asking me why I don’t look for a professional job as I’m getting closer to graduation in December and yeah, it’s tempting, but … I’m watching friends of mine graduate and either not find a job in their fields (one friend of mine was close to the top of her architecture class and has her M.A. and is still waiting tables), or get laid off almost immediately after finally finding one (another close friend of mine just got laid off of his third job in nine months … after he bought a new car with what he thought would be a decent salary with plenty of money left over after student loans and living costs … now his credit is going to be fucked sideways and he’s going to have to move in with his folks unless he can find something else close to what he was getting).

    Professional job right now? Meh. I’m waiting for the economy to recover a bit while staying humbled with my current job without getting the rug yanked out underneath me.

    And who knows, I might have health insurance soon!

  3. chris says:


    Hey, it’s good that you are playing it safe. I guess it keeps you contented and focused at work for now… Sad to hear about your mates.

    But there’s always 2 sides of the coin. You can never know your full potential unless you risk it. Don’t be afraid to look elsewhere for a better job just because your friends had it rough. No way! Every one has their luck. Good or bad. Life is really about taking risks; You could be surprised!

  4. JP says:

    I’ll echo what chris says. Everyone needs to take risks.

    For instance, did you know that you can get a $160,000 a year job if you graduate from the right law school? Yeah, there’s a risk that you won’t get the job, but you might. And what do you have to lose? Three years of your life and $200,000?

    Think of the payout and prestige. To be able to tell the world that you have arrived. That you are a lawyer. Specifically, that you are a lawyer who’s worth $160,000 per year (plus bonus).

    Did I mention that there are tons of these jobs available? Not enough for everyone, but enough that there is a 50% chance that you can get one (if you go to the right school).

    Did I mention that you might be able to become rich? It really doesn’t matter if you want to practice law. You can figure that out once you become rich.

    Just ask BL1Y.

  5. T.J. says:

    @Chris: I’ve gotten fucked a lot job-wise over the years and I live in NE Ohio, where our economy is more non-existent than human empathy at a weapon’s manufacturer’s stockholder meeting.

    But I don’t really want to move, as I have lots of family and friends in the area and I also haven’t graduated yet. Maybe after I graduate and have that magical, over-priced piece of paper saying that I must know at least something I’ll look for a professional day job but for right now I’m happy with what I am doing.

    That and I really hate change. Change and I are not good friends. Just one of my quirks.

  6. Pete says:

    In 2004 I was laid off twice and out of work for several months. Three to four times a week I would dream that I was still at my previous high-stress job (which I had held for eight years), except that I knew I was no longer getting paid. The dream finally went away when I found a new job, but it made me realize how much my identity had been fused with that previous job.

  7. JP says:

    I still dream about my former work at a largish law firm. I enjoyed the people there, so the dreams are relatively pleasant. I wasn’t laid off, but rather I left.

    Now, I constantly have nightmares about college. That was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

  8. Chris says:

    George Carlin was on to something when he wondered why we spend our lives doing something we can’t wait to get away from. It’s such an interesting conundrum when we put so much of our selves into what we do, when we also can’t wait to get away from it. What a uniquely Western experience.

  9. JP says:

    How’s it a uniquely Western experience?

    It’s work. We work to make money. The money allows you to eat. Eating allows you to survive.

    I’m pretty sure that you have to do something to get to eat everwhere else in the world, too.

  10. Elise says:

    I’m a new fan of yours! I have just found your website and book online and I’m hooked. I even followed you on Twitter (I’m not a stalker, I swear). I’m an undergrad beginning my applications to Psy.D programs for the fall of 2012. Your book should be on Kindle!

  11. BL1Y says:

    TJ: In looking for a professional job, all you risk is frustration and rejection. You can keep your current job while looking, so you might as well see what’s out there.

    Many companies have already downsized and are cautious about new hires. That means it’s tough to find work, but there’s less chance you’ll lose it if you get it.

    Waiting a year or two could seriously screw you over. Companies may prefer a fresh graduate to one who’s been bagging groceries for a year. They’ll think you took the job because you couldn’t get one in the field, and while that’s the economy’s fault and not yours, they might not see it that way. Besides, you can probably get another job at a grocery store if you do get laid off.

    JP: “Tons”? I think you mean “Tens.”

  12. JP says:

    BL1Y: How about “hundreds”. There are still “hundreds”, right?

  13. Kris says:


    true! sometimes people get so freaked out by the hassle they go through finding a placement, and this hinders them from fishing in fresher waters… but i guess you can only succeed if you aint afraid to keep on trying… even while you are still at your job.

  14. It really is. It’s more about self esteem than money when it comes to unemployment, I know first hand.