Maintaining a Positive Attitude During Unemployment

Anyone who has faced any significant stretch of unemployment is anxious and uncertain about the future. As savings are depleted, people become desperate -- and often depressed.

Job search author Douglas Richardson tells a story of a discouraged job seeker. "Everybody's talking about the Y2K problem," sighs a weary-looking executive job seeker. "Well, I've got my own Y2K problem. It's called 'the Year-Two Knock.' I just started the second year of my job search, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Right now I really feel down, really discouraged. At the moment, things really feel beyond my control. I need to put something in the win column. I really need to get back to work."

Unemployment and job-market uncertainties bother some people more than others. Even for those very confident in their skills and marketability, the strains of a protracted job search can be difficult to cope with, especially for decisive, results-oriented employees accustomed to taking charge and making things happen.

Many job seekers start fast and furious, but then when no offers come, or in some cases very few interviews, discouragement sets in, and the job seeker succumbs to the temptation to "give up", tends to lose enthusiasm and momentum, and being overwhelmed with spells of anxiety or depression.

"I came in second in two very competitive searches," says one city manager, "and there were a few other job opportunities where I didn't even make the first cut. I don't know what's wrong. I have an excellent portfolio and have a good track record of accomplishments. I used to drive the action. I'm used to succeeding. I don't know if it's me or the process. Maybe I'm not as good as a thought I was."

This city manager's search has dragged on 13 months. His severance expired and he's spent all his savings. He feels like he is letting his family down. I've just about lost all the financial security I've worked so hard to build up. When the Council asked me to resign, I never thought I would have any trouble finding another good city manager job within a few months. This whole thing has become a catastrophe," he says.

Interestingly, neither of these executives are overly concerned that prospective employers will consider their skills stale after a year of disuse. There is some justifiable concern that their continuing unemployment gives them a negative aura. They fear that people will begin to feel: "If they haven't been hired in more than a year, there must be something wrong with them".

In reality, an extended job search may be a warning that the job market is no longer interested in your product (skill set), and you must take a reality-check. Public sector job seekers need to apply some private sector thinking about their personal marketability.

"There's a few basic things that can go wrong with a search," writes job search consultant David Laney. "There's either a problem with the product, with the market or with the way the product is trying to connect with the market. When the search starts to run long, you must be willing to trouble-shoot which of these issues is at the heart of the problem."

If you're frustrated by a prolonged hunt, examine when and how your disappointments occur. Are you repeatedly failing to make it through an initial screen? Are your mass mailings generating zero response? Are networking referrals refusing to make time to see you? Are they reluctant to provide names of other contacts? Are you landing initial interviews but not being invited back? Are you "finishing a close second," the most painful rejection of all?

Protracted searches call for tough self-scrutiny, not a descent into denial or wishful thinking about rescue fantasies.

Savvy job search consultants understand there's often little connection between the length of a search and a job hunter's perceived capability. But as the clock ticks, your ability to sustain and project energy and enthusiasm may be critical to your success. This trait alone may not make the difference in landing a job, but its absence can kill it.

While not clinically depressed, the job hunters mentioned above are reeling in the face of adversity. Both are aware that pessimism has begun to influence their thinking and behavior. A certain amount of pessimism may help reality-test events and spot problems. However, as a frame of reference, pessimism undermines achievement and health.

Most people don't realize that how they think about the world -- optimistically or pessimistically -- shapes their feelings about adverse events more than the actual events. Albert Ellis, Ph.D., founder of the Rational-Emotive Therapy Institute in New York City, explained this theory in his "ABC model." It states that in the face of Adversity, our Beliefs (not the adversity itself) about how the world works causes the Consequences of the negative events for us -- and whether we view them pessimistically or optimistically.

To avoid becoming overly discouraged or depressed, job seekers need to engage in problem-solving exercises about their job skills and presentation techniques. People first need to identify how their thinking works and its effect on the way they respond to events. To bounce back from misfortune, they have to judge the accuracy of their thinking and develop more accurate alternative views.

People prone to pessimism often have explanatory styles predicated on three P's:

1. Personalization: "This event is my own fault. I'm somehow personally responsible for my misfortune."

2. Pervasiveness: "Everything is my fault. One adversity breeds more adversity, and everything is bound to go wrong. I can't win."

3. Permanence: "This particular adversity isn't a temporary or isolated event. Things are going to go wrong forever."

However, an optimistic outlook can be learned and sustained, says Dean Becker, Adaptive's president.

"The ultimate behavior that results from the optimistic style is something we call resiliency," says Mr. Becker. "We find that people who exhibit and practice the so-called optimistic style tend to be highly resilient in the face of adversity."

"Rather than personalizing, optimists tend to look at the outside world for causes of adversity," Mr. Becker says. "They see negative events as singular, rather than as pieces of broad-based catastrophe. And they believe that the causes of bad events are only temporary, with no lasting causes or effects."

Viewed in this light, the responses of the job seekers mentioned above differ distinctly. The executive is struggling to retain control and maintain momentum, but her outlook isn't fundamentally pessimistic. She understands that her adversity is "right now," not forever. By saying, in effect, "I've got to do something," she's affirming she's capable of breaking out of adversity. She's resilient.

The city manager, in contrast, views himself as the probable cause of his difficulties -- "I don't know what I'm doing wrong." He experiences adversity as pervasive -- "Everything went flat" -- and he is fearful that a bad situation will only get worse.

Mr. Shatte says the city manager's inaccurate beliefs about the causes and implications of his adversity probably derive from one or more of seven common errors that result in illogical thinking:

bulletJumping to conclusions ("I knew it, they think I'm too old/young")
bulletTunnel vision ("I lost out because I rambled on that last question")
bulletOver-generalization ("Everybody from the West is suspicious of Easterners")
bulletPersonalization ("Obviously, I screwed up")
bulletMind reading ("They think...")
bulletEmotional reasoning ("They're not smart enough to recognize the skills")
bulletMagnifying or minimizing causative factors ("Surely, they didn't pass me over because I told them how bad my last city was")

Correcting these errors isn't simply a matter of confronting depressed feelings with rose-colored affirmations and upbeat "self-talk," Mr. Becker says. "This isn't about motivation," he says, "it's about cognition. You can read inspirational self-help books and go to pump-up seminars that teach you things to say to yourself, but it's like the joke about Chinese food: half an hour later, you're hungry again."

It's more important to master tools to affect how you think, he says. For example, the drained job hunter who's spent an hour being rejected by networking contacts he's cold-called may start to think: "I've made 15 calls and I didn't get a single meeting. I don't even have what it takes to succeed at networking, much less handling high-stakes interviews. What if I never get a job? What if I can't pay the mortgage and we have to sell our house?"

To recognize and correct such errors in logic, Mr. Becker suggests this approach. When adversity strikes, first describe it objectively and tune into the thoughts that shape your beliefs about its causes and implications. Then identify its emotional and behavioral consequences.

"This requires some practice to learn to slow down long enough to reflect on the situation and not to fall into repetitive, self-defeating belief patterns," says Mr. Shatte. Once you've pressed the "pause button," review your beliefs to check for an error in logic. "This is almost like going down a checklist," says Mr. Shatte. "Am I jumping to conclusions? Am I overgeneralizing? Am I personalizing and taking blame for things I really didn't cause?"

The point of this analysis is to answer: "Are the consequences of this adversity out of proportion to my beliefs?" If so, your thinking is inaccurate and your explanatory style distorted. Dig beneath your superficial beliefs to learn what's upsetting and to unearth your underlying beliefs.

To explore your beliefs, ask: What is the most upsetting part of this adversity? What does that mean to me? What's the worst part for me? Assuming my beliefs are true, why is that so upsetting? "We call this the 'Funnel Technique,' " says Mr. Becker.

Next, test the accuracy of your beliefs. Ask what alternate explanations there are. Then consider specific reasons for or against each of the alternatives. For some, like the frustrated networker, distorted beliefs are more likely to affect your thinking about the implications of an adverse event, rather than its causes. For these individuals, the danger is of becoming so discouraged and full of self-doubt that your view becomes a self-fulfilling spiral of failure.

These people should ask: What's the worst that can result? What's the best that can happen? What's the most likely course of events? "It is not necessary to put a happy face on everything, but to identify and deal with the most likely implications -- not the worst case," says Mr. Shatte.

Professionals who master this technique tend to be less susceptible to the erroneous thinking and inaccurate beliefs. Generally they feel more resilient and able to head off problems or cope with adversity. This technique also can be used to help reduce anxiety before job interviews, Mr. Becker adds.

"In the job search context," says Mr. Shatte, "this is akin to mastering other skills you may need to further develop to get that job offer, like resume-writing or effective interviewing. The difference is that it is a tool that can be applied any time, anywhere."

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