How bottoming out at work can be a good thing

Bottoming out frees us from the misconception that the problems can be fixed, and in the process, frees us from other constraints and negative emotions.

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: a catastrophic job loss that perhaps even takes down your social standing, friends, and your home. Hitting bottom means you lose your job and can’t find another one again – at least not in your field – and see no way to make things improve.

A study titled “Hitting Rock Bottom After Job Loss: Bouncing Back to Create a New Positive Work Identity,” published in the Academy of Management Review, discusses how this situation can eventually turn out for the better, and how you’ll likely find a way to recover if you let go of your old identity and forge a new one.

“On the way down, we frantically do all sorts of things to try and repair the situation, and suffer as [we] fail,” explains the study’s lead author Dean Shepherd, the Siegfried Professor of Entrepreneurship in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, in a  release. “Bottoming out frees us from the misconception that the problems can be fixed, and in the process, frees us from other constraints and negative emotions and provides the conditions necessary to find a viable solution.”

Those who have hit rock bottom with unemployment and loss of their “work identity” can go one of two ways:

One is into a negative, deconstructed “numb state” where they remain fixed on the present and may self-medicate with drugs and booze.

But a healthier way to claw yourself up from the bottom is by using your imagination to fantasize about what work you might take on next – and then experimenting a bit, by taking classes, volunteering, or exploring going back to school, for example. These low-risk activities, called “identity play,” are essentially harmless, but help the unemployed get back in the game and see what they might actually enjoy doing with their skills.

“Using ‘identity play’ provides a safe environment to escape the situation and try new things, discarding bad ideas or finding and refining a new identity and returning stronger than before,” Sheperd says.

For example, a failed corporate exec might try being on the board of a nonprofit that needs his guidance, running for office, or working with a startup before choosing a path. A failed entrepreneur might envision how his or her skills could transfer to a corporate job, or take the LSAT.

A musician who can no longer play might explore teaching, writing about music, or working at a music store. Or she might try working at a nonprofit or volunteering somewhere non-music related – the broader the range of experiences, the better, according to the study.

With further refinement – maybe the musician wants to teach adult students, not beginners – and social validation from her network, also key to the process – eventually, she’ll narrow her focus and find a path. And most importantly, a new work identity to replace the old.

“In these cases, hitting rock bottom opens up myriad new opportunities,” says Sheperd.

Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.