James Comey shows what happens when we lose our jobs and our identities

FBI Director James Comey was abruptly fired on Tuesday night. Comey reportedly heard about it while he was giving a speech as the news flashed on TV screens behind him; he was so unprepared for it that he believed it to be a prank. Afterward, instead of making a statement, Comey went silent: he pulled out of several events, including a speech to fellow FBI agents and scheduled testimony in front of the Senate.

Comey’s firing illuminates an issue many successful people face: what do you when your job is your identity— the reason you get invited to things — and then you lose it, or fear that you will? Very often, you may start to question who you are, you may even start to feel like you’ve lost your purpose in life. After a flurry of initial interest, invitations may drop off and you may start to feel like a pariah in the industry you had a strong position in.

Our jobs, ourselves

We spend at least a third of our lives at work — and it’s often more for overachievers and hard workers — so it’s not surprising we tie our own happiness to how well we’re doing at work.

It’s easy to feel like your job defines you. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 55% of U.S. workers “get a sense of identity from their job,” compared to 42% who feel that it’s “just what you do.”

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior of 377 British employees surveyed three times in 2014 says that “job insecurity” and the stigma attached to unemployment can negatively impact people’s “social identity” and “well-being.”

Our professional titles can be pretty closely connected to how we identify ourselves and our perceived self-worth, so fear of losing jobs can feel like we’re losing our social standing, and more importantly, who we think we are deep down.

Questioning your identity

Part of the sadness around job loss is the sense of exclusion; you’re separated not just from your title and your organization, but your workmates, your daily habits, your place in the world of work. If you think you might lose your job soon, it’s not uncommon to feel like you’ve already been excluded from a club of “lucky” people with income.

“It is shown that increased perceptions of job insecurity are likely to lead people to identify less with the employed population. People who perceived their job as more insecure were also more likely to feel less ‘belonging’ to the employed working society; they defined themselves less as employed people. This reflects an impression often anecdotally reported by job-insecure workers, of already being ‘at the margins’ or pushed out of employment,” wrote Eva Selenko, Anne Mäkikangas and Christopher B. Stride in the Journal of Organizational Behavior

So even if you still have a job, you might feel like you already lost it.

“When somebody’s employment is secure, their social identity as an ’employed person’ may not explicitly come to mind very often. However, when the loss of a job becomes more salient, people may start to become increasingly aware of being identified as part of an alternative, stigmatized out-group: the unemployed,” said a blog post by the Association for Psychological Science.

In short: No one wants to be left behind.

Letting go of the idea that your job is your identity

For those of us who tie who we are to our careers, it can be hard to deal when our livelihoods are in question.

In an emotional piece in Good Housekeeping, Melanie Gardiner wrote about losing a job she loved, and just how hard that loss hit her. It’s an account that may resonate with many of us.

“…I proceeded to throw myself an epic pity party for the next couple of months. I barely left my couch. I avoided music, friends, family, and just about anything that once brought me joy. I let days go by mindlessly,” Gardiner wrote.

So how do you fix your feelings if you’re actually unemployed? You might be tempted to stew in your sadness, worrying about what you think you could have done to avoid losing your job- but you don’t have to for long.

“The human condition is ‘should’ve, could’ve, would’ve…When you’re beating yourself up, think, ‘I did the best that I could under those circumstances’ and ask ‘What can I learn and go forward with?’” career counselor Judith Gerberg told SELF.

It’s completely possible to get over your grief if you lose your job or think you will. Just don’t forget this: you are more than where you work. Your identity is something you don’t owe your boss.