When we lose a job we loved, the loss can make us feel like we’ve hit rock bottom. We look up from the hole we find ourselves in, thinking that we’ll never be able to bounce back from the job loss. But a new study published in the Academy of Management Review found that feeling like you have hit “rock bottom” can be the hard reset button your career needs.
Losing your job can be liberating
When you’ve lost a highly valued job, you lose your old work identity, but you also can lose the dead weight of coworkers’ in-fighting and company bureaucracy. In this way, the study’s lead author Dean Shepherd found that people who reach rock bottom have a liberating opportunity because they are now free from the delusions holding them back from changing:
“It is a mindset that tells us that the old identity is no longer available and not salvageable. This can be liberating. It liberates us from the constraints that we have faced in the path … to try and hold on to the past,” he told Ladders. “Having cut the ties to the past and thus expectations for oneself for the future, an employee can take this opportunity to play with different potential opportunities.”
For his study, Shepherd developed a “rock bottom” model that showed how newly liberated employees can use their canning to form new work identity.
When you’ve lost a job, you can either react negatively and become “prevention focused” or react positively and become “promotion focused,” the study outlines. When you are prevention focused, you develop a strong need for security and are more likely to engage in the cognitive deconstruction of drugs and alcohol as a dysfunctional path.
The study uses the cautionary tale of a “prevention focused” injured military veteran who avoids trying new roles due to the perceived risk that a new role might result in failure. But if you are “promotion focused,” you have a need to grow and develop to find your ideal self. You’re willing to play with your identity and take risks.
“For example, an injured military veteran who is promotion focused might recognize the value of exploring new options despite his lost career, considering play an outlet to ‘see what is out there’ and to identify what might be,” the study states.
How to play with identity
When you hit rock bottom, it may feel like you have nothing to lose. Embrace that sense of possibility to take risks with your next career move.
Understandably though, we are psychologically vulnerable after losing a valued job. To safely play with risky new work identities in this emotional state, Shepherd suggests, “creating a few simple rules that define the action and the situation as ‘play’ — no evaluation, no judgment, the more extreme the better.”
Feel free to get a little out there with your career experiments. “Maybe embrace the play element by dressing up in the role or acting it out. Seems a little strange but with little to lose, it is one of our few alternatives and it can be productive,” Shepherd said.
So when you feel like you’re at the bottom of your career, see it as an opportunity to grow quickly in a new direction. It can be a gift people in comfortable jobs are unwilling to take.
“Avoiding hitting rock bottom may result in people persisting in a job that does not feel like a good fit with who they see themselves as,” Shepherd said. “Hitting rock bottom provides the opportunity to change one’s life such that looking back, these individuals are likely to have grown more than those who never hit rock bottom.”