You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet.

- Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

Today, you're happily employed. Tomorrow, you're on the streets. With today's dot-com downturn and economic slump, don't think it can't happen to you. How can you cope with the emotional and financial stress when you go from worker to wanderer in one fell swoop?

know your stages

First, you have to understand your emotions. "It doesn't make it easier in terms of what you feel, but it helps you manage those feelings." So says J. Damian Birkel, author of Career Bounce-Back! and founder of Professionals in Transition, a non-profit support group for the unemployed and the underemployed.

"You can reduce the tendency to get stuck because you know what's next," says Birkel.

The stages you pass through with job loss are similar to those that come with the loss of a loved one:

1. SHOCK  (I can't believe I was just fired!)

2. DENIAL  (Everything will turn out okay. This was all just a big mistake.)

3. ANGER  (How dare they fire me? It's not right! It's not fair!)

4. BARGAINING (Maybe if I show them what a good worker I am, they'll change their minds.)

5. DEPRESSION  (I just know I'm going to lose my spouse and my home. I feel humiliated and degraded.)

6. ACCEPTANCE  (Well, life goes on. I'd better start looking for a new job.)

Understanding these stages will help you handle them more effectively - and get back on your feet more quickly.

"It's okay to mourn and to grieve," says Dirk Cotterell, president of MRI's e-business division, "but you have to get over it. The best way to effectively handle a layoff is to grieve for a day or two and then get on the phone. Start rebuilding your network." It may seem bleak now, but losing your job may be one of the best things that ever happened to you.

part gracefully

You've just been laid off. Your thoughts are in a jumble, your emotions in turmoil. Yet, in the midst of all this, you're expected to make a graceful exit - while at the same time making sure you get everything that's coming to you. Here's how.

Be sure to get your severance agreement in writing - and review it thoroughly, even if that means taking it home for a few days. Says Birkel, "Find out what your health insurance benefits are after termination. Make sure you know what your income is going to be, how much they will pay you, and for how long. Make sure you know how long outplacement assistance will last."

If your employer doesn't offer it, try to negotiate for outplacement assistance. Some employers may even let you use an empty office to conduct your job search. Nothing is worse than having your co-workers watch you clean out your desk and leave, so ask your employer for extra time to get your things together - preferably after hours or on the weekend.

take it with you

While you're still employed, keep a file at home that tracks every positive e-mail you receive, every award, and every pat on the back. "I have examples of my work, letters of praise, and performance evaluations," says Birkel. "That's important because it creates the framework for your future."

These things will not only lift you when your spirits are low, but they may help you when you hit the want ads.

find the silver lining

It may seem bleak now, but losing your job may be one of the best things that ever happened to you. You'll have a chance to get to know your family better - and you'll learn who your true friends are.

You'll come to realize that you are not your job.

And, most important, you will have the chance to find an even better career.

"If you are focused on your position or your career," Cotterell says, "you haven't looked to see if there may be better opportunities."

get back on the horse

Just yesterday, you were donning a smart suit and rushing to the office at 9:00 a.m. Today, you're in your jammies at noon, without a thing in the world to do. How can you kick-start your day?

Being jobless will come as less of a shock if you treat your job search as a full-time position. Dress as you did for the office. If you have a home office, make sure you're in there by 9:00 a.m. daily. Put in a full eight hours revising your resume, expanding your network, and setting interviews.

This will keep you motivated - and get you back into a new career quicker than if you had spent your free time moping around in a bathrobe.

So, if you ever find yourself among the unemployed, you'll be ready to make the best of it.

Copyright 2006 Linda Formichelli and Career

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