How do I look for work when I feel SO terrible?

If you have a career history but are transitioning to a new job, career or industry, you are probably worried about the answers to these questions.

What if I’m unemployable? Who would consider hiring me? Am I up to date with what employers are looking for? Will I need to retrain? How will I pay for my life while I’m looking for work? Where should I start? Who should I talk to? How do I stop worrying and take some meaningful action? Help! I have no idea what I’m doing!

Sound familiar? Let’s start with taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. In fact, take three deep breaths with a slower exhale each time. Feel a bit better? That is because understanding the emotional process of career transitioning is necessary to refocus and move on with your life.

Often when people are faced with career transition, either by choice or by circumstances outside of their control, they go through a huge emotional downshift that can completely blindside them. Their negative emotional energy stops them from seeing opportunities, applying for work, getting interviews and starting fresh.

This article walks you through the emotional stages everyone goes through during a career transition so you can find a way to get back to not only feeling better, but also to progressing along a career path that works for you now.

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The Alberta Government has an excellent site for people in career transition with a document that shows the emotional stages of career transitioning as:

  • Endings

  • Neutral

  • New beginnings

A thematically related HBR article describes the stages similarly as:

  • Guilt

  • Loss of identity and sense of self

  • Letting go of old patterns and habits

Both descriptions are helpful and when considered together provide a clear picture of the emotional transition that accompanies a change of career. I have added suggestions for dealing with the emotional burden of each stage and some practical steps to get you into the next stage with less worry and stress.

Understanding the emotional stages in career transition

Stage 1: Endings and guilt

When you are at the end of a job, it feels a bit like losing someone you love to illness or death. You know things have changed forever, and you may feel sad, angry, and bitter. You might blame yourself for not seeing it coming or for not preparing yourself better to be resilient and employable earlier on. It is easy to get stuck in blame during this phase. Nasty thoughts about your past employer, colleagues, family members, yourself or all of the above can become an unhealthy obsession.

How to deal with the emotions and move on:

Remind yourself that this is a normal grieving phase and you will be able to move on. Allow yourself to experience the sadness but refuse to let your thoughts become obsessed with blame and revenge. Instead look for ways to calm down and refocus using exercise, music, yoga or fitness classes and talking with friends. Ask friends about their lives and get suggestions from them about moving into a new stage in your work life. This will help with your negative feelings and stop you from obsessing and worrying.

Stage 2: Neutral and loss of identity

In this stage, you may feel lost and wonder who you are or who you should be to find work. Ideas about retraining, travelling, pursuing hobbies or spending time with people you love come to mind. As you speak with others, get some new perspectives and rededicate yourself to hobbies or learning, you may sometimes feel disoriented and lost. But after a while, you start to settle into your new freedom and enjoy it. It is like the first few days of a vacation when you are still in work mode and don’t know what to do with yourself of how to relax. Then a few days into your vacation you wonder how you ever found time for work because your day is so full with enjoying your freedom and time. There can be a back and forth emotional response.  Some days you are enjoying yourself and other days you feel like you are losing your identity. Some days you feel great, encouraged and like you are making progress. Other days you don’t know who you are or what your purpose is. You can feel lonely, unsettled or directionless.

How to deal with the emotions and move on:

Recognize that you are moving forward and practice gratitude for small things every day. Gratitude opens the mind to possibilities and helps you develop a habit of joy and appreciation that is appealing to others. Remind yourself that you love, forgive and are proud of yourself – say it in your mind many times a day. Enjoy all the opportunities to spend time with people and with activities you like and keep asking them for ideas. This is a great time to reconnect with one of your hobbies, volunteer and think of ways to be of service to others. Doing these things creates the kind of energy that puts you inline with a new career. Make sure you spend time thinking about where you would like to be in 3-5 years and what kind of a legacy you would like to leave by the end of your life. This kind of thinking often helps think about new career options that are suited to you.

Stage 3: New beginnings, and letting go of old patterns and habits

At this stage you have figured out a new career path and are either much closer or already there. You realize you have to think about yourself and your work identify differently. It is a steep learning curve requiring learning new job skills and adjusting to a new workplace, retraining for a related or new job, starting a business and thinking about how to balance your life. Often during this stage people start new morning routines, exercise programs, join groups, take courses and become more strategic with what they are doing with their careers. Emotions during this phase are excitement, hope and also fear of letting go.

How to deal with the emotions and move on:

Now that you have a more stable emotional space and can focus your thoughts on real possibilities, it is a great time to build a job search routine that includes networking, joining groups, searching for ideal employers and finding ways to connect to a new career. It is critical to establish a job search and self-care routine at this time so you don’t become discouraged. When you do find new employment, allow yourself the time to learn the ropes and be patient with your progress. Treat yourself with the same kindness and consideration you would offer child trying out a new skill for the first time. Remember to keep developing your professional network and keep up professional learning. That way if you have to transition again, you will be equipped with a network to fall back on and learning to prove you are current.

To make this all feel real and applicable, I wanted to include some examples of employees who went through this process. I chose four real stories of people I have helped with their career transition through coaching. Their professions are: welder, civil engineer, accountant and school principal. You can see the three stages they went through and where they are now to help you with your own journey.

Four career transition examples

Example 1: Welder

Stage 1

Josh was a welder for 15 years until he injured himself and was told by his doctor that he couldn’t return to work. He was angry and bitter and blamed his employer for not providing a safer work environment and himself for not paying attention to personal care and safety. He spent his days sitting around watching YouTube videos and thinking of ways he could get back at anyone and everyone for losing his career.

Stage 2

One of his buddies told Josh that he had always been good with kids and he should consider coaching soccer for the team his daughter played on. Another friend admired Josh’s hobby of creating metal sculptures and said he could probably sell them for people’s yard ornaments at farmers markets. Josh started coaching and began to feel his sense of purpose coming back. After selling a couple of his garden sculptures, he dedicated himself to the process and really enjoyed both the making and the interactions with customers at farmers markets. He landed a few commissions for bigger yard sculptures and started to feel proud of his work again.

Stage 3

One day Josh was looking through a continuing education catalogue and was reminded that welding inspection was something he had wanted to explore earlier. The pay was good and the retraining process was a matter of weeks. He registered for the course and started to see opportunities for work as part of the course and from instructor tips.

Example 2: Civil Engineer

Stage 1

Mohammed had worked as a civil engineer in the same job since he graduated from his engineering degree. When the company had to downsize he lost his job and had no connections or network. He was also recently married with a new baby and pressure to earn was high. His severance package would cover him for about nine months but he was floundering with what to do to find work. He started a business where he tried to find buyers for the services he used to do but that didn’t work out and he became increasingly frustrated.

Stage 2

From speaking with colleagues and expanding his professional network, Mohammed found out about a job with similar requirements to what he had previously done. Once at the job, he focused on learning and kept up with building his personal and professional network.

Stage 3

Through his connections, Mohammed was offered a job that he was excited to accept. Had he not worked at the previous post, he would not have developed the necessary current skills required to qualify for the opportunity. At the same time, Mohammed’s wife found work in a nearby optometrist’s office and realized that this related experience would help her transition from a biological research background into a health profession. Both are happy in their work.

Example 3: Accountant

Stage 1

Matilda was a qualified accountant from Cameroon who had designations from England and Canada. She found many low level seasonal accounting positions but could not land a good job in her field until she changed her interview protocols. But even after securing a better job, she was in a disadvantaged position because of cultural misunderstandings and did not receive a permanent position.

Stage 2

Frustrated with the job search situation, Matilda decided to start a bookkeeping business for small business owners. After talking to a couple of well-connected cultural leaders in her community, Matilda found several customers and was filled with encouragement and hope. It was however difficult to keep up the constant search for new customers and Matilda realized she would need something else to keep her going financially.

Stage 3

In the mean time, the economy had picked up and with her newfound confidence and negotiation skills learned from starting her own business, Matilda landed an excellent job directly related to her expertise. She continues to grow her business on the side. Matilda and her husband are now looking to purchase their first home and are feeling much more secure as new Canadians.

Example 4: School principal

Stage 1

As a teacher, Amanda had worked her way up in the school system until she was qualified to apply for vice principal positions. Her first position went well and she was glad to have made the change. A difficult person in the leadership team however, caused her to look for work elsewhere. After a switch to a new school in the spring, she was dismayed to return in the fall to find that the difficult person from her previous school was now her boss. Over the year he became jealous of her success with parents and students, and with her capacity to integrate a group of new refugee students. Her boss went out of his way to make Amanda look bad and created such a toxic environment that she left the position demoralized and broken.

Stage 2

After months of self-doubt and emotional upset, Amanda applied for a position as a subject matter consultant and regained her sense of professional competency and respect. She looked for university opportunities where she could keep her existing salary while working as a student teacher program supervisor and, with her newly returned confidence, was successful in securing the opportunity.

Stage 3

Amanda is still trying to figure out how to get into a principal position with a different school or school system, but she has two years to figure that piece out now that she has a secure transitional contract.

Closing Thoughts

Making a career transition is not easy. But it can become more manageable if you consider that the emotional component is not something to be ashamed of but an opportunity to grow. Recognizing your feelings at each of the three job change stages and using them to propel you to self-awareness, confidence, professional networks and growth, can be key to moving through your transition with your sense of self worth intact and healthy.

Make sure you check out the excellent resources on ALIS . You can download their user-friendly workbooks with exercises to help you through each of the transition stages.  I also recommend the Careers in Transition site for helpful resources and testing for career transitioning.


References and resources:

Alberta ALIS: https://alis.alberta.ca/

Alberta ALIS Retraining: How to launch a new career. https://alis.alberta.ca/tools-and-resources/retraining-how-to-launch-a-new-career/

Ashkenas, Ron. (2016, April 5) Navigating the emotional side of a career transition.

https://hbr.org/2016/04/navigating-the-emotional-side-of-a-career-transition. Correct on December 6, 2017.

Careers in Transition: Work toward your dream career goals. http://citinc.ca/

About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees.

Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: marie@shiftworkplace.com or 780-454-5661