The Mental Phases Of Long-Term Unemployment

December 30, 2019  |  
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unemployment effects

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I’ve been fortunate enough to never face extended periods of unemployment (excuse me a moment while I find every wooden surface to knock on), but my partner has been cursed with two periods of unemployment that lasted over half a year. Yes, you read that right: over six months of unemployment. And he was dedicating the majority of every day applying to jobs, tweaking the many versions of his resume (he had a few, each tailored to the specific opportunities that may arise), following up with leads, taking lengthy phone interviews that lead to nowhere, or that lead to an in-person interview, quite a ways away, that lead nowhere.


His first such bout of joblessness nearly broke us. I want to put it out there right away that it wasn’t the fact that he was unemployed that was rough—what I mean is the lack of an income wasn’t the issue. While that was, of course, tough, it was more the mental and emotional toll that such a phase took on my partner that was really difficult. I wasn’t prepared for it. I’d never been through it nor had I been with someone who’d faced it for quite so long. Many of us don’t realize just how much of our sanity, routine, and even sense of self rely on our employment. Both what we do for a living, and the fact that we do anything at all.


So when you take that away from somebody, it can do curious things to that person. Unemployment has a way of making you lose who you are and find it at the same time. It comes with moments of elation and depression, clarity and confusion. Whatever it brings, don’t judge it. It’s probably normal. Here are the mental phases of long-term unemployment.


Good. Now I’m free, and not afraid

At first, you may think things like, “Well, I didn’t love that job anyways. Was I going to spend my entire life working a job I didn’t love? Life is not meant to be spent that way. What a waste! I only hung onto that job out of fear—out of my desire for stability. But stability is the death of freedom! Now I’m free. This will force me to find what I really want to do.”


Sh*t. I need money.

Then you’ll feel like you were sort of a punk for flipping that job the bird. You’ll feel guilty for seeing that job as beneath you because, well, you need to pay your bills, and nobody is above doing that. Though that job may have had its issues, it did solve the big problem of how will you fund your life? And that’s nothing to sneeze it. You realize that as you dry your eyes with dollar store, scratchy tissues (all you can afford right now).


I’ll be the best budgeter ever

You’re over there, making dinner out of canned tuna and popcorn because you refuse to spend a dollar you don’t need to spend. You decide to be the best budgeter on the planet, so that you don’t need to feel financially stressed while you wait for that next job to come around. Instead of taking a cab to a party, you take four buses and walk down a road nobody should walk down, just to save the $14.


That isn’t sustainable

Eventually you realize that living on a shoestring budget is not sustainable and that if you really have faith that a job will come along, there’s no need to live like that. So you return to living normally, ordering delivery sometimes, not only buying groceries from the clearance rack, and coughing up cash for the nighttime movie rather than making everyone attend the matinee. Live like someone who will be employed again, and you will be employed again you think.


Take no breaks

Gaining control over the situation is a major step. Or, rather, attempting to gain control over a situation that you only have so much control over. You may not sleep for days, and spend every waking minute applying to jobs or following up with leads. “I won’t sleep until I get another job!” you declare. You believe that so long as you never, ever, for a second take a break from pursuing employment, you should be employed again in no time.


You hit a breaking point

You realize that, just like when you were employed, you needed to take breaks from work, in unemployment, you need to take breaks from seeking work. You’re making mistakes in those cover letters, saying strange things on phone interviews, and really not putting out quality work when pursuing jobs, because you’re focusing on quantity. So you take a break.


You contemplate that bad job

That really terrible job that would be like regressing ten years—it’s way below your pay grade and grossly underutilizes your skillset and would leave you feeling quite depressed and you know it—yeah, you seriously consider taking that job. Hey, someone offered it to you and you need a job. You can keep looking for other jobs while you’re at it…


A voice of reason

Maybe a voice of reason—a best friend, parent, or loved one—reminds you that you still have enough of a financial cushion to continue looking for a job you’d actually like. And though it seems counterintuitive to walk away from money (albeit, not great money, and at a bad job), you listen to your instincts and smart friends. You realize that if you take that crappy job, you’ll feel too tired and soulless every day after work to possibly apply to other jobs.


Free falling

At around, say, month three, you may start to feel as if you’re free falling. You’ll have existential thoughts about what it all means. What is a job, anyways? Or money? Why were you put on this planet? To push paper? Surely not! Maybe you’ll just become a street musician and give up owning physical things like clothes and dishes. You feel completely unhinged. You think you’re enlightened—but you’re just going a bit stir crazy.


Refusing to pull favors

There are people of whom you could ask favors—people for whom you’ve done great favors. They told you that if you ever needed anything—anything at all—they had your back. This could be a good time to ask them for a job, or for a referral. But, even though they said they’d have your back, you feel it would be an imposition. You refuse to call in that favor.


Pulling every favor

You come to the conclusion (or, perhaps another outside voice of reason does) that asking for those favors isn’t weak or inappropriate: it shows strength. This is how people get things done in life! Nobody gets far without help. And you earned that help. Screw it, you become emboldened, and you start pulling in every favor you’ve racked up.


A few close calls

Some of those favors actually get you some close calls. You get very far in the interview process (which can be harder for women) for one job—a great job. You have several back and forth exchanges with one contact. But, they decide to go in a different direction. Or, the person in the hiring position loses his job, so he can’t hire you, and that lead goes cold.


Complete devastation

You don’t know how much more of this you can take. You don’t know what else you can do. You completely put your pride aside to pull those favors. You don’t know how many more cover letters you can send. And it dawns on you you may never find a job again. You realize that much of this is not within your control. And that’s a terrifying realization.



Depression can be a phase of long-term unemployment. Even though it is situational depression, it can feel like clinical depression. Employment gives one a sense of purpose, so without it, you can see how one could become depressed. Then there are even those thoughts in which you’re critical of the job you once had—or the jobs to which you’re applying—and you think, “Well those don’t give me much purpose either, just the illusion of purpose.”


You get a job, and it’s all okay

The truth is that humans want to be busy, and humans want to be happy. So all of those existential thoughts, the self-judgment, and the scrutiny of what jobs you did or might have or almost had…it goes away. You get a job you’re glad to take because you know that with money comes stability and from stability one can enjoy the things that really matter, like family and loved ones.

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