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posted: 5/20/2012 1:00 AM

Consequences of unemployment are economic, emotional

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Got a job? For a too many people reading this, the answer to that question is "No, but I sure could use one."

Professionals, white collar workers, blue collar workers, Hispanics, blacks, whites, men, women, old, young -- all groups in our society are found among the ranks of the unemployed. I have friends who, after 20 years of loyal service to their companies, now are out pounding the pavement for work.

We often worry most about the economic consequences of unemployment, and not having money to buy groceries, pay the rent or get shoes for the kids is certainly a problem to worry about. However, there are other problems the unemployed face that are just as serious -- problems that have to do with our emotions. Such consequences are not as easy to see as the other hardships of being out of work, but they are just as real.

The first emotional reaction to losing a job usually is shock. We cannot believe it has happened to us. We feel numb. Sometimes we are not able to think straight. For most of us, our jobs are an important part of our sense of identity, and suddenly we have had a big chunk of "us" taken away. "This can't be," we find ourselves thinking over and over again. But of course, it can be, and it is.

Eventually that sinks in, and we start to feel abandoned and betrayed. "After all I did for them!" Anger comes close on the heels of such feelings. "How could they? Those (expletive deleted)!" Anger is a natural reaction to feeling threatened. "Who is going to pay the bills? Will we lose the house? What will people think? Where will I find a job?" We feel threatened -- and frightened -- for a good reason. It seems like our entire world is in danger of falling apart.

There is also a sense of shame to being unemployed. In America, it is simply not accepted. We feel we don't fit anymore. No matter how little control we had over losing our job, we still feel ashamed at being out of work.

"I'd rather not talk about it," often becomes our standard reply. We feel ashamed, and frequently guilty as well. "It must be my fault. I'm to blame." Especially when our joblessness starts to take a toll on our families, we can be hit by an almost overwhelming sense guilt. The longer we are out of work, the easier it is to start to question our very worth as people.

Low self-esteem resulting from being unemployed soon spreads to other areas of our lives. "I can't get a job, can't feed the kids, can't even go out for a cheap meal, can't be a good parent, spouse, person. What good am I?"

If our unemployment continues, we can begin to feel both helpless and hopeless. "There is nothing I can do. There is nothing anybody can do. I'll never get a job. Why bother trying." Too often we abandon our search altogether. Some of us have even desperately grabbed at any alternative that seemed to offer a way out: crime, gambling, etc. That is certainly a worst-case scenario.

Fortunately, most people do not face such extreme consequences. We are able to find some sort of job, even if it means working outside our field, for low wages or part-time. Many of us, too, have the support of family and friends to help us through.

There are some steps we want to take to help us to deal with the emotional consequences of joblessness even if things don't get as bad as I have described above. We cannot wish emotions away, but we can identify them, understand them, accept them and express them in a healthy way. Identify them: anger, fear, shame, guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, desperation, etc.; putting a label on our feelings is the first step to dealing with them.

Once we have identified our emotions, we need to try to understand them. We want to sort out our reasons for feeling as we do. Feelings always make sense. Acceptance is likewise crucial. Our emotions are OK. When we are out of work, we have enough to worry about without giving ourselves a hard time for what we feel.

Finally, we need to express our emotions in a healthy manner. That often means talking about them to someone who cares -- a friend, family member, pastor or counselor. If we do not express our feelings in such positive ways, we will inevitably express them in negative ways. Anger gets taken out on the people close to us. Fear leads to desperate and usually destructive actions. Shame and guilt often result in withdrawal. Hopelessness and helplessness are part of depression.

The job picture is improving, but we have a long way to go. So whether we are among the ranks of the unemployed or have friends or family members who have lost their jobs, it is important that we are aware of the emotional consequences described above -- they can be just as difficult to deal with as the more obvious economic costs. Simply our awareness, however, can be the first step in dealing effectively with them.