Feeling Good in Tough Times

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Riding out the global recession means marshaling your emotional resources as much as managing your finances. You can use today’s economic setback as a catalyst for personal growth right now — even before the recovery takes hold.

Feel the Loss

2008 heralded the beginning of a global recession unlike anything since the 1930s. For the first time in generations, nearly every economic sector in every part of the world was in free-fall. People lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings, and in many cases their aspirations for a better life.

One obstacle to recovery — emotional and economic — is denial. Believing that nothing has changed — the old ways will work when evidence shows they won’t, applying the pre-recession formulas to a post-recession economy — is a sure road to helplessness and hopelessness.

Gaining a broader perspective, even if the view is ugly, can help. If you get laid off, it’s natural to blame yourself. But if you check in with your professional network and find out how bad the cuts were across your industry, it can help cut down on the self-blame. Understanding what you can’t control isn’t making excuses, it’s having a realistic view that helps you get ready for what’s coming next. And as bad as things may be, a thorough investigation may turn up bright spots and new opportunities.

It’s a paradox, but I believe the first step to feeling better during the recession — during the recession, not after — is to really spend some time feeling the emotions that this economic upheaval has triggered. For many those feelings might include fear at the loss of a job (or the specter of being let go next), anger at feeling like the social contract has been violated, or sadness at losing what was once a dream home. Even though we’re going through the same crisis, our paths are different and our feelings will be different. Getting real about the recession, how it robbed us of both our wealth and our peace of mind, is a necessary step for emotional and economic recovery.

Reassess Success

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When times are good it’s easy to get caught up in materialism. Buying the next TV, next car, or next home becomes a way of life. But the end of the party can leave us with a nasty hangover. If we’re not careful, we lose perspective on what money really means in our lives. For some of us, being forced to do without can reawaken what really matters. Was work all about making money? What about achievement and contribution? What about the friends you had at work? If these things went away when your job evaporated, can you get them back even without a paycheck?

Working full-time dictates many decisions that might not be obvious until the work is gone. Much of your time is spoken for. Your location and manner of dress are constrained. Vacations are confined to just a week or two per year, planned far in advance. Yet some of the long-term unemployed have defied their panic to pursue travel, hobbies, and outright loafing that would be impossible given a “day job”. They’ve found happiness without a paycheck, at least for a time. They’ve even coined a phrase for this lifestyle: “funemployment.”

Question Assumptions

Living the “funemployment” lifestyle might seem irresponsible or impossible to many. But if what we used to do won’t work anymore, then why not revisit all the old assumptions? Why couldn’t you start a business? (FedEx, CNN, and MTV were all born in recessions.) Could you become a contractor or otherwise find a way to make money without doing the nine-to-five daily grind?

And while you’re pondering income, it may also be time to reconsider your expenses. If you’ve reassessed your values, then are all the things you pay for now really bringing you joy? Andrew Tobias is quoted as saying “A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity.” Do you need a physical phone line when you have a cell phone? Can you drop your cable television and watch TV through the Internet? If you’re not tied to your old job, can you move somewhere less expensive? The “voluntary simplicity” movement used to be trendy, but now the practice takes on real significance. I don’t want to minimize the fact that many families may already be living lean and may be pushed to the edge or beyond by this economy. But I do believe that creativity and self-awareness can awaken us to how little money we really need to live fulfilling lives.

Take Inventory

For those well into their careers, the idea of “career choice” or “choosing the work that’s best for you” might have seemed like a pipe dream as long as they had something that reliably paid the bills. If financial stability and security is off the table for the time being, why not check in with what you wanted to do when you were younger? What skills and interests did you set aside for a paycheck that won’t be coming anymore? How can you use the skills you’ve already acquired in a new way? Recession is typically the season when disaffected workers return to school to add to their list of certificates and degrees, but doing your inner work, discovering a new career that pays emotional or spiritual dividends in addition to the financial ones, could take you places you’d never go had you kept your day job.

Set a New Course (or Ride the Wind)

All major setbacks in life, (and this recession is no exception,) tend to prompt one of two major responses. The first includes helplessness, hopelessness and shutting down. When this response reaches clinical levels, we call it “depression.” But for those who can get past the initial shock of the loss, face the facts accurately, and connect with their inner resources and creativity, the recession can be the beginning of something new, different, and potentially better than the “good old days.” In some sense, every boom contains the seeds of the next bust in that success tends to make people complacent. Every bust contains the seeds of the next boom because the loss motivates new thinking and liberates time and energy from those displaced. Losing old dreams clears the way for new and different aspirations that would have seemed “too risky” before the crash.

But not everyone will have a new “five year plan.” Perhaps the most profound lesson of this recession is discovering how much of life is beyond prediction or control. While this may seem disempowering at face value, learning to let go of what we can’t control and to focus on things close at hand puts us in a better position to affect the things we can change. We may reconnect with our own sense of self-efficacy or our faith in a higher power to make a way for us. Rather than rigidly clinging to the One Right Way to solve our problems, our awareness and acceptance of constant change can help us respond flexibly. When we transform what was once a threat to the status quo into a call for growth and development, then we have the chance to trade our fear for curiosity and our hopelessness for optimism.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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