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“So, what do you do?”

When you’re unemployed and want to work, it’s awkward to start off a conversation as you’re introduced to someone new with this question asked of you. Yet, invariably, it seems to be one of the first things they ask you after walking over and saying hello. You’re hoping to make a good impression and the last thing you want to do is share something which exposes you to being viewed in a negative way. The result, you feel bad; they’ve zeroed in immediately on the one thing you’d rather not talk about right off the top.

People generally ask this question in the first minute of meeting someone and there are a few reasons we do. First and foremost, it’s a routine habit for many and it’s easy. When we first meet, we have no history spent together, no frame of reference to ground a conversation in, we’re unaware of any shared interests or views of the world. We’re looking for context; something we can ask that isn’t too personal, is acceptable to ask at a first meeting and we’d rather listen in those first two minutes than do much of the talking ourselves. Getting, rather than giving information empowers the person who asks first.

The empowerment comes having gained the advantage of having more time before they volunteer anything about themselves. Knowing what it is you do work-wise, they can respond to the same question, (for you’re likely to ask exactly the same question in reply) and so what they’ve really done is script the first exchange of information in a predictable way that makes the awkwardness of meeting less so. Ironic isn’t it? They’ve likely got a job and to eliminate their own awkwardness, they ask the very thing that makes it awkward for you!

Now on the other hand, if you’re quick, you can ask the person you’re meeting what it is they do, and when they’ve told you, you can pre-empt their asking you what you do by saying, “Wow, that’s quite interesting, tell me more.” As people often enjoy talking about themselves, you can forestall their asking of you by showing great interest in them and then voluntarily sharing something about yourself, such as a personal trait, general interest, passion or hobby.

But let me point out something to you, or remind you of just in case you’ve forgotten. There is so much more that defines you in addition to your employment status – what you do.

Your identity; how you see yourself and how you are seen by others is not solely comprised of your job/career. You may have other roles; mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather. You may be a weekend gardener, a woodworker, have a love of food and cooking, a flair for interior design, a book junkie, a church-goer or workout at the gym daily. You could be a caregiver, a fundraiser for a local charity, someone who works to improve the environment or the supporter of a healthcare cause. Maybe you’re a runner, a volunteer in your community, a good friend and trusted holder of secrets. You could be a singer in the choir, a leader in a youth organization, a helper on school outings, the watchful eyes of your neighbourhood, a patron of your local library, a supporter of a political party, and the list is endless.

The point is, there’s so much more to you – to all of us – than solely the job we get paid to do. Allowing others to define us by only one factor – our employment – is to sell ourselves short. But don’t blame others for seeing us this way. It’s our job – yours and mine – to first see the many roles we have. We have to see value in ourselves before we can expect others to see the same value in us. If we fail to share some of the many other facets that make up our identity, we can’t expect people to see us any other way but that which we share. So in other words, answer the question, “So what do you do?” by saying, “I’m not working at the moment”, and you’ve provided the person asking with only one piece of information for them to put you in some context they can understand. As unemployed is not generally a favourable situation, it’s them that feels awkward; and it’s their own awkwardness at how to proceed that often has them excuse themselves and move on.

And here, all the while, you thought it was only you who felt the situation awkward. Nope. Not true.

So you’ve got a choice; you always have a choice. You could state your unemployed and then go on to share something you’re passionate about or involved in that gives them the opportunity to respond favourably to whatever it is you share. Or you could just share what that passion or involvement is like this exchange:

“So what do you do?”

“At the moment I’m really concerned with the environment and so I’m involved with some community initiatives making our local area more sustainable for the future.”  No hint of unemployment, no shame or embarrassment and you’ve given the person asking something positive to respond to. Dignity preserved.

In advance of meeting others, you could also consider what YOU’LL ask them other than their own employment status. They too might be loathing the same question!


Rebuilding The Damaged Psyche

My business card says my job title is Employment Counsellor, but in truth, I spend a vast amount of my work life providing emotional support, helping others to see the good in themselves and doing everything I can to help people rebuild their fragile self-confidence. Yes, there’s so much more going on in the course of my day than employment counselling alone.

I’m fortunate to be in such a position actually and it comes with tremendous responsibility. When I think of all the people I’ve come into contact with through the course of my work, it’s more humbling than anything to realize just how lucky I am to have met so many wonderful people. And what makes it all the more remarkable is that our lives always intersect when they are at a low point; unemployed and financially dependent on social services support.

I tell you though, some of the stories I’ve been fortunate enough to have shared with me give me tremendous hope for many of them. You would be amazed to see and hear the resiliency in their voices; the determination to improve themselves and make better lives for their children, their hopes for a better future. To see the impoverished and only assess them by their financial health would be a mistake. They are first and foremost people, and they are deserving of respect, care, support and service with integrity just as any other person.

But here’s what I find tragic and regrettable. The vast majority of the unemployed people I come into contact with all share a damaged psyche. How they view themselves in the present and their prospects for the future is skewed because of how they’ve been treated in the past. Now sometimes the treatment they’ve experienced is clearly abhorrent; mistreated physically, sexually, financially by an abusing partner for example. However, I’ve also come to believe that far more people are held back, put down and damaged by less overt sources.

Just yesterday I was assisting a young woman as she crafted a targeted resume for a job she’s interested in. I noted in the choice of words she used during our conversation that she was fixated on her lack of paid employment as a barrier to getting an interview. I pointed out how some of the phrases she was using communicated a lack of confidence and doubt about her suitability for the job, and that in an interview, she’d be better off changing her language. I said I’d like to work on changing how she marketed herself but that first she’d have to truly believe in herself. She replied that I had my work cut out for me then because in College, they were all told their biggest liability was their lack of paid work experience and until they were hired, there was nothing they could do about that.


Isn’t it interesting to hear how this comment resonated so deeply with this one student? She told me that her lack of paid work was her biggest worry now that she was done school. So just to be clear, what she has going for her is: 1) just graduated with a diploma 2) she’s early twenties and can make a long commitment of service to an employer 3) she has 4 non-paid, positive experiences on her resume in her field, 4) she’s got the right aptitude for the position she’s going for and 5) she’s determined to succeed. And yet, with these and other positives to celebrate, she’s held up and hung up on that message from a trusted and respected Teacher that her lack of paid employment is this huge barrier.

I only have her version to comment on of course, but I would hope that trusted Teacher would have focused not on the lack of paid employment itself, but on strategies to circumnavigate the problem of a lack of paid employment. For her resume, I suggested we ditch the words, “co-op placement” entirely. While true, what I know to be the case is that not every employer values volunteer, co-op, internships and seasonal positions as much as they value paid employment. So instead of a heading, “Work Experience” which implies paid work, I always use, “Relevant Experience”. Under this heading, an applicant can put all their non-paid work right alongside any paid jobs; it is collectively then,  a summary of the positions held that are relevant to the job being applied to.

When we were done, I pointed out how we were still faithful to the truth; there were no lies on her resume, but the lack of paid work was now entirely concealed. What I saw in her was a smile, her shoulders dropped and relaxed from the tense, stress feeling she presented with initially, and she said, “I like it!” What was really happening was a small shift in her self-perception. She could defend this resume, she felt better about how she represented herself, and this sparked a boost in self-perception.

I don’t always win and I sure don’t know everything. I do know there’s more I don’t know that what I do know and this has me keen to learn more and keep discovering new approaches, new strategies and new ways to improve. What I do know with certainty however is that there are a lot of people walking around, appearing to function, ‘normally’ who are suffering with a damaged psyche. Let’s be careful to help not hinder, mind our words, mind our actions.

When You’re Lost And You’re Broken

Sure I’ve said before that having a job gives you a sense of identity; you see yourself as an employee of a company. When introduced to others you’ll often say as part of your answer what you do and who you work for, and conversely when you are out of work you’ve lost this part of your identity.

That being said, when you’re lost, trying to figure out what direction to go in life; when you’re feeling broken and what isn’t broken feels fragile, you may be wise to put your job search on hold. Now, sure an immediate job would indeed restore – if only shortly – that sense of who you are and give your flailing sense of confidence a boost. However, what a job gives you may be outweighed by what a job demands of you, and I’m just saying you might not be in the best frame of mind or have what it physically takes to keep it and be successful.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at this time with many areas of your life seemingly in chaos and confusion, you may find it comforting to know that what you’re experiencing is indeed quite normal. That doesn’t make it any easier perhaps, as it’s personal and it’s happening to you of course, but knowing that other people – and many of them – are or have experienced the same feelings you are can give a person a sense of hope.

So what I mean is that it isn’t just the lack of a job that’s likely got you worried. If only it was just that! No, it’s probable that you at also dealing with a growing lack of confidence and self-esteem. Could be you’re wondering more and more, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just have a normal life?” Without employment, you’re no doubt cutting back on buying healthy foods and buying them in the same numbers you used to. Maybe you’ve got growing anxiety as you feel left behind more and more and it’s leading to depression. You’re sleeping patterns are totally off, you can’t sleep when you do go to bed and you’re zapped of physical energy when you feel you should be up and going.

On top of all this you’re more irritable, negative thoughts seem to last longer and longer; drugs and alcohol to self-medicate give some short-term relief but the thoughts return and then you add guilt for having used them. Financial worries, accumulating debt, calls from creditors, losing time on your phone…when will it end?

So does this sound like the right time to be putting yourself out there as an attractive option for an employer? Likely not. More likely is the fact that you’ll try with little success to get a job and after having been turned down again and again, you’ll add to your growing frustration and just feel like giving up. Possibly worse, you may not even be aware that what you believe you’re doing a good job of concealing is on full display and a lot of other people can see the changes in you and know you’ve got issues going on.

Think I’m laying it on rather thick? That it couldn’t possibly be this bad? Well, sadly, I’m not illustrating the life of a handful of people here but actually sharing the experience of a rather large segment of the population. It’s sad yes, but for many of these people its debilitating. So it’s not helpful to say to everyone who lacks a job to just pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get out there and get a job. Don’t you think that given the choice they’d love to be working and feeling productive?

Thing is these are people with what appears to be invisible disabilities. There’s no cast on an arm, label on a forehead, crutch supporting their walk or warning sign they carry. Without these easy to read indicators, it can be difficult to then see what might explain erratic or self-destructive behaviours. Hence, the broken and fragile might not get the empathy they could use; the understanding and support that would be a start. As a result they may withdraw further and increase their isolation, loneliness, and ironically retreat to the places depression feeds and grows.

It’s hard to know where to start when so many things seem wrong and need attention; in fact it can be overwhelming. Reaching out for help does take effort, and yes it might take a few tries to find the right people who can counsel and offer the aid you want and need to help you on your way back. No one knows your personal struggles like you; you’re the expert when it comes to what you see as wrong, or needing attention.

A good doctor who listens and will make a referral is a good place to start. Seeing a Mental Health Counsellor (look them up online in your community or if you haven’t got a computer with internet access, visit a social services agency where you live.)

Rather than work on and fix all the areas where things are wrong, start with one. Just one thing to improve. Don’t give yourself the pressure of a deadline to ‘fix’ it either. Give yourself credit and give yourself permission to try perhaps with some room for setbacks too. May your efforts move you forward to a healthier and happier you.

No Applications? No Interviews. No Job. Simple.

The best way to get a 100% guarantee that employers will continue to reject and decline to offer you interviews is to stop applying for jobs altogether. Do this and you’ll be done with frustration, stress and the cycle of applying with hope only to taste the acrid bitterness of rejection; then to reapply again with optimism etc. Yes, give it up now and escape from voluntarily setting yourself up for ongoing disappointment.

Of course if you follow that opening advice, you’ll have a lot of time on your hands. Time that initially will seem like a wave of relief washing over you. After all, no more scouring the internet and job boards for minimum wage, entry-level jobs. No more fruitless networking meetings, resumes to tailor to specific jobs, no more need for LinkedIn; the freedom to post online whoever you are, whatever you want without a thought or care about who sees what. No more emails to send, nor the need to be checking your phone for possible invitations that never come. What a relief indeed!

The downside of course is that all this free time doesn’t exactly stop your brain from wandering back to thoughts of employment. Without a job or even looking for one, you’ve got about 7 hours a day, 35 hours a week, 140 hours a month etc. that you wouldn’t have if you were working. How many of those hours are you going to fill productively doing other things? Reading, traveling, exercising, watching television, fixing things around the home; all good in their own way, but for how long are these things going to keep bringing you the happiness they do now?

The most obvious stress for many is where does the money materialize from to allow you to keep living where you do now? There’s the rent or mortgage, food, utilities, repairs, transit, clothing, your morning jolt of caffeine. What about entertainment, unexpected expenses, illnesses, new glasses, dental visits, prescriptions, the virus protection on the laptop that needs renewing? Just a small list… So you start getting frugal if you haven’t already; thinking strategically about what you can do without; what you’re willing to sacrifice. That gets stressful after awhile doesn’t it? I mean, saying you’ll do without item B because you won’t give up item A only to find that in two month’s time your ‘must have’ item A is something you have to part with to keep item C. This is living?

Sometimes all these decisions just seem overwhelming right? Sure they do. This is when some people turn to self-medication which never really seems to have much of a lasting affect. Oh for a while they shift your thinking and provide short-term relief. In the long-run however the medications wear off and you’re back dealing with the original thoughts and you’ve added the lower self-worth and need for self-medication to your list of things to be disappointed with in yourself.

The thing about stressing while in a job search is that you’ve got one thing to hold on to that makes the frustration of a job search worth the effort; there’s the hope of success. Get into the interview stage when you’ve had a rough time even having your applications acknowledged and you’re making progress. Have a good interview or two and you feel the momentum building. Build on the momentum and you find your making the short-list; getting down to the last cuts. Get the job and all that frustration leading up to this moment suddenly becomes worthwhile. You appreciate the job more when you get it, you experience a moment of gratitude and appreciation for what it took to get you there.

All those expressions about putting in the hard work to get what you want, keeping your eyes focused on the destination or anything worth having is worth working for etc. suddenly have real meaning. You earned this one.

Gone are the days when many people got the first job they applied to or jobs just dropped into their laps without really even looking. Gone are the times when your good looks, natural charm, sexy clothing or mom could get you the job just for the asking. Well for most of us; there are still some regressive employers who still hire sexy, but think about it; do you really want to work for a person who hired you based on that? What are you setting yourself up for in the future? Get hired based on merit, job-specific and transferable skills, experience and you’re better off.

Don’t give up, give in, lose hope, listen to pessimism and grind your job search to a halt. Stick with your quest for employment and apply for jobs. Do your best to keep that positive outlook but allow yourself to be human and acknowledge the disappointment and frustration that a prolonged job search can bring. You can simultaneously be disappointed with progress but optimistic that you’ll eventually succeed.

Athletes have trainers, coaches and rely heavily on those who have previously achieved success to mentor them. Why not follow the same formula when you’re after something you ultimately want too? Seeking support while job searching, having a professional coach instruct you in how to be most effective and then having the discipline and intelligence to actually follow the advice you’re given with a commitment to your own improvement is exactly what successful people do.

Of course there’s always the alternative…


Low Self-Esteem? Lack Of Self-Confidence?

Are you the kind of person who others at first glance would assume has it all together when in fact you’re struggling with self-esteem and confidence issues? Do people look at you and say, “I wish I could be more like you”, and your response is to silently form the reply, “If you only knew; no you wouldn’t”?

I think many would be surprised to learn just how common this is. When I say that I run into people on a daily basis who are coping the best they can with issues of personal worth, self-esteem and self-efficacy, I’m not exaggerating. On the outside they appear to just be ordinary folks, blending in and going about their business, but they do so with higher degrees of personal stress, anxiety, and doubt.

These people face a number of personal challenges. First and foremost because they appear ‘normal’; (and the word itself is up for debate and defining) they don’t attract concern or empathy for what they feel. While they do their best to mask any visual clues that might reveal a lack of confidence and self-esteem, which helps them in some ways, they simultaneously make it harder for those around them to acknowledge their experience and provide support. The result is that people around them may hold them to higher expectations than they are capable of performing at, and when they falter, the cause of their failure may be incorrectly attributed to a lack of ability rather than a lack of self-confidence to perform a task.

Placed in the right environment with supportive people around them, such people can and do not only function well, they thrive. The issue then becomes finding such workplaces that have the right combination of supportive co-workers and management; where the culture is one of building up each other and people are truly valued as the most important resource the organization has.

It’s also easy to understand why people would try their best to go about concealing their lack of self-worth and low self-esteem. They certainly don’t want pity, nor do they want to be viewed as broken or fragile; even if from another’s point of view fragile they are. The last thing they want to is to be labelled as weak and vulnerable. So disclosing and sharing their self-doubt with respect to their abilities could cost them jobs at interviews, or opportunities for advancement when working and looking to make an internal move within an organization.

I find that low self-esteem is often deeply rooted in people who have been belittled and put down over long periods of time by others in positions of trust and authority; people who held meaningful places in their lives. It could be parents who said their children weren’t smart enough, strong enough, good enough for years. Then it could also be an abusive partner that preyed on them with the message, “You’re nothing without me” or, “You’ll never amount to anything”. Hear these kind of messages enough and you can understand why a person might just come to believe them.

It is of critical importance therefore that we all then become good caretakers of those around us. We do this when we extend thanks for work performed, acknowledge the good work of others around us or just check in with how someone is doing. It can be a genuine compliment on some action a person is taking, a word of appreciation for help received; small things perhaps but each one building on another. The cumulative impact of these small gestures can and does have a remarkable effect on long-term change for the better.

But to you…

You’ve got this nagging self-doubt about what you’re capable of and the fear of living up to what others expect from you. You fear failure; even the appearance of failure. You wonder about the implications of that and how that might alter what others think of you and what you don’t need is further proof that you aren’t up to what needs doing. You might be thinking it’s best not to try at all because you’re likely to fail and then what? More evidence that ‘they’ were right all along…

May I tell you that you need not live up to others expectations. Yes employers do have expectations of their employees, and just like everyone else, you want to do your best to meet those expectations. Start with work that has a high likelihood of success. As you master the basics and string together small victories and successes, you’re personal confidence will improve. If you look around with an objective eye, you’ll see every around you has their ups and downs, success and challenges. Some of us actually have the most spectacular fails but look and see how they still have the respect of those around them and still go on breathing and working; as will you.

We all have our own self-doubts; times when we call in professionals, excuse ourselves from participating because we are out of our areas of expertise. Likewise we all stretch ourselves just a little at times to take on new challenges to find out what we are capable of and grow.

Rebuilding your own self-worth, self-esteem and coming to realize your contributions are valued as are you as a person make take time. It is strength to share your feelings with someone you trust, and that can make all the difference.

Yes You Are A Person Of Value

In my line of work I come into contact on a daily basis with people who have poor or fragile self-esteem. In fact, if you were listening in on the conversations we have you’d hear many of them state unequivocally that they have zero self-esteem, no personal pride and feel they have nothing to offer any decent employer out there. As a consequence, many feel that all the bad things that happen to them in their lives come because they deserve them.

It is truly heart-breaking to see people who are broken and resigned to lives where they’ve given up; given up just trying to lead what they see as a normal life. They want a steady job, to feel appreciated and valued, to earn their way in this world and most of all to shed feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression, low-self image and fatigue.

Unfortunately they’ve been negatively influenced by key people in their lives on a long-term regular basis. Isn’t it a sad commentary that there are so many others who actually seek out those with poor self-image and low self-esteem in order to ultimately control these people by dominating them for their own gain?

Sometimes it starts with members of ones own family with verbal abuse. Comments like, “Why can’t you be successful like your big sister?” or “You’ll never amount to much you know” are hurtful and can become ingrained in the person’s mind when on the receiving end. Not doing well in school or in those awkward teenage years (which many of us experienced) is magnified and only acts as further proof when the verbally bashing is going on at home.

Take this into early adulthood and predatory people who look to target others and victimize them appear on the one hand to take care of them, but on the other hand treat them poorly. Oddly enough, some victims think how they are being treated is normal; that in some perverted way they deserve what they get. Sad.

Ideas of financial independence, self-reliance, self-governance and respect are alien and ideas of long-term planning, setting and reaching personal goals and being successful aren’t even on their radar.

Here’s the good news. Everyone is a person of value; yes you too. You might not believe it at the moment and think  everyone ELSE is a person of value, but I believe that there’s value in you.

While you might have a lot of difficulty identifying useful skills and the kind of work that you’d be good at and more to the point enjoy, you’d be wrong if you think nobody out there would hire a person like you. This is essential to realize because you might have someone in your life who continues to put you down, tells you you’re worthless and you’re best just to continue to do what they tell you.

These kind of people aren’t healthy to be around because of the way in which they exploit others. These folks would rather seek out and dominate others rather than struggle to advance themselves in society. But back to you rather than wasting more time speaking of them.

Let’s suppose you’re living on a fixed income; social support. Have you ever considered that you’re an expert on stretching your resources in order to put food on the table? A lot of the folks who work in government and decide how much a person on assistance gets couldn’t themselves navigate the systems they create but you do every day. In other words, if many employed people lost their jobs today, they wouldn’t thrive as well as you do and they’d be looking to you for guidance.

I bet you’re resilient; you thrive by adapting to the situations in which you find yourself. You’ve got stamina and I suspect you also have a good eye for bargains; you know where to shop for the best deals, you’ve got a network of contacts in the community you can rely on and maybe you even know the places to go for food, clothing and other kinds of help.

Are you someone who others dump their troubles on? Could be others see you as a good listener and someone they can trust with their secrets. You’re adaptable for sure.

A good idea is to write down what you’re good at and how others see you; the good people not those controlling negative types. If you have problems, that makes you normal; human. We all have issues of one kind or another and some of us have multiple issues; some people who look together would surprise you.

Before you can hunt down the kind of work that’s right for you, it’s a good first step to get to know yourself and what makes you tick. Contact community services in your community and ask about Life Management classes, personal improvement workshops and self-help or development programs. Each community will be able to support you with help depending on what they offer.

I’m proud of you for having put up with all the negativity you’ve had to over your life time. Now is your time however; let’s do something about it and break free so you can have the life you deserve!

Not you I’m talking about? Do someone a favour and consider sharing  this online or posting this in your workplace where someone might see it and start a conversation.