Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

The Great Re-Set: Part 1: Losing my job and sense of self – Beginning the journey of self-rediscovery

Have you ever been rocked by a life event or series of life events so profound that the lens through which you viewed yourself and your life path as you knew it was permanently altered? I experienced the first of two such events about 5 years ago when I lost my job. It happened by e-mail —a perfunctory, unceremonious message stating that my contract would not be renewed. Adding insult to injury, the e-mail was written by an individual whom I had, in those comparatively young, impressionable, early professional years, viewed as a friend and in some cases as a nurturing maternal figure. I was completely unprepared for this dramatic turn of events, and remember sitting at my desk, staring at my computer in a state of complete shock. My mind vacillated between thoughts of how this could possibly befall me of all people (a misplaced pride), and what ever was I going to do next? In those years of working at this job, I had settled into a certain rhythm or routine, and as a result never seriously contemplated life after this job and without these co-workers (several of whom were close, personal friends), even though I knew that the day would eventually come — of course, on my own timetable — when I would feel it was time to move on…

There were signs, of course – there always are. Some subtle and not so subtle – that all was not well in my organization, including an escalating interpersonal conflict, but I had been at this job – a clinical role – for almost 10 years (initially as a student completing a Master’s thesis), and I had assumed (wrongly) that my performance record was of such a calibre as to render me untouchable. What hubris! I don’t know how this perception of invincibility took root as I am inherently somewhat on the anxious side with perfectionistic tendencies, driven to improve and never satisfied with just meeting a benchmark or expectations. And yet, over time, gradually and almost imperceptibly, I would acknowledge in retrospect, that a certain boredom or complacency had set in, and I had found myself feeling less excited and stimulated by my work and by some of the people I worked with.

[This is a photo I took last summer at one my favourite beaches – Lawrencetown Beach in Nova Scotia – known for its rocks, ruggedness, crashing ocean waves, and powerful riptides. It’s a great place to walk, think, and listen, and marvel at the surfers braving the cold waves of the Atlantic and the incredible, raw power of Nature.]

Instead of making plans to move on, however, as one should when one’s clearly maxed out one’s role or job, I had somehow (incredibly) convinced myself that I was comfortable and satisfied (!?) with the status quo, rationalizing that it was ok to settle and ignore feelings of restlessness, because people settled all the time and were happy — or so I thought… Besides, I further reasoned, there was no mechanism for advancement in my line of work anyway, so there was ostensibly no place for me to go, no higher echelon to climb. I therefore had to settle at some point, right? Adding further complication, and perhaps my own single biggest mistake, was the many close, familial-like attachments I had formed at this organization. As someone living away from most of my family and being more on the introverted side (but not purely so), I’ve always found it tough putting myself out there and meeting new people – be it in a professional or personal context. (I would be the last one to work the room at a cocktail party!) I had met many wonderful, like-minded, educated people at this academic place, some of whom were students and others, clinicians. I had really felt at “home”; these were truly my peeps… All this to say — which might be a controversial notion for some — is that I think it can be risky to cultivate such close personal relationships with people at work; and in my particular case, essentially blurring the lines (on occasion) between work life and personal life. Don’t get me wrong, some of my happiest memories were made with people I had met through work. But, it was a mistake for me to use these relationships as a justification to overlook the growing disquiet I was feeling with my job. I am certain that it was because of the fear I had of losing these valued friendships coupled with a belief that I would never find a better job if I left, that I got myself stuck in an unhealthy state of inertia for far too long.

Looking back, I am convinced I should’ve moved on from that organization two years after completing my MSc, and not seven — when the first signs of restlessness appeared on my internal radar. Although it still wouldn’t have been easy emotionally to have exited so early, I would’ve most assuredly left on a high note and probably retained a couple of key professional contacts to support future academic or professional pursuits…  Though it does not change things, I often wonder how different my professional – and perhaps even, personal – life might have turned out had I left sooner rather than later… (Fortunately, time really does heal wounds, and I can honestly say that I have reconciled with all but one of these previously strained professional relationships.)

Losing a job is an incredibly humbling experience. Sadly, it is an all-too-common occurrence and one that many of us will experience either personally or through family or friends over the course of our professional lives. In my case, I lost not only my job, but more importantly, my sense of self or the identity I had assumed while I was a part of that organization… I didn’t know who I was professionally anymore, and sought the advice of a career coach to help me figure out who I was, what my natural talents were, and what kind of work I might love doing. (This was only somewhat helpful, as the cost of longer-term, in-depth coaching was prohibitive for me.) After several, unsuccessful months trying to find new employment and keep myself afloat financially, I finally realized I would have no choice but to move back (temporarily) to my hometown (in another province) and in with my parents in order to recalibrate emotionally and re-establish myself financially. Inevitably, I did lose touch with some friends, and saw other friendships change in the case of those with whom I stayed in touch. It was not an easy time… I was also carrying a lot of anger and resentment about the way in which I was let go. Moving back to my hometown, however, was probably the wisest decision I made. I had the unwavering support of family, and eventually, I met some great new friends, whom I am still in touch with. I also had a fantastic experience working at a local hospital and as a teaching assistant at a university – both of which challenged me in new and exciting ways, especially in becoming more flexible, adaptable, and self-aware. I read Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, which resonated deeply with me. (The movie? Not so much.) In addition to validating the emotions I experienced related to the loss of the job, I also learned to accept a certain ambiguity in life, and that the belief I held that I exerted some kind of master control over most aspects of my life was pure fallacy and fiction. In short, I spent a lot of time reflecting, and in the process, learned a great deal about myself and what makes me tick. (The process continues to this day.)… Eventually, my confidence began to return and perhaps as a litmus test of how my thinking had evolved in this period of reacquainting myself with myself, I took a leap, applied to a specialized doctorate program. I got in, but then pulled the plug at the last minute, because this time, I chose not to ignore the increasingly nagging feelings I was having after my acceptance: just because I had been on a certain professional path since I was 18 didn’t mean I had to stay on it (despite the encouragement and what I perceived to be the expectations of others), especially if I didn’t love this path – or even really like it. The cost of such an ill-advised investment would’ve been incalculable…

About a year and a half after my move back home with my parents, I was recruited to work in Ottawa. Although I was feeling, looking, and doing better than I had in a long while, living back in my hometown, I was quite sensitized to the fact I had overstayed my last job and did not want to make the same mistake again of falling into that dangerous comfort zone of status quo coasting that can be the slippery slope to inertia. So, I took another more calculated risk, and relocated to Ottawa to try my hand at government work — a completely new sector for me — and embark on a novel adventure in a brand new city…

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