The Psychology Of Unemployment

How should unemployed workers deal with their feelings? Robert Leahy, president of The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and author of The Worry Cure talks about the psychology involved.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

As we just heard, there are huge psychological components to being laid off. With me now, Dr. Robert Leahy. He's a psychologist and professor of psychology, and also the author of "The Worry Cure." And Dr. Leahy, it really is hard not to take it personally when you've been laid off even if your company says you did nothing wrong. It's just the economy. So how should people deal about it psychologically?

Dr. ROBERT LEAHY (President, The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy; Author, "The Worry Cure"): I think, you know, losing your job is one of the most difficult life experiences that people will go through. And so the first thing I tell people to do is to validate themselves. In other words, you have every right to feel angry and sad and anxious and even hopeless. But having said that, the question really is how long do you want to stay stuck in that position of being angry and anxious?

BRAND: You know, a lot of people who are successful at their jobs identify very strongly with their jobs, with their profession. They say, I am Joe Blow and...

Dr. LEAHY: Yes.

BRAND: I work at X company and that's a big strong part of their identity. And so I imagine when those people lose their jobs, it's particularly devastating because a part of their identity is gone.

Dr. LEAHY: Right. I ask people to sort of, you know, draw out a pie chart like if you had a circle and you're going to divide the different parts of the circle into who you are. You're a brother, sister, son, father, mother, whatever, daughter, friend, you're a member of a community, you're somebody who can help other people. There's a tendency in our society to overidentify with the role of a job, but we're many, many, many other things. So redefining and sort of expanding your definition of who you are is a magnificent way of empowering yourself.

BRAND: In this recession, it seems - there seem to be more men out of work than women now; the layoffs are affecting industries that are dominated by men, and so a lot of men are finding themselves at home, maybe for the first time, taking care of children and dealing with domestic duties. Do you hear from your patients that there's that kind of anxiety about role reversals? And how do you advise people to handle that?

Dr. LEAHY: What we know in the last 25 years is that men and women are sharing more of these responsibilities. It can be an opportunity where people find OK, I'm not at my job at the office. I'm at my job at home, and part of my job at home is to help out and to be supportive and be there for my kids.

BRAND: So really, you know, just to sum this up, this is really an opportunity, you're saying, to look at your life differently, make changes that'll enrich your life, and to perhaps pursue things that you really enjoy and may prove fruitful down the line.

Dr. LEAHY: Very few people are permanently unemployed. It's time in between one job and the next job and how do you make best use of that time. Time is a value. Time is something that's useful.

BRAND: Now this is provided that, you know, you're not about to lose your home, that you're not in really dire financial shape, that you haven't lost all your health insurance...

Dr. LEAHY: Right.

BRAND: And you're facing, you know, a terminal illness. You know...

Dr. LEAHY: Right.

BRAND: Really bad, bad things.

Dr. LEAHY: Those are very difficult things to cope with, and certainly, those are realities unfortunately for millions of Americans. There are some things that we can do things about and there are some things we can't do things about. But if we focus on how you change the way you look at it, what you do, how you communicate, clarifying and prioritizing your values, becoming part of the community, helping other people, you don't have to wait six months to do those things. You can start doing some of those things today.

BRAND: You don't even have to wait till you're laid off to do these things. Let's just put that out there.

Dr. LEAHY: You know, it's a way of living your life that works well all the time, but it's a great set of tools to have during this particular time, the time in between jobs.

BRAND: Psychologist Robert Leahy teaches at Cornell University School of Medicine. He is also author of the book "The Worry Cure." Dr. Leahy, thank you very much.

Dr. LEAHY: Thanks, Madeleine.

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