Dealing with unemployment can be isolating and professional development opportunities can exacerbate feelings of being alone. Even when surrounded by your peers. Read more about what I learned about the power of being vulnerable and honest about myself.
I spent a great deal of my time during 2018 and 2019 trying to find a new job since my last college closed. Since that time, I documented some of the ways I prepared myself for interviews, where I improved my skills in managing tough, personal questions and how I examined my personal values in relationship to the work did in the past and will do in the future.
I tried to prepare myself for a life that would segue from that immediate past into a future that allowed me to put my skills back into the working world. Honestly, I believed I was in a good headspace to navigate the student affairs conference I attended in 2019. I quickly learned that was not exactly the case.
At the closing session of the annual conference, I began to feel very panicked. Not from what was being said on the stage, or by the friends as they prepared themselves for flights home. I panicked because during the short time during the conference I felt like my old self.
In many ways, I felt like someone who contributed to the field, just another colleague who could help others achieve their goals. I could imagine the future and where I fit into it. And yet in those moments, I could see that future slipping away. I can only describe it, now, as feeling as though my professional identity was something I was holding on to temporarily, and I knew in the next hour it was going to leave me again.
And I Cried…
I held it together through the end of the conference and began saying my goodbyes. Since I was living locally, I wasn’t in any hurry to get home and sit by myself as was my daily ritual in the last few months. I was grateful to say goodbye to friends. These were friends I have known for most of my professional career, who helped shape my values and how I chose to serve others. And saying goodbye was definitely a trigger for me.
One of my mentors stood in front of me. Instead of saying bye, he looked me in the eyes, cocked his head to the side, and asked me “How are you feeling?”
I shrugged, trying to avoid thinking more about what I was feeling, but I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. He pulled me into a hug and I cried.
I cried because I saw myself trying to hold on to the past and it felt less clear at that moment how I needed to move on. Because I felt tired of feeling alone in this very depressing situation. And I cried because I no longer had the luxury of assuming I could travel to the next conference and be part of this wonderful community of scholar-practitioners.
I cried because I had no idea how to start or create work outside of an institution or without a boss. And I cried because I wanted so desperately to work again.
In short, I cried.
And then I felt better…
It only occurred to me later that this was literally the first time I had cried since hearing about the college closing. And it was cathartic. I didn’t know how to access those feelings but knew they were something I needed to release. Immediately after crying on my mentor’s shoulder, I felt a release from the emotions. That they were out in the world and no longer just hovering around my head.
My mentor looked me in the eye and said “I know you feel alone but right now, I’m here with you. And, I expect you to call me so we can talk about what you can do next.” I didn’t expect him to solve anything at the moment. But it just affirms that knowing someone is there to help you versus someone just saying off-hand ‘call me if you need anything!’ Thinking about my friends and their impact in the future is what I wanted and needed. His response what perfect in the moment.
It was and continues to be emotionally exhausting trying to navigate the world of being unemployed. The week of the conference was challenging in ways I continued to be unprepared to deal with. Yet I showed up at 8:30 am to still keep going. I was humbled by the gracious of new colleagues I met and surprised by the callousness of long-time friends.
I felt invigorated by the experience, being in the moment, and also traumatized by re-living the past ten months over and over. Even drafting this entry took me days to put into words, because of shame I felt about not securing a job in what felt like the right timeline and that I still stayed in this headspace where I couldn’t let go of the past.
…And then I didn’t feel alone
During the conference, I attended a panel session on unemployment in student affairs, led by Conor McLaughlin at Bowling Green State University. The panelists shared their own experiences that resonated with me. And in that moment I didn’t feel so alone. One of the biggest issues I faced at the time and now is how alone I feel in this experience. I know, now, I’ll have to confront this if I plan to move on.
In this post, I felt unsure if I wanted or need to share anything that could directly help provide some professional or personal development reflection. And I think that’s OK for this entry. It felt important to acknowledge that I see you and I hope that you see me.
Something happened worth noting, however. Once I began to tell people what I felt and what I needed more authentically, I began to believe more than before that I would make it through this experience.
We talk so much to our students about authenticity and being open to change and yet we are stymied to do the same. Being vulnerable has been a strong suit for me before, but I have learned that even those boundaries and walls I have kept up need to be explored.
I look forward to further exploring my vulnerability and where it will lead me. I know I can’t do this all by myself, and I invite anyone else who needs to build a community to reach out. We can do this together.
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I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop job-searching skills.
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