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How to Overcome Job Search 'Paralysis'

Q: After 15 years as a geologist with a major oil company, I've been terminated. I understand why my firm can't afford to keep me and I appreciate its efforts to help me find another job through outplacement. Certainly, I'm grateful for the generous severance package I was given.

My problem is that two months after my final day on the job, I still can't believe I'm unemployed. This kind of thing happens to other people, not me. Why am I stuck In this paralyzed state? How can I push myself to get on with the job search Iam guiltily avoiding?

A: Whether you realize it or not, you are suffering from the grief of losing a crucial piece of your life and identity. In fact, you are reacting much like people who have lost a loved one through death or divorce. Their relationship with a spouse, child, parent or friend represents an important component of who they are. When the relationship dies, a piece of them goes with it.

The grief you feel probably will evolve through several stages: denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. (This concept was developed by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.) It's likely you will experience each of these in the next few months. Right now, your question suggests that y0u are stuck in denial. You aren't ready to accept that the reward­ ing career you enjoyed for years is suddenly gone. What's more, it's been taken away from you through no fault of your own.

If you had been incompetent or unhappy as a geologist, the desire to change careers probably would neutralize your current paralysis. Because of your past contentment you have no pressing reason to change, especially as financial realities aren't forcing you to find a new job.

The first sign of positive movement toward healing your grief will probably seem negative. Gradually you'll get angry. You'll curse OPEC, your company, the tunnel-visioned American public, your nagging spouse and anyone else you see as responsible for your predicament. If you can channel this anger in a positive direction, then you'll start moving on your job search. A lot has been accomplished by people with an "I'll show you!" motivation.

Anger often changes to bargaining as the grief process progresses. You may start offering deals. To your wife, "I promise that I'll look outside my field if I haven't found a job in the next two months." To God, or yourself, "If I get a good job I swear I'll never smoke again," or "If I find another geologist position, I will be grateful and satisfied forever."

Finally, after all of this emotional upheaval, there is acceptance. With acceptance comes the realization that you must learn to live with this painful change because it's real. You can't ignore it, fight it or bargain with it. This stage of grief offers comfort, peace and renewed energy if you use it to address new challenges. However, it also can lead to bitter resignation or deep depression if the anger is still there.

It's hard to say how long your grief will last, but you can speed up the process-or at least under­ stand it better-if you take advantage of outplacement services or career counseling. Professionals in those fields know what you're going through. They can help redirect your grief and make its energy work for you.

If you prefer to be your own adviser, begin by identifying your transferrable skills, those not necessarily related to geology. Think about how you can use your natural talents to investigate other careers that sound intriguing. Then talk to friends or friends of friends in those fields. You will undoubtedly find that your skills are valuable in many other professions.

When you feel sorry for yourself, try concentrating on the ways you can make lemonade out of your lemon of a situation. You may even uncover another career that's more fun (and more stable) than the one you swore you'd never leave.


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