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Joblessness and Symbolic Loss

Joblessness and Symbolic LossWe live in a stressful society. We need to keep up with the hustle and bustle of everyday, as well as professional, life. Stress might feel more commonplace than a sense of peace.

Although there are several difficult, nationwide events that we are all currently adapting to, one of the most talked-about stressors in modern American culture is the dramatic rise in unemployment.

Current Trends

Joblessness is becoming more widespread in the United States. For example, in January 2001, the unemployment rate of individuals 16 years and older was 4.2 percent. By January 2011, this percentage more than doubled to 9.7 percent (Department of Labor, 2011). The situation seems to be improving in 2012.

A rapidly increasing unemployment rate can dramatically affect people who are out of work, as well as those struggling to keep their jobs.

Psychologically, our thinking dictates our feelings about a situation. For one person, unemployment might stir up a fear of the inability to feed the family. For another, it might induce anxiety — covering the rent may feel impossible. It might take on more symbolic meanings such as loss of identity, loss of meaning in life, loss of routine, or loss of a sense of competency.

While these thoughts are common, they are not necessarily valid or rational, and may lead to depression. In a study by Dooley, Catalano, and Wilson (1994) that surveyed both employed and unemployed people, it was found that individuals who became unemployed were more than twice as likely to experience increased depressive symptoms or the risk of becoming clinically depressed.

How We Depress Ourselves

A situation does not make us a feel a certain way. It does not choose how we feel. Rather, we choose how we think about, perceive, and process the situation. Our thinking influences how we feel and behave.

A wise professor once told me to think about any terrorist attack that I had read about. Our nation reacted with fear, disgust, hatred, and grief. However, those who perpetrated the act felt pride, power, and happiness. Different perceptions of the same situation influence our feelings.

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Restructuring thinking regarding unemployment can be difficult but helpful. Thinking about job loss in maladaptive ways and becoming upset over its symbolism creates an inner emotional storm of irrational beliefs. We cannot control the economy, downsizing, and employment, but we can control how we feel.

Common Irrational Thoughts

  • “My life is over; I have no purpose or meaning now that I have no job.”

    Replacement Thought: “My life is not over, I’m just on a hiatus until I find a new job.” “While I’m off I can focus on being a parent. That brings meaning to my life as well.”

  • “I’m no longer me without my job as a…”

    Replacement Thought: “I am still me without my job. My job is what I do, not who I am.”

  • “I’ll never find another job.”

    Replacement Thought: “People DO find jobs! I can definitely find one, but it might take time. Obsessing about this will not make a job come faster”

  • “People will think I’m a loser.”

    Replacement Thought: “People know this is a tough time for the economy. They will understand. Plus, do I really need others’ approval?” “How can I be a loser if I have this amazing set of unique skills? No one can take this from me. I still possess these skills without my job. I can attempt to translate them to a new one.”

  • “Drinking and drugging will help me to fill this empty, hopeless feeling.”

    Replacement Thought: “This behavior perpetuates the cycle. Substance abuse fuels depressive symptoms. Now I will have two problems – substance abuse and unemployment. This is not filling my emptiness, but instead encourages hopeless feelings.”

  • “I’m too depressed to leave the house and look for work. How else should I feel?!”

    Replacement Thought: “I can feel sad or disappointed, that’s normal. There’s no need to be depressed. I might feel like I’m too depressed to do anything, but the decision to get out of bed lies with me, not my depression. I can actively choose how to behave. Sometimes, the best way to feel better is to get out and do something, so I’ll give that a shot tomorrow.”

Self-Help Exercise

Try this simple, fun self-help exercise for changing your thinking: Go out to your nearest dollar store or stationery shop and pick up a small flip notebook that you can fit in your pocket. Each time you catch yourself thinking an irrational thought about your situation, write the thought down in your notebook, labeling it “irrational thought” or “thought A.” Write a few key words underneath it about how you currently feel. Underneath it, write a new, rational, adaptive thought, and label it “replacement thought,” or “thought B.” Underneath this, write a few key words about how your mood has changed. Do you feel more at ease? Less stressed?

This exercise will allow you to establish a trend in your thinking. It will also help you practice identifying and replacing irrational thoughts that stop you from feeling the way you want to feel. After some time, you will not need your trusty notebook anymore!


Dooley, D., Catalano, R., & Wilson, G. (1994). Depression and unemployment: Panel findings from the epidemiologic catchment area study. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22(6).

United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011). Labor force statistics from the current population survey. Retrieved from

Joblessness and Symbolic Loss

Tyler J. Andreula

Tyler J. Andreula graduated Summa Cum Laude from Montclair State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology. Soon after, he went on to pursue a Master of Arts degree in counseling at Montclair State University, along with training in substance abuse counseling at Capella University, and training in cognitive-behavioral therapy from the Rational Living Therapy Institute. Tyler is a member of Chi Sigma Iota (the honor society for professional counselors), the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, the American Counseling Association, and the American School Counseling Association. He currently works primarily with adolescents and their family members.

APA Reference
Andreula, T. (2018). Joblessness and Symbolic Loss. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.