In October 2014, the ax finally fell.
I’d been half-expecting it for years, joking with friends that any day I would be replaced by a pair of cheap and perky interns or one of those nifty computer algorithms. But when it actually happened, all that nonchalant wise-crackery went out the window. I was hurt. Mournful. And then: Ashamed.
Ridiculous, right? There’s no shame in a layoff. Especially in this post-recession era. Especially in print media, which has been shedding employees at warp speed for years. Some of the smartest writers and editors I know have been laid off almost yearly.
Still, I was embarrassed. (Though comfortingly, it’s not just me—”layoff shame” gets 1.92 million hits on Google.)
I can’t speak for the zillions of others who’ve found a layoff to be publicly mortifying. But I know that it took a toll on my self-image, not to mention the image I wished to project to others. I’d fashioned myself a go-to person, a workhorse, indispensable—and my ego was heavily (and unhealthily) invested in that self-perception. I worried the layoff would be perceived as my failure. Or synonymous with being fired. I worried that people in my life would wonder if I’d been feigning competence all along.
At work, there was no hiding the fact. It was public knowledge; I was just one of a number of people to lose their jobs on the same day. During the weeks that transpired between my layoff and the day I finished up my job, coworkers looked at me with Sad Face, like I’d just contracted a rare tropical disease or had worn a particularly unflattering blouse. They all meant well, and I didn’t blame them for feeling awkward; I’m sure I’d done the same thing when others had gotten pink-slipped before me. But I bristled at being an object of pity. So when discomfited coworkers, trapped between me and the coffee machine, asked how I was doing, I tended to answer in a vaguely ecstatic voice with some version of: OMG SO AWESOME NEVER BETTER WHY DO YOU ASK?
Outside the company, it was a different thing altogether. I told the unvarnished truth to my family, my closest friends, some work contacts, and those people at the party where I had too much rosé. In the rest of the world, I embraced an array of weasel words:
• Press release doublespeak: “The magazine and I are parting company.”
• Curated for Facebook: “I am departing my job.”
• Technically true but somewhat misleading: “I’m leaving my position.”
• Pseudo-deathbed variation: “It’s just my time to go.”
I hadn’t expected to be complimented for leaving, though. In response to my emails or posts, some friends and contacts praised my bold and risky move of leaving a secure job for the unstable world of freelance. And then I felt sheepish, and came clean. I didn’t deserve praise. I hadn’t leapt. I was pushed.
In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten better about admitting that I was let go. Not just because it’s true, but because shame grows in dark, quiet places. Expose it to the light of day, and it slowly but irrevocably begins to disappear.