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Better to Have Loved and Loss? Navigating Workplace Heartbreak

A mindset shift for when it all comes falling down.

It took me nearly a decade of work experience and a Ph.D. before I landed my dream job. Certifiable, it was accompanied by all the things that make these moments official including but not limited to, the “Mama I Made It!” Facebook post.

From the moment I started, I had the luxury of immersing myself in projects that were meaningful to me working alongside people I liked and respected. Sometimes I’d wonder if things could get any better, and my unshakable faith in the company and its leaders assured me that they could--they would!

I stood firm in that faith when the department's Leadership team announced a re-org that would impact me. My dream job would be eliminated and my new role significantly narrowed in scope. Acknowledging my potential, members of my leadership team encouraged me to apply for one of several newly-created manager-level roles.

This was it. This was the next step I’d been waiting for. I carefully chose the role that best suited my unique skill set, went through an extensive series of interviews, and waited with cautious optimism for the hiring manager to make me an offer.

One month passed. Then two. Then four. The offer never came. My professional world came crashing down instead.

“We’ve decided to go with an external candidate,” the hiring manager looked down averting her eyes as she spoke, “We value you--we do--but I have to do what’s best for [the company].”  

“I understand,” I said, the tears fell involuntarily.

I didn’t understand. Up until that point, I’d followed all the "work rules." I was twice as good, minimally disruptive, and patient only to be told that I wasn’t what was best for the company--for the team. It hurt. I was sadder than I ever thought I’d be.

A debilitating shame spiral took over. Steeped in self-doubt, the negative internal dialogue was persistent: “I was too ambitious; it’s threatening." Soon came anger and an obsession to show leadership the mistake they made by passing on me. Indignant and painfully determined, I spent hours of my day strategizing about how I’d prove them wrong. At best it was counterproductive. My work suffered as I fruitlessly tried to one-up a system I felt wronged by.

Intuitively, I knew it was time to get help. The shred of common sense I managed to hang on to drove me to seek advice from a trusted mentor. In doing so, I was able to implement a mindset shift that helped me find my way out of the woods.

While it didn't completely remove the negative thoughts, it did help me handle emotional landmines as I figured out what I really wanted. Here’s how I navigated feelings of love and loss after workplace heartbreak.

Accepting and Allowing

Much like the dissolution of a romantic relationship, it seemed impossible for me to move on without closure. I was consumed by the notion that I had something to prove and invariably obsessed over Leadership’s unwillingness to acknowledge any wrongdoing for...discrediting me? Devaluing me? In any case, I thought I needed retribution to progress.

At the height of this thought process my mentor kindly confronted me: “Chela, you need to accept that you might never prove them wrong. That apology you’re waiting for? It isn’t coming.”

Ouch. It was a hard pill to swallow. I’d been expending nearly all of my energy trying to control other people's actions and feelings. The effort to prove something to people who failed to see my worth was futile.

I practiced accepting and allowing my feelings of sadness and anger while letting go of the desire for revenge. For me, this behavior looked like an exercise in guided mindful meditation. Challenging at first, it became easier to be ok with the feelings. Maintaining this practice allowed me to acknowledge that I felt wronged but alleviated the burden that accompanied a persistent need for retaliation.

Changing My Story

I told myself that the decision makers who rejected me didn’t value me or my contribution, and I believed it. But was that truly the case? The fact of the matter was that I hadn’t been offered an opportunity that I desperately wanted. Someone more experienced was selected instead. That was it. In fact, I was also told (profusely) that I was a value-add to the team and they were grateful to have me. Instead of taking this at face value, I told myself a story about why everything was happening, which left me stuck in a story loop.

Employing a skill I learned in a Crucial Conversations workshop, I practiced separating the facts of my situation from the story I’d created.

I paused to consider two things. First I listed at least two other reasons (besides the ones in my head) why the leaders on my team would make the decision to go with an external candidate over me.

  1. The hiring manager wanted to ensure that she was getting the best talent possible, so she looked both externally and internally.
  2. The external candidate was truly fascinating and significantly more experienced.

Next, I asked myself why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would purposely exclude me from this opportunity if I was the most qualified. The answer to that, of course, is that a reasonable, rational, and decent person wouldn’t exclude me if I was the most qualified.

Theoretically logical? Of course, but stories are powerful. Our stories have a way of strong holding us into believing that they are absolute fact. Had I not stopped and paused to challenge my story, I would have continued to believe that the manager made a personal decision to harm me. I would’ve inhabited negative energy much longer than I needed to.

Determining My Value

Why was I hit so hard by the sting of defeat? Why was I obsessing? Sure, you could argue that I was over-committed to the work, but was my sense of self that deeply embedded in a job title? In a company? Turns out it was. Throughout my life--first in my many years of school and then in my work life--I’d been praised for doing a “good job." It taught me that I was valuable because I was productive or smart. I placed my value in my success because I thought it served me well. It was a dangerous place to be. The minute things didn’t go as I’d hoped or someone didn’t mirror assurance back to me, I fell into debilitating self-doubt.

Coming to terms with the fact that my self-worth was not measured by whether or not I received a promotion was challenging, and even more challenging was determining how it was measured. It required me to examine how I treated myself and others. What was I doing well apart from work tasks and job duties? I created a list:

  • I assured an overwhelmed friend that she was a good mother.
  • I listened to my husband vent about an issue at work without interrupting him. I was fully present.
  • I conquered my fear and went swimming in 10 ft. pool.

This did two things - it helped me see that I was courageous, kind, and thoughtful - all things that have absolutely nothing to do with the type of job I have or the company I work for. It also gave me a new standard for defining who I am. Success would come, but even if my career didn’t look how I thought it would, it was ok. I was not defined by whether or not I got a job offer.

Today I’m proud of the work I do. I contribute at a more advanced level and I’m continuously learning and growing. When the shame spirals start--and they do still--I practice the mindset shift. I let myself feel the feelings; I evaluate the story I’m telling myself; and most importantly, I remember who I am. I replaced my unshakable faith in a company and its leaders with unshakable faith in myself--knowing that I have the power.
I make the decisions now.

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