Job Loss and Undeserved Shame


May was a better month, we’re told. The good news was that last month our economy “shed” only 345,000 jobs. That number, of course, is a net figure obtained by subtracting jobs lost from jobs gained, which means that more than 345,000 people actually lost their jobs. I find the verb “shed” offensive. Dogs shed their dead hairs which have been replaced by new ones. Shedding implies dropping something no longer useful and needed. If you are one of the more than 345,000 people who lost their jobs in the better month of May, you may not appreciate the idea that the economy of the land has shed you like a dead dog hair.

Here are my questions. Why does losing one’s job feel so shameful when it’s not the person’s fault in any way but just a result of the economic recession? Why do we feel ashamed when we have done nothing to be ashamed of? 

Why do we feel ashamed when we have done nothing to be ashamed of?

We need to answer those questions so we can move on from “why?” to the practical question of “how?”: How do we deal with undeserved shame, avoiding depression, cynicism, and sustained rage? Let’s start with “why?”

Job loss triggers a certain affect in our bodies. I am using the term “affect” as in the theory of human emotions developed by Silvan S. Tomkins and furthered by Donald L. Nathanson and others. Tomkins identified nine affects, which are neuro-chemical events triggered in us by the stimuli of living. It’s our biology. Of the negative affects, perhaps the most painful and difficult is shame-humiliation. Tomkins gave the affect a hyphenated name to suggest its range of intensities.

Get this. The shame affect is triggered (in an infant, child, or adult) when either of the two positive affects (interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy) is interrupted while the person still wishes it to continue. That pretty well describes job loss, doesn’t it? You still wanted (and needed) your job, but suddenly it was taken from you. You did nothing wrong. In a state of shock (the confusion, the temporary loss of mental control, caused by a major event of shame affect), you may have heard your company’s bosses or human resources people telling you things like, “It’s nothing personal,” meaning you weren’t singled out because of who you are or what you’ve done. “You can be proud of your work here.” Yeah, sure, I’m feeling really proud right now as you’re telling me everything I was working on has been cut off and I’m out of here. A few moments ago, I belonged here, had friends and coworkers here, had projects and a future here, and suddenly I’ve become an outsider to be escorted to the door as though I were an intruder.

The shame affect causes (in infants who feel no actual shame or embarrassment yet) drooping shoulders, downcast eyes, and a lowering of the head slightly to one side. “You can walk out of here with your head held high.” Right.

As adults, we have implanted in our minds, whether or not we affirm it intellectually, the notion that people get what they deserve. It’s a lie, but we have been trained and taught to believe it. And we do believe it, at least when it comes to our own “failures.” Because of the shame affect and all the experiences we have associated with it over the years of our growing up, a job loss feels like a failure, even to the person who has not failed in any way. Suddenly, we feel as though we must apologize to our families, other people, and ourselves – even to strangers to whom we are introduced. “And what do you do?” I’m unemployed at the moment. (But, you may want to shout, even though you know not to, it wasn’t my fault!) As a society, we cling to the lie that people get what they deserve because the lie makes us feel safer, and so we attribute blame even when we know people by the hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs through no fault of their own. And what do people say of your job loss? “Oh, that’s a shame.” Agh. There’s that word.

As a society and as individuals who must endure it, we need to learn to deal with undeserved shame. Our systems don’t help us. The system is supposed to reward hard work, good work, and dedication with some measure of success and appreciation. It doesn’t. The system demands loyalty but gives none. It says you must be a “team player,” but there is no team; it’s a fiction. In the system, you are a human resource, not a person. Realizing you are a non-person in the system you thought was a team that knew your name is, again, humiliating.

But you don’t deserve it, and that’s the truth. The system is not designed to give you a chance to prove yourself, to learn, to grow; it is designed to use you and then dispose of you. Resources get used until they are used up; then they are discarded as waste.

You are not waste. You are a person with a life, and your life matters. No, in life we do not get what we deserve. Some get wealth, pleasure, and even health they have not earned. Others get misery and pain they have not earned, either. It’s not fair.

Why do we feel shame when we have done nothing to be ashamed of? It’s natural. It’s biological. The affect is triggered inside us by the interruption of our security in belonging, doing valuable work, and getting regular paychecks (enjoyment-joy) and the interruption of our projects on the job and our personal plans and hopes for the future (interest-excitement). What had been going well is suddenly cut off and done.

There is a human tendency to think that if we feel something (especially a bad feeling), we must deserve to feel it. Wrong. What is undeserved is, indeed, undeserved. That’s not to say we did everything perfectly (not possible) and have no lessons we can learn if we choose. But learning from the experience is another step. First, let us know that undeserved shame is, truly, undeserved. I will write more about the how of dealing with undeserved shame.