Breaking up is hard to do: the emotions of leaving a job

“I feel like I’m going through a really bad breakup,” I admitted with a nervous chuckle. This was my standard reply for weeks after leaving my company of 19 years.  Even though I left on my own terms and was confident that it was the right choice, it was still an extremely painful adjustment period.

In the immediate aftermath following my departure from my corporate job, my concerned friends and family would consistently check in on me to see how I was doing.  I’m sure they were expecting an energetic and positive response such as “I feel so free!” or “Like a weight has been lifted!”  Unfortunately my actual feelings were quite the opposite.

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The emotional investment factor

Whether you leave your job by choice or were let go, on good terms or painful ones, one thing is certain; if you’ve spent any reasonable amount of time in one job or company, leaving it behind is bound to bring about some serious emotions.  It makes sense though — assuming a full-time job of 40 hours per week, on average we spend approximately one-third of our waking hours “at work.”  Factor in overtime and time spent outside of office hours thinking about work, multiplied by months and years — it adds up.  It’s natural that the more time and energy you invest in your job, the more emotionally invested you will end up as well.  So as with any relationship, good or bad, breaking up is going to be hard.

Symptoms of a breakup

Withdrawal pains

During the initial week or two after any big life change, you will have to fight the instinctual urge to continue the old routine.  And each time that realization hits you, some emotions may come along for the ride.

Being a serious workaholic, I used to routinely check my email each night before bed and each morning before my kids woke up to address and prioritize any fire drills.  When I was employed, this act would often cause feelings of resentment and frustration.  But afterward, it was a painful reminder of what I had left behind.  Every night my subconscious would trigger the urge to go check in on work after my kids went to bed, only to remember that there was nothing to check in on anymore.  And each night after this understanding would dawn on me, I would feel sad at the hole in my life where my old job used to be.

Identity crisis

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So many individuals experience a gradual merging of their personal and professional personas, ultimately finding themselves associating their career as a large portion of their identity.  During my career, it was quite common that when I would meet someone new and make small talk, the conversation would always lead to “So what do you do?”  As if the response to this question would define an entire person after a superficial three-minute conversation.  But unfortunately during those 19 years, my response really did define a big piece of who I was.  

The realization that my career had become a part of my personality was a huge factor in why I needed to go in a different direction in the first place.  However, it did not take away the sting that first (or second, or third) time I had to update my Employer and Occupation on a medical intake form at the doctor’s office.  

Whether you have a job at a new company or you are taking a break from the workforce (like I plan to), this redefinition of your identity is a hard pill to swallow.  

Everything reminds you of them

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Do you know how after a breakup you find yourself reminded of your ex when you encounter a specific song or movie or location?  Yep, it is the same situation when you leave a job.  

It seems that the more we want to forget something, the harder it is to avoid constant reminders.  This is a completely normal part of the mind adapting to any transition; but unfortunately, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating while you’re going through the process.  

Working from home for 11 years made my initial detachment from my career so much more difficult than I had anticipated.  My personal and professional routines were so completely entwined that I experienced major pangs of uneasiness and remorse just walking around the house.  I could not even walk into my home office for almost a week.  

During the adjustment period, it often seems that reminders of a former employer are everywhere:  advertisements and commercials;  social media and email notifications (especially on LinkedIn, which I actually had to delete for about a month);  texts and conversations from former coworkers, even if just to say hello.  

The process of separating these constants in our life from our former career may be quick and easy or slow and rocky, but rest assured — someday you will be able to watch your favorite sitcom again without the fear of being emotionally triggered by that commercial.  

Who gets to keep your friends?

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One of the hardest aspects of cutting ties with any job is leaving behind all the relationships.  Well, maybe just some of the relationships.

Anytime someone leaves a job, somebody will feel like they got the short end of the stick in the deal.  If an employee is laid off or let go, it is bound to be difficult for them not to feel some resentment towards their friends and coworkers that stayed behind.  

On the other hand, for those individuals that chose to leave on their own, it is only natural for the coworkers picking up their old responsibilities to feel somewhat abandoned.  Or perhaps the departer feels betrayed that those close to them chose to stay in a toxic work environment.  Both parties may have reason to feel alone and wounded in all of these situations.

I feel so fortunate at how supportive my friends and colleagues were when I announced my decision to leave.  However, I still struggled with so many conflicting feelings, both with myself and with them, after my last day. So for a while, I had to take a break from talking with many close friends; it was simply too painful.  And they were nice enough to understand that.

At the end of it all, any time you leave a job you will surely end up losing some relationships.  However, over time you will come to find that your true friendships will endure the transition, and may end up stronger, once you are willing to put in the effort to stay connected.

Painful milestones

Your last paycheck is deposited into your bank account.  You get the termination papers in the mail outlining your options for continuation of benefits and your 401k.  You throw away your old security badge stashed in your car console.

I often joke that packing up the box with my laptop and other equipment to ship to my former company reminded me of the age-old routine of packing up your toothbrush and other belongings you had stashed at your ex-boyfriend’s apartment.  Hopefully, this milestone can occur without any items being strewn across the front lawn in a fit of rage.

Each milestone, however seemingly minor, is like another dash of salt in that fresh wound.  Try not to get discouraged or stuck when you hit one of these bumps in the road.  Remember that each milestone is a step forward on your path of growth, and each dash of salt is just a little extra seasoning in your story.

You will have good and bad days

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It seems pretty obvious, but just like with any breakup, leaving your job will have its ups and downs.  

Some days you will feel liberated and motivated to take on the world:  “Sign me up for that Couch to 5k program!”  “Look at all this extra time I have now without all that old stress and baggage!” Or maybe even, “Crazy idea — I should start a blog!” (Ahem 😉 ) 

Other days you may spend the day on the couch in your PJs and consume nothing but a half gallon of ice cream.  You may need to ignore everyone and set your phone on do-not-disturb (except, of course, for calls from DoorDash with your delivery of wine and pizza).  

This is all normal.  Allow yourself this chance to enjoy the little triumphs, the change in routine, and all the pizza and ice cream when you need it.

Light at the end of the tunnel

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The light at the end of this dark breakup tunnel is, to quote the trusted old saying, “time heals all wounds.”  Or at least it will, if you embrace it.

In all seasons of life, there is something to be learned through your experiences.  It is up to you how to use these new insights you can either grow and move forward, or you can stay stuck in the muck of the status quo.  

I am now 3 months out from the date of “the breakup.”  While I still have the occasional bad day or bout of resentment, I feel like I am finally moving on and healing.  Maybe it was the consistent support of my friends and family that gave me the strength to keep going.  Perhaps using my emotional turmoil to throw myself into this blog and share my stories was the outlet I needed to find purpose through the pain.  Or it could just be the time itself that changed my perspective.

Use this time wisely

There is so much advice out there on how to heal from a breakup (trust me, I researched!).  And with a little bit of interpretation, all of these tips can also be applied to getting over the heartbreak of leaving a job.  

In all the advice, it really boils down to one key theme.

Be patient. Give yourself the grace to do what you need to do to heal — however that may look today, tomorrow, or next week.  Take this time to feel the emotions and process what they are telling you.

Leverage the experience of leaving this job to your advantage as you move forward.  Use your reflections to reset your priorities in this next chapter in the way that best suits you in your career, in your home life, and with yourself.

And if you hit a rough patch and just need some more time, there’s a spot on your couch with your name on it.

“These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.”  – Rumi

Have you ever experienced a painful breakup from a job?  What helped you finally move on?  We would love to hear your story in the comments!

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