In order to capture the depth of nausea that I felt on the day that I got fired, you need to picture me sitting across from my boss in his glaringly sunny office. Then you need to envision giant tufts of wiry white hair sprouting out from the neck of his company logoed polo shirt.
If you look two feet behind him, you’ll see the star of the show: a dented box that every terminated person has received since the beginning of time. It looks as if someone has jumped up and down on it before hurling it at the brown particle board bookcase that it lays in front of--dead.
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And, of course, there’s the company lawyer. I always forget about her. She didn’t say much, but I think she was there in case I decided to go from fired to disgruntled.
“This is difficult for me,” my boss says.
Counsel shakes her head solemnly as if someone just told her that she’d lost her designated parking spot.
“Very hard,” she agrees. We all sit there, saying nothing for several moments until my boss breaks the silence.
“Your position has been eliminated,” he announces, and then gestures to the box behind him as if to say, Time to pack!
The Makings of a "Dignity Plan"
Four months earlier, Bain Capital had acquired the small marketing company where I’d worked for 20 years. Rumors of a gigantic equity firm swooping in and pillaging our business had swirled for years, so when it finally happened, everything and everyone unraveled.
There were closed-door meetings filled with desperado eye contact. Passing someone in the hall was like seeing another prisoner in the weight yard. Several people had permanent expressions that telegraphed Help! I’m going bonkers.
During this delightful period, I started having heart palpitations. As a Vice President, I was involved in some strategic pow-wows, but my gut feeling was that I was on the short list to get booted.
I wasn’t the only one filled with paranoid dread. I remember being in the elevator with a colleague who admitted his fear of getting fired the minute the doors shut. I offered support, gave him the just-do-your-best speech--but he didn’t buy it.
Looking back, neither did I. That period of time was wrought with such hideous scrutiny and confusion that, even if I had been gung-ho about our new leader’s money-making agenda, I couldn’t have survived the ongoing soul-chafing chaos.
What I needed was a plan. Some kind of mission to muster a Post-It note’s worth of dignity that involved more than walking around looking like I was going to vomit.
I needed inner oomph.
My Dignity Plan came to me a month into the takeover. I’d just come from meeting with the new CEO, who prided himself on never eating lunch. As I shuffled back to my office, I saw a co-worker carrying a grungy box overflowing with her stuff. She looked stunned as the lawyer escorted her to the elevator.
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That’s it, I thought. If I’m going down, I’m going down unencumbered. I made a decision to do a meticulous inventory of everything I’d accumulated. I was, on my last day, going to leave with a few photographs and my purse. I was determined to avoid cramming two decades’ worth of belongings into one of the discarded boxes that’d been piled in front of the freight elevator.
In retrospect, it was this instinct that held me together during the whole process. Concentrating on executing the slowest move known to mankind--filling my reusable Trader Joe’s bag with five or six items at a time--became a worthy distraction. It also allowed me to hit the ground running after I, indeed, was let go.
In fact, since getting fired, I’ve never been happier and more productive, doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing--writing. I credit my momentum and return back to the old, happy me to five top strategies I employed immediately after I got axed:
1. Say It Out Loud: "I Got Fired"
Then write about it. Getting fired is a traumatic experience and one way to process trauma is to put pen to paper and see what comes up. Venting about the whole odyssey in my journal grounded me. Unloading negative feelings helped me move forward in a way that felt focused, not panicked.
2. Make Time to Do Nothing or What You've Never Had Time To Do
Decompression is a balm for stress. Allowing yourself to have some down time will open up space in your I’m-in-shock mind and body. I started taking baths every night. I walked every morning. I read my 8,000 back issues of Oprah and Sunset. I cleaned out clutter and donated. This was all while I constructed my action plan, and created a budget that I knew would carry me through the time I was taking to refresh and renew.
3. Dream Big
Write down every place you’d ever want to work. Even if you have no training or degree for whatever it is that makes your heart sing, put it on your Dream Job List. Your list can be limitless. Mine was. I had everything from “anything non-profit” (I’d just come from a corporate dungeon) to “truck driver” (talk about freedom).
4. Adopt a Five Actions Each Day Rule
Do at least five things daily that will work toward securing your dream job. If you don’t know what your dream job is, do five things that feel momentum-creating, such as research, calls, book store or library trips--actions that keep new energy flowing.
Remember that genius woman you met at last year’s Christmas party who seemed totally fulfilled? Ask her to meet for coffee to divulge her secret. Until I got fired, I cringed at the thought of meeting strangers and “networking.” Now I think it’s what makes the world go ’round by keeping us connected and moving forward. The hints, jobs, leads, encouragement, ideas and wisdom that I’ve gotten at coffee meetings have been invaluable.
5. Be Mercilessly Authentic
You remember who you are, right? What? You have no idea who you are away from the mind-numbing meetings and invalidating supervisor? Well, make it your mission to burrow your way back into your own head and spirit--and then listen and learn.
I spent so many years trying to please other people and meet goals (that I had no control over!) that I slowly disintegrated on many levels. Who am I? What do I want to do? Initially, these questions bounced off the walls, but after creating and following my plan, I got clarity. My favorite question when I contemplate something I want to achieve now: Why not me?
When I think back to my mission of avoiding the Walk of Shame, I can still feel how focused I was on saving myself from stuffing what was left of my self-worth into an odd-shaped box. When my boss told me that I had been “eliminated,” I was so mentally prepared that I practically floated back to my office, where I grabbed my purse and the only two picture frames that were left on my desk.
As I walked through the huge glass doors at the front of the building, and said goodbye to the security guard one last time, it was without one ounce of baggage. It was a wonderful, box-less stroll directly toward my next adventure.
Since her firing two years ago, Amy Shouse has been focusing full-time on her writing career, contributing to DAME, AARP and Spoonful. Her website is Odd, Good, True.