Why Families Fail to See A Jobless Member’s Pain

Unemployment causes havoc in the family and tests its bonds more than almost any other crisis. When you’re jobless, other members of the family may unknowingly make you feel unwanted and on the outside looking in. They may give you silent stares, causing you to feel you’ve lost control and that the “pecking order” has shifted. They don’t realize they are contributing to your pain or understand why you may grow distant.

The problem becomes critical about three months into unemployment. Besides being told they aren’t needed at work, unemployed professionals begin to experience firsthand how unemployment seeps into every facet of their lives. They start doubting themselves and feel unworthy of asserting themselves within the family. Ever-increasing arguments with a spouse, lack of sleep and appetite loss are typical.

Executives arrive in this new place called “Unemploymentville” in a variety of ways. Perhaps they worked in a relatively healthy industry that couldn’t fight off the recession any longer. Or maybe they were executives at Fortune 500 companies who were told on Wednesday to be gone by Friday. The pain and shame attached to the words, “we’re letting you go” are the same in either case.

On top of that horrific feeling, they’re now outsiders. Any unemployed professional will say that someone who’s working has no clue how close such an event really is. It can happen in an instant. Within 24 hours the world turns upside down. Without warning, well-established, grounded executives become frustrated, unsure rookies who just arrived in town.

The ‘Fuel’ Shortage

Imagine the breadwinner as a machine requiring 10 gallons of gas daily to run smoothly. When life is normal he or she gets five gallons at work (in the form of victories or ego builders) and five gallons from the family. With the job eliminated, that’s five victories short each day. Without the required number of gallons or victories, the machine won’t function.

Meanwhile, family members don’t realize the breadwinner is experiencing this fuel deprivation. They go about their normal routines, providing five victories daily but unable to see the internal devastation. After three months, the damage begins to show, but it’s too late. The unemployed professional has been gasping for victories or fuel for three months. In this state of mind, the person blames himself for being a failure.

Family members are unaware of this internal strife. They can’t see the guilt, resentment, anger or fear or hear the internal conversations the unemployed professional is having daily. They only see a parent or spouse who’s job hunting and is occasionally irritable. If they only knew.

Leading a Double Life

These jobless professionals are in critical condition but putting up a good front. They seem in total control, while living double lives. They’re parents and patriarchs or matriarchs of the family and seemingly upbeat, positive and productive. On the inside, they’re scared and insecure. This is an intensely private feeling. So much is expected yet you feel unworthy because you aren’t making a living, and it’s eating you alive.

Here’s what unemployed professionals tell me they feel:

  • “I’m not fun to be with, and my wife and kids are paying less and less attention to me.”
  • “My family and friends seem to judge me for taking the family to the movies, as if I’m not entitled to spend anything on entertainment.”
  • “I can’t afford to reciprocate social obligations because I feel guilty spending money.”
  • “I feel completely enveloped by this feeling of despair; I’m literally paralyzed.”

These are actual statements from people who trust me enough to share their pain. Their life has changed so drastically that they’ve started to accept the abnormal as normal. They’re so paranoid that they notice every stare, eye movement, inflection and tone in the voice among family members. They convince themselves they’ve lost the clout they once enjoyed at home.

With their self-confidence gone, they become stuck. They begin to pay less attention to their personal appearance. They lose their motivation. They don’t know what they’re going to do in the next hour, not to mention the next day. They want to be leaders and providers, but they often cry themselves to sleep.

Change the Picture

All isn’t lost, however. Family members have more influence than they think and can take productive steps to help an unemployed member get back on his or her feet. Here are some suggestions that work:

Don’t forget that the enemy is invisible. When a patient is hospitalized in critical condition, the damage is evident by his or her physical appearance. Unemployed people can be in critical shape, but you can’t see the damage because their outward appearance hasn’t changed.

Don’t make trite, shallow remarks. Perhaps a wife says: “Honey, I know how you feel, and everything is going to work out.” If she knew how he feels, she wouldn’t say that. Try saying something that shows unconditional support, like: “Honey, there’s no way I can experience the tremendous pain you’re in, but because I love you and can see the pain in your eyes, if there is anything, and I mean anything, I can do to ease your pain, please let me do it.” Such loving statements may encourage the unemployed member to begin sharing bottled-up feelings.

Use actions and body language to convey support. You may not have to say anything. Simply convey love in the way you look at the jobless family member. Perhaps you have a special look or a way of holding hands that shows “I’m with you all the way.”

Don’t expect the unemployed person to tell you much. To acknowledge they don’t know what they’re doing is too great a leap. However, unemployed professionals should try to sit down with the family early on and lay their cards on the table. Help them to know what to do by saying, “This is all new to me, and I honestly am going to need your love and support more than ever.”

None of this is easy. Unemployment tests family love and bonds to the limit. The situation would be easier if family members could see the internal damage. While I lack an easy solution, I know that reassuring looks and actions can demonstrate love far better than words.

By Tom Brophy

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