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Moving On After Leaving A Job: How To Let Go Of Your Emotional Baggage

Baggage. We all have it. We carry the burden of accumulated wounds, anger, insecurities and mistrust from our past experiences. The emotional scars from a troubled childhood, bitter divorce or bad breakup can taint later relationships. We also carry emotional baggage from past employment experiences that can create a hangover effect on our next role. With claims for unemployment at an all-time high, many workers are facing the realities of a tough job market and dealing with the emotional fallout of job loss. Involuntary loss of a job—whether by layoff or for other reasons—is a major stressor, potentially even a trauma. At a minimum, many people lose some confidence, which can carry over into the interview process and sometimes into the next job. A job is like a boyfriend or girlfriend. If you have been cheated on or mistreated, it might be hard to trust again. You may take it out on the next person you date, or you may have a brief, ill-fated rebound. But if you take baggage into a new job, it can have significant consequences for career success. Take Deborah, a product manager in healthcare. In her previous role, she and her team had given their all to a product initiative—it was “their baby”— and when it was canceled without cause, she felt betrayed by leadership. She quit and joined a startup where she hoped things would be different. Deborah thought she had moved on, but she carried her hurt, anger and distrust into her next role. It affected her ability to build trust with leadership as well her willingness to be personally invested in her new role. They parted ways in less than 18 months.

A dysfunctional work environment may also lead you to develop behaviors or habits that are adaptive to that context but are maladaptive to a new environment. Javier, a software engineer, spent five years in a tech company where toxic gossip and politicking were the norm. He was miserable and joined a new company, seeking out a more positive environment. However, he unintentionally carried over his habit of making snarky comments to his co-workers as a way of bonding with them. He was shocked when his 360 feedback revealed that he had a reputation for being negative. He worked to cultivate a more positive attitude but found it difficult to overcome this perception.

Even the most painful job departure can provide opportunities for learning and growth, if you are mindful and intentional about how you integrate your experience. To avoid dragging a lot of baggage along, take time to reflect and to set your intentions so that you can minimize the emotional hangover and set yourself up for success:

Learn your lessons. Step back and assess what you learned in the course of your job. Who were you when you started the job and how have you grown and developed? What skills have you picked up? What did you do well and what might you do differently next time? If you made some mistakes, integrate your learning without over-correcting. How can this experience make you better? Your professional journey is long, and it is your job to keep learning and moving forward. (Take some notes, as this exercise will help you prepare for job interviews.)

Take responsibility. Evaluate your own behavior and consider your role in creating your situation. Were there choices that, on reflection, didn’t serve you? Maybe you were reactive rather than proactive. Maybe you cultivated some adaptive behaviors that you want to leave behind. If you were laid off because of circumstances beyond your control (like a global pandemic), what can you take responsibility for going forward? To be clear, this is not about blaming yourself but about shifting from a victim mindset to a greater sense of self-efficacy.

Acknowledge your emotions. As the song says, breaking up is hard to do. It is important to feel and recognize your emotions—sadness, embarrassment, anger—or they may leak out or otherwise come back to bite you. Offer yourself compassion and give yourself time to grieve the loss of your old job. Perhaps you need to forgive someone—a boss, a co-worker or yourself before you can truly move on. Reach out for emotional support from friends and family. Avoid people who are overly negative or cynical. Keep a journal, meditate, do some self-care.

Rely on your values. As you review your experience and consider your next move, stay grounded in your core values. What principles guide you? You may value integrity, autonomy, transparency, recognition, life balance, creativity or security. Consider how well aligned with your values your previous organization or manager were. What will you prioritize going forward and what trade-offs might you make?

Envision success. Leaving a job under hard circumstances often feels like a failure. However, in order to set yourself up for success, it is important to create a positive vision of your professional future. Imagine that leaving this job is a turning point or a springboard for new opportunities. You might want to set both short-term and long-term goals. If you are motivated to tackle something big, great. But consider that for many, just getting through this time in one piece is goal enough. In this tough job market, you may find your dream job, or you may need to settle. What are some small steps you can take to help you come out on the other side?

As you recover from your job break-up and prepare to “get back out there,” this reflective exercise can help you build your self-awareness, embrace the learning and let go of the baggage.



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