The Psychology of Being Fired

The emotional and physical – but still normal – side effects of losing your job.

Young couch potato sitting on a sofa with burger and beer

A little self-pity is fine at first, but then you should start pulling yourself out of the dumps with a routine and daily goals.

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You know the wah-wah-woh-wah-wah sound that adults make when talking in Peanuts cartoons? That’s about all you’ll hear after your manager says you’re being let go. It’s almost like your ears stop working to clear way for a swath of other sensations to take hold. There are plenty emotional and physical side effects that crest the surface if you ever lose your job.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of “High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, ” says people truss their occupations to their identity. Because of this, common emotions that surround losing a job – either from being fired or laid off – mirror the grief experienced when losing a loved one. “Most people report feeling a whirlwind of emotions, but the most typical are denial, shock, sadness, anxiety and anger,” she says.

Feeling embarrassed is also normal, but it’s usually tied with those who were terminated for performance reasons, says Jaime Klein, founder of Inspire Human Resources, a New York City-based outsourced HR department. “We live in a moment where everyone shares and overshares on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter,” she says. “One of the first things that could run through someone’s mind is ‘How do I face my friends and family in light of this news? How do I tell them what happened?’”

[See: The 25 Best Jobs of 2014.]

Whether you’re shocked, anxious or embarrassed, you shouldn’t expect these emotions to flow then ebb forever. “Most people report that their emotions cycle, so at one moment they’re feeling sad, and then the sadness turns to anger, then anxiety, then back to anger,” Carter says.

There also isn’t a timeline for feeling better, Klein says. You could vacillate for weeks and even months – particularly if it takes some time to find new work. “For a lot of people, their feelings about what happened are impacted by what else is going on in their life,” she explains. “The fact that you were fired a month ago could be the cherry on top of an already really bad mood.”

Mood shifts aren’t the only thing to mind. Carter says a terminated employee might experience the physical symptoms associated with stress, like chest pains, headaches and panic attacks.

Carter advises you consult with an emotional health professional if your disposition is extreme. Sadness and anger are fleeting and manageable emotions, but rage and severe depression aren’t. “It’s normal to feel sad, in some cases very sad, after losing a job,” she says. “However, if the depression gets to the point where thoughts of suicide develop or the person is so depressed that they can’t get out of bed or can’t function effectively, then that is not normal.”

[Read: How to Fire Someone Compassionately.]

HR professionals are trained to recognize red flag statements and behaviors when terminating someone, Klein says. Knowing what they consider appropriate could be a good measure to use for your own feelings if you’re ever fired. For instance, Klein says moderate profanity expressing shock is expected (“It’s common for people to say, ‘You’ve gotta be bleeping kidding me,’” she says), but excessive cursing expressing anger is alarming (“If the conversation escalates into ‘this blanking company can go to hell,’ then that is someone who is entering the red zone,” she adds).

Your warning bells should also ring if your first inclination is to make your manager feel guilty. Klein says HR staff also listen for passing remarks laying blame. “There was someone who referenced that they’re a gun collector, and there was someone who mentioned that his wife was eight-months pregnant, and if she went into preterm labor it would be our fault,’” she says.

It’s healthy to take several days, weeks or months to fully recuperate emotionally from the loss of a job, and yes, to even feel sorry for yourself. “I would say that if negative feelings … persist for more than six months, that person should probably speak to a counselor to help them move forward, and stop living in the past.”