Obsessing Over Losing Your Job? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I was let go from my last job due to a massive reorganization. I didn’t like it, but my entire department was eliminated so I didn’t take it personally. I got a new job soon afterward and I like the job and the company a lot.

I have been in my new position for more than a year and have recently started to hear rumors about restructuring. I have a growing anxiety about losing my job again. This is not reasonable because I feel pretty secure here, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I don’t normally experience a lot of anxiety. It’s very unpleasant and I would love to know how to stop feeling this way. Any thoughts on this would be helpful.



Dear Obsessing,

Anxiety is indeed unpleasant; I am sorry you are grappling with it. I do have thoughts, but before I share them, a caveat: I am not a trained mental health professional. I am only a coach with some tried and true principles and some lived experience. Therefore, it is my duty to advise you to consult a therapist if none of my ideas are useful and your anxiety continues to worsen. The only reason I’m not suggesting you immediately consult a therapist is because you don’t historically struggle with anxiety and you haven’t mentioned that it is getting in the way of your doing a good job. Anxiety is not a pattern for you, and it is not yet keeping you from functioning.

Now, to the promised thoughts.

Anxiety, at least a little, can be useful. The key is to leverage anxiety to fuel success—to run it. And not let it run you.

I have two categories of tips to share with you. One of them is neuroscience research so that you can understand what anxiety is and learn to befriend it. The other is standard career-building wisdom, or ways you can use anxiety as fuel.

Here is what we know about how our brains work. The brain is a prediction machine and its job is to keep us alive. When hard or challenging things happen, the details get encoded into our brains as known threats. The part of the brain where threats are recorded (the limbic system) cannot tell time; therefore, it makes no distinction between the past and the present. And it is emphatically not known for being reasonable. It is kind of like a big, dumb gorilla who is assigned to be your bodyguard and can’t tell a real threat from something that looks a lot like a threat but isn’t. To your gorilla guardian, the idea of restructuring equals “I am going to lose my job, starve to death, and die alone in the street.” It isn’t his fault; it is simply what he knows based on experience and watching the news (and, in my case, reading way too many novels). So he needs to be told to calm down and chill out.

The way to get the reasonable part of your brain to manage the gorilla is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as noticing and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings with curiosity and without judgment. It is a skill and does take practice, but you don’t have to even be good at it for it to make a difference. When you notice feelings of anxiety cropping up, you can say to yourself, “Wow, isn’t that interesting, here is that anxiety again. I wonder what that might be about? Maybe it has something to do with the word restructuring. Hmm. Or not. I wonder what it’s about? Might I be anxious about something else?” And so on. Essentially, you can talk yourself off the ledge and get yourself back on an even keel.

Another technique is to indulge your anxiety and do what I call “worst case scenario” thinking. That goes something like this: “Oh, here comes that anxiety again. Arg. Gosh, it feels gross. I think I might be feeling anxious because there is talk of restructuring—and the last time that happened, I lost my job. So there is a chance, even though I don’t think it will happen, that I could lose this job. So, okay. What if I were to lose this job? Would that be the end of the world? No. I have proven to myself that I am perfectly capable of getting another job—in fact, I could even get a better job than this one.”

The bottom line is that you probably are not going to end up living in your car. And the reasonable part of your brain knows that.

One certain way to focus your brain away from the perceived threat is to focus it toward things you can do to ensure that you remain valuable to your current organization. This is where you can apply standard career-building practices. You might ask yourself:

  • Am I crystal clear about what my boss’s goals are? Do I know what matters most to them? Do I prioritize my work according to those goals and priorities?
  • Do the people I work with see me as reliable? Relatable? Caring? Engaged? Consistent? Responsible? If not, where might I put some attention to change any impressions that might be hurting me?
  • Am I as helpful to my teammates and the people our department serves as I could be? Do people see me as someone who goes the extra mile with a good attitude?
  • Do I go out of my way to volunteer for extra events the organization sponsors?
  • How might I exceed performance expectations? Can I get ahead of deadlines? Can I improve the quality of my work? Is there a way to influence my peers so that we improve the outcomes expected of us?
  • Do I take the initiative? When I need help solving a problem, do I have some solutions to propose? Do I see opportunities for our department to provide even more value than we already do?
  • Are there any new skills I might learn, or any that could be sharpened, that would make me even better at my job? How might I learn a new skill or upgrade one I already have?

People who think this way are the least likely to end up on the cut list when reductions need to be made. And I hate to tell you this, but most successful people are partially driven to excel and achieve by the terror of being judged and found wanting. It is the double-edged sword of anxiety: a little can be a huge contributor to performance; too much will prevent us from doing anything at all.

For goodness sake, please don’t attempt all of these, or at least not all at once. If one of these ideas jumped out at you as a no-brainer, try that one first. At worst, it will keep your mind busy with something positive and give you less time to ruminate on negative possibilities.

Have cozy chats with the sweet-but-not-very-bright gorilla who has your best interests at heart and tell him to take a nap. Try worst-case scenario thinking. Seek ways to make yourself irreplaceable to your team and your boss. Focus on what’s working well and make it work even better.

And breathe. Two counts in, four counts out. Ten times in a row. Five times a day.

You are going to be okay, Obsessing. Regardless of what happens.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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