Afraid of being fired: how do I keep the fear from crippling me?
January 20, 2014 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I have crippling, perhaps justified fear of being fired. My fear is making my performance suffer, causing me misery and probably making firing more likely. How do I stop thinking like this?

My workplace, a formerly pleasant place with leadership I really respected, has gone downhill in the last year. Really bad stuff is coming down the pike. I've been here for several years. My boss of about a year is young, inexperienced, and in over her head. I have tried to support her in her new role, but our working relationship has deteriorated. My coworkers in our department are universally miserable and are looking to leave asap. I am job hunting too.

I feel like I have some cause to fear firing. Despite positive performance reviews, I have started to receive several written warnings about my performance (mostly for coming unprepared to meetings). Requests for vacation have been turned down.

I have been fired once before and it triggered a major depressive episode, and I relive that firing often, on a loop. I know we would probably be fine financially as long as my husband is gainfully employed. While I provide our health insurance, I think we can afford COBRA without too much pain, and can investigate Obamacare. I'm more afraid of the psychological/career ramifications.

Maybe I'm right and they are planning on terminating my employment but I also know that dwelling on it is making me really miserable and has turned a challenging and stressful situation into a daily panic attack situation. I know all the right things to do, but they don't seem to be helping.

There are many great things in my life: a loving spouse who has a great job, challenging/engaging hobbies, a strong, caring network of friends and family. I am really big on taking care of myself: eating well, good workout routine, sleeping enough, seeing a therapist. I am on medication for Bipolar 2, and have xanax for panic attacks.

I know I'm getting good advice from my therapist, friends and loved ones, I just can't seem to implement it.
posted by Marered to Work & Money (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You're in the drivers seat. You'd be fine financially if you lost your job thanks to your husband (support system), and since you haven't lost your job, you're in the best position to find a new one.

Remember who is in control of your life (you!), and act accordingly.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:16 AM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you should focus on the relief you will feel to be out of this crummy situation, one way (you leaving) or another (firing). You can't control whether you are fired or not. But you can control how much perceived risk this looming threat seems to engender. So if you are really concerned about the fate of your Plan A, you might focus a bit of your energy on Plan B! Start cruising the want ads. Email hiring managers, saying you aren't in the market right at this exact moment but would love to learn more about the organization. You can treat them to lunch just to make a connection. Then you will feel less dependent on this one job.

Brainstorm about what opportunities could come from a firing. Successful people sometimes get fired. They just roll with it.
posted by powerbumpkin at 8:18 AM on January 20, 2014

How vigorously are you searching for another job? From what you've written, it sounds very unlikely that the situation is salvageable, and whether it's your fault or not doesn't really matter. When you ask, How do I stop thinking like this?, what thoughts do you mean exactly? Because it sounds to me like your concerns about potentially being fired are probably valid, and even if you're wrong about them this still isn't a good place for you to be. I think you ought to be taking those thoughts very seriously, and acting accordingly, i.e. making financial adjustments and seeking another job sooner rather than later.
posted by jon1270 at 8:18 AM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, "How do I stop thinking like this," is pretty futile at this point, I think. I would be looking for the silver lining, and reading the countless accounts of people for whom scorched earth encouraged starting over, whether on the job or in relationships. I mean, clean slate! You don't get so many of those in life. Plan, and leverage it.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:24 AM on January 20, 2014

Ask to meet with your manager and discuss your concerns.

Say that you enjoy working there (lie, lie, lie) and that in the past that you've received glowing reviews and have been a top contributor. Ask your manager what she needs to see from you to continue to be a top team member.

Write them down, they should be concrete. "Be more prepared at meetings" isn't concrete. "Be sure to have copies of the Thingamagig report for everyone attending" is. If you get something vague, say, "I want to be sure we're on the same page, so when you say, 'be more prepared at meetings,' what specifically should I be doing?

Keep it as light hearted as possbile. Act like this is no big deal, just an opportunity to fine tune your relationship.

When you're done with the meeting, send a follow up email to your manager, "It was really helpful to meet with you today, and I wanted to recap what we discussed to insure that we're in agreement."

Then list the items you've agreed upon.

After that, just do what you do. So you get fired, big whoop. (I know, easier said than done.)

Intellectually you know it's your manager, not you.

I tell everyone "If you love your workplace, wait, it'll change. If you hate it, wait, it will change." That's not to say that you shouldn't continue to look for a new job, you should, it's just that this job sucks but perhaps your manager will move on and things will change for the better.

You'll be fine, so hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:26 AM on January 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: A bit of relevant information is that I am planning on major elective surgery this spring, so unless some of my current applications out there (I have been interviewing) pan out, I am not inclined to aggressive job hunt until after the surgery because I very much want to get it over with before starting a new job. So that means toughing it out here as long as possible.
posted by Marered at 8:29 AM on January 20, 2014

Maybe I'm not understanding the exact nature of your role correctly, but it sounds like you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself to help your boss out, perhaps more than is necessary given your position. You sound like a diligent person, but we all have limits, and if your company has decided to throw a bunch of work on a junior manager they probably expect she will be able to shoulder most of it herself or delegate it accordingly. If your department doesn't have time for the added work, then that's a matter for your boss to communicate to her boss, etc., until things get straightened out.

But if this is the sort of place they throw a bunch of work on you with completely unrealistic deadlines, then I'm glad you're looking for an out – that seems like the best option if things continue on a downward trend. In the meantime, I think you can lessen your stress by accepting that you are part of a sick system. Focus your energy on finding a better job where you aren't drowning in stress, rather than pouring more and more of yourself into an untenable situation.
posted by deathpanels at 8:29 AM on January 20, 2014

If this is causing you a lot of stress, and you can afford not to work for a while, and you think there may be valid cause to fear termination, then it makes a ton of sense to quit, I think. Written warnings (especially if they are coming out of the blue) should be taken as a serious sign. Even without the warnings it sounds like you'd be justified to quit now anyway.
posted by yarly at 8:29 AM on January 20, 2014

Best answer: It is one thing to get good advice in therapy sessions and quite another to actually be able to apply it during emotionally intense situations. One thing I can offer is to remember that this would be a difficult, anxious situation for anyone, so don't be hard on yourself for finding it challenging.

I find when I get caught in anxiety it tends to throw the world into all-or-nothing, black-or-white. Either I have (tight) control of the situation and can relax, or I am completely out of control and I panic. Especially, it seems to be fear of future situations that causes the anxiety to spiral; in this situation, it would not just be the fear of being fired now, but that I would be fired again and again, would never be able to hold down a job, would lose all self-worth and spiral into depression, etc. Naturally the stress of the present situation becomes unbearable because any sign of a bad outcome carries with it the weight of a lifetime of suffering. Sound familiar?

Over time in my own therapy we've worked on finding a middle path between gripping tight onto control, and avoidance / fear when there is no feeling of control. At its core is recognizing that I do not actually have control of the present or the future -- no-one does -- but I am competent and capable, I trust myself, I am doing the right things for myself and am on the right path, and therefore I will be able to handle whatever comes, even if it's bad. A lot of this is about mindfulness, paying attention to anxiety thoughts, observing when my mind is catastrophising and gently noticing this in a non-judgmental way (minds like to think, it's what they're for) while refusing to go along for the ride and staying grounded in the present situation of what's real and actually happening.

I also had a really helpful experience in a workshop once that had us go "into" our fear; what bad thing are you imagining (getting fired), and what bad consequence would happen (getting fired again, next time), and then what would happen; and then what would happen; keep asking that question and seeing what comes next and you'll unravel the deep fears that are down there pulling strings, and realize that they are really terrible, and thus you have good reasons for all these emotions that are troubling you, but also these worst-worst-worst-case outcomes are pretty unlikely in the light of day, and thus your adult brain can choose to thank the infant brain for making you aware of these potential threats and then deprioritize them.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:34 AM on January 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't want to quit and forego unemployment insurance.
posted by Marered at 8:36 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you try to change how you view getting fired? I moved into a different industry a while back and got verbal warnings a few times, once where my boss screamed at me (caveat: s/he screamed at everyone) that I was going to get fired (because I had no idea how to do my job and the only advice I got from anyone was high-strung admonishments to "refer to your outdated job manual!!"), and, like you, I was petrified of being fired, because I am terrified of failure and how I thought it would define me. Then I realized that my workplace was already down the tubes; my co-workers were universally miserable; everyone was looking for a way out; and there was "really bad stuff coming down the pike." After I realized what a clusterfuck the company was, I stopped being afraid of getting fired and actually started hoping for it, because I came to understand that being fired from a toxic, dysfunctional work environment did not reflect badly on me (...and I could likely get unemployment benefits). In short, I stopped viewing termination as "wow, I failed and am awful and will never bounce back" and more as "what a blessing in disguise; this place is effing crazy, and I am too good and sane for this shit. Please, fire me. Let's do this." (I didn't get fired, unfortunately.)

On preview - If you can't get vacation approved, are you sure that you can take time off (if needed) for your surgery? Also, if you really think you're going to get fired in the near future, aggressively job hunt and push the elective surgery back. Because here's the thing: it's my understanding that if a company has a paper trail showing an employee was warned multiple times for the thing the employee was fired for, then they can say the employee was fired for just cause. Which means you have to fight for benefits you may never get. If you really intend to stick it out as long as you can, do everything you can to correct the problems addressed in your warnings (Ruthless Bunny laid out a great plan for that). But I would really focus on finding a different job, because it sounds to me like you can't rely on having this job for that surgery.
posted by coast99 at 9:02 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What advice are you getting from your therapist?

Personally, I think I would work on creating a narrative that I can feel good about. For example, since you're having surgery in the spring that would be a natural stopping point for your job in any case. It doesn't sound like leaving a few months early would have many or any ramifications for your career. Also your workplace is dysfunctional and that's obvious to most of your coworkers. So it sounds like you can go through the next few months constantly afraid of being fired, or you can build a narrative in which you will, absolutely, be leaving this job before then -- whether through quitting or through letting them fire you and pay you unemployment -- and all that's up to you is how to deal with the fairly short time you have left. I would come into work every day thinking "soon I'm going to leave you all behind" and measure myself against my own standards more than against my bosses': if you can look back at the end of each day and feel you've done a decent job, and if overall you find your performance has been professional and good, then you can take pride in a job well done. Your managers' opinions are now less relevant. You can also use the freedom of knowing you're going to leave in order to focus on some specific skills or maybe even take on an interesting project.

tl;dr: Being fired from a company like this wouldn't be a reflection on your work as an employee. Take your exit from the company as an absolute given, and focus on being proud of the work you do. And make the most of the time off if you get it.

(and if, in fact, you don't get fired, you'll be quitting as soon as you find a new job anyway. So the exit is still a given.)
posted by egg drop at 9:06 AM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

getting fired is part of life, it's happened to all of us, and if you maintain good humor you can still be the master of the situation. on one occasion when i was fired, i told the boss "i hope you get along better with the three people you'll need to hire to do what i did."
posted by bruce at 9:18 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am halfway through The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, and he's mentioned this issue, and several mental strategies for dealing with it, several times. If you haven't read it, you might take a look.
posted by brentajones at 9:20 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

another nugget of wisdom (credited to the famous baseball manager leo durocher) "when you're hired, you're already fired, they just haven't filled the date in yet."
posted by bruce at 9:22 AM on January 20, 2014

You need to establish the facts of the matter. The facts of your situation seem to be getting lost under your desire to convince yourself to see things a certain way.

It sounds like if you are getting written warnings, they are preparing to fire you for cause.

Do you get unemployment insurance if you are fired for cause?

Written warnings are supposed to be a thing you get before you get fired. What is your company's dismissal procedure? What is the number of written warnings an employee is supposed to receive before getting fired? Two?

Are these written warnings, which would be marked as such? Or are they emailing you and saying "hey you came to a meeting unprepared, shame on you"? If the latter, but not marked as written warnings, then they may still be trying to build a documentation trail to support your firing for cause, but it's not a "written warning" unless explicitly labelled as such, same as a "verbal warning" and a boss screaming at you would be two different things. (AT LEAST I THINK THEY ARE - I am not an employment lawyer, nor even a US citizen.)

If you are getting written warnings, then you are almost certainly going to get fired, so you need to accept that. If you are not getting written warnings, you may still be at risk of getting fired, and you are going to need to accept that risk.

If that is true, then you need to sort out in your mind why you would stay and wait to be fired, rather than quit. It is always better for your future career to quit rather than to get fired for cause. But if you need to wait to get fired for cause, it would be because you needed to collect unemployment insurance, which if I understand the situation rightly, would be denied you if you were fired for cause. Are you saying that you're preparing to contest this issue? Or are you saying it's worth the gamble to wait a bit longer?

Supposing the worst happens and you do get fired: apparently, you can afford it. Or can you only afford it if you are getting unemployment insurance? Back to establishing the facts.

The facts, not your anxiety, are what will tell you what to do here.
posted by tel3path at 9:27 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

It might help to stop thinking you can fix things that are beyond your control. For instance, stop trying to help your boss do her job. That's not your job and you can't do it, but by imagining you can, you're adding to your stress level. A bonus might be that-- unless your boss has asked you for help-- she may not want you doing this, so you could actually improve your standing and decrease your odds of getting fired.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:23 AM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

But if you need to wait to get fired for cause, it would be because you needed to collect unemployment insurance, which if I understand the situation rightly, would be denied you if you were fired for cause.

Being fired for performance issues does not typically make you ineligible for unemployment.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:53 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Being fired for performance issues does not typically make you ineligible for unemployment.

This is a really important point.

The following is based on information from a friend who worked in the unemployment office, please correct or clarify if you know better:

You are only ineligible for unemployment if you're fired for misconduct--willfully, intentionally violating one of your employer's rules, failing to perform a core job duty, or doing something that is obviously unacceptable ("punching coworkers is cause for termination" is probably not in the employee handbook, and doesn't need to be). If they fire you for poor performance, you can still collect unemployment. Employers who are aggressive about reducing the number of fired employees able to collect unemployment will try to use written warnings to spin poor performance into actual misconduct, on the premise that if you're told repeatedly to correct a specific behavior and don't, you are clearly acting in bad faith (willfully violating a workplace rule) rather than overwhelmed, inefficient or simply incompetent. But simply labelling poor performance as a kind of misconduct doesn't cut the mustard. If your workplace contests your unemployment claim, they'll have to prove that you were fired for actual misconduct rather than poor performance.
posted by pullayup at 4:47 PM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

1] you can't keep the job on your timeframe in order to have elective surgery on the company health insurance. After you are fired, your benefits roll over to COBRA when the company's payments are due. Some companies pay health insurance month to month, others pay week to week.

The best case scenario is for you to switch to a new job with no lapse time, before you get fired, and start the countdown for your elective surgery on your new health insurance. Actively pursue any contacts who could help you find a new job immediately.

2] agreeing with tel3path-- if you are getting written warnings and Performance Improvement Plans, you will be fired. HR is building a paper trail, the writing is on the wall.

3] agreeing with egg drop-- You are the voice-over for your own movie and you write the script.

4] agreeing with pullayup-- you will be eligible for unemployment benefits if you are let go for performance. Do not allow the company to create a fictional scenario where you damage the company or wilfully violate policy. Arrive and depart at the correct times, don't steal office supplies, don't sleep at your desk. Don't punch people, distribute rude jokes by company email, or smoke crack in the bathroom.

Other than that, keep your grace and dignity. Cherish the people you have enjoyed working with-- make sure you Friend them on Facebook or get personal email addresses.
posted by ohshenandoah at 10:15 PM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone.

One of my coworkers got fired today so we are all a little rattled. Another is getting close to leaving under his own steam. I know I will leave soon either voluntarily or by getting terminated. I guess the core of it is that I just want to figure out how to keep myself calm in a difficult situation for whatever remaining time I have here.

I have had some success focusing on the relief I will feel when I leave. I also know that I could quit, if I really wanted to. I show up and focus on doing at least 3 tasks each day. And I have xanax for the panic attacks.

I really appreciate everyone's insights.
posted by Marered at 11:41 AM on January 23, 2014

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