Dealing with the shame of getting fired
July 8, 2017 1:04 AM   Subscribe

I realize that this is a pretty privileged position to be in, but in my entire life, I've never really been in a position where I've felt ashamed of myself for making a mistake. I've made small mistakes that didn't really matter, as everyone does, but no big mistakes. Until yesterday.

I got fired from my job yesterday. It wasn't exactly a surprise; I'd gotten a warning about a month ago, and while I worked hard to turn things around, I never really felt like I had a chance, and the warning was just a formality. Some background:

I've worked for this company for four years, all in the same position. It's not the worst job in the world, by any means, but four years is a long time to spend in it. For the first 3.5 years, I had a supervisor with whom I did not get along at all, which hurt my standing within the company. Last November, the company restructured, and I got a new supervisor. (My old supervisor left the company shortly thereafter.) Around the same time, my wife gave birth to our first child. My new supervisor came from our sales team, and he brought a sales mentality with him. Everything was now about numbers, and the numbers were the same for everyone, regardless of how their jobs might differ. (For example, more senior employees were expected to make complex, time-consumingly detailed widgets, while newer employees were only expected to make the most basic widgets. Not surprisingly, new employees generally had better numbers.) As I found myself making more and more of the basic widgets in order to improve my numbers, I got pretty discouraged with the job. Since I'd known my new supervisor before he'd been my supervisor, and I thought we got along well, I talked to him about my concerns at my annual review in April. I told him I felt like I'd hit a plateau, and that I was no longer being challenged since we were moving away from the more complex widgets. I also proposed a few things that I thought would both help me re-engage and benefit the company in general, things like data analysis about our widget-making process. Theoretically, he is doing that already, but because of the other responsibilities of his position, it's not a priority, and it usually ends up not getting done. He dismissed my suggestions out of hand, emphasizing that they wouldn't even be considered unless I could improve my numbers. I did improve, because hey, I've got a family to feed and I need the paycheck, even if it's not interesting work. But apparently I didn't improve enough, and so they let me go yesterday.

I got a pretty generous severance package, and there was a pretty good chance I'd have left the company in the fairly near future anyway (my family is considering a move out of state). So it's not the worst position to be in. In addition to the severance, we have a lot of money in savings, and we'll be saving even money with my daughter no longer in daycare. Long term, I'm pretty good at what I do, and I don't expect to have much trouble finding a new job.

But I still feel like a failure. I fucked this up, and it's my fault. I can rationalize the fuckup all I want, but the fact remains that I had an opportunity to not fuck up, and I fucked up anyway. I feel pretty terrible about this.

I've never really been in a situation like this before. I always got good grades in school, I'm socially well-adjusted, and I've always been pretty successful at work (even my old supervisor whom I didn't like respected my abilities). I technically received failing grades in law school, but that's because I stopped going to class after deciding to drop out. I was laid off in 2009 when the company I was working for almost went bankrupt, but they made sure to emphasize that it was not performance-related. This is the first time I've ever put forth a good-faith effort and fallen short. I don't know how to feel.

Intellectually, I realize that people get fired all the time, and most of them land on their feet. And in the long run, it'll probably be good for me, as I'll hopefully find a more challenging position better suited to my skills. But in the meantime, I feel like an absolute failure, like I let my family down. How can I cope with this?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I just read this personal article from an early employee at github who was fired and talks about the feeling and how to move on from it. Possibly useful for you and I wish you the best in moving on.
posted by JonB at 1:49 AM on July 8, 2017 [10 favorites]

I can't see that you've let your family down in any way. I'm impressed with all the positive things you've listed, and the fact that you can see that they are positive, from savings in the bank to maybe now we will move out of state. These are not rationalizations. Also, it's a huge positive that you're not blaming someone else, but taking responsibility for your part of the situation. You're being a Real Grownup. Congratulations.

And you feel terrible because you were fired. Everyone feels terrible in a situation where someone else says, "We don't want your work. We don't want you. Go away." No matter the reason, it does feel awful. But I came here to tell you that feeling will fade; I've been fired and rejected and I've failed, multiple times (I'm old). I remember that sort-of-sick feeling inside. But it fades, without you having to do anything but keep on living. It's something like a really bad sunburn: you can hardly think of anything else right now, but it goes away -- at some point you hardly notice -- and maybe you'll remember to use sunscreen next time. You'll certainly have a better chance of recognizing problems in a new situation, and perhaps changing things to your advantage earlier.

But it's important that you don't start telling yourself a narrative about "I've let my family down." That is a feeling that doesn't necessarily fade, and does no one any good, now or later. Are you sharing your feelings with your family, and talking about about next steps? Are you letting them love you in their own ways? Are you refraining from taking your savings and putting it all on a horse race or lotto tickets in the hopes of winning big and making it up to them? Good job.

Everybody makes mistakes. If you try, those mistakes can make you a more compassionate person towards other people and their mistakes. Best of luck in the future!
posted by kestralwing at 2:33 AM on July 8, 2017 [37 favorites]

This happened to me once. I felt horrible. I felt like I had let my wife down. But as time went on, and I looked back, I realized that there wasn't anything I would have been able to do to salvage my job. I didn't like the job but I still had bills to pay so I kept trying to do it. And I got let go anyway. The job had become a bad fit after a few years and after things at the office had changed. You've joined the ranks of... well, almost everyone who has been working for a long time. Getting fired typically sucks (sometimes it's actually a welcome escape from a bad situation, but that doesn't mean the bills magically go away.) But here's the thing: you aren't as much as fault as you think. You were in a job that over time became a bad fit. You tried to work through it. Changing management styles can make any workplace situation hard to deal with, and the way you described it yourself, you weren't long for the company anyway. Now you're out of a job, and you've still got your bills and you've still got a family to support. What you're feeling is pretty much normal. This happens to most people at some time or another - some people have it happen multiple times. You need to realize that you're not perfect, and that sometimes things just aren't destined to work out. Here'why you shouldn't feel like you failed: as I mentioned, this happens to most people. You, however, have set yourself up so that this isn't going to cripple your family. You had things lined up where you had the chance to put money away for a rainy day and that's exactly what you did. Job losses happen. Job losses due to bad fits happen a lot, and that's where you were at. It's not a case of you fucking up - you were never going to be able to do what it took to keep management happy. Take a few days off, assess where you are at financially, and assess what you'd like to do going forward. And go do something fun with your family.
posted by azpenguin at 3:35 AM on July 8, 2017 [12 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you fucked up. The company was being mismanaged. You did your best to make the situation work despite their failure, and they still didn't work it out. Fuck 'em.

Good people doing good work get fired by ungrateful morons with more money and self-regard than sense. That it's happened to you just means you're a member of an illustrious club.

And, of course, if still feeling doubtful, you can think of all the successful people, from Winston Churchill to Justin McElroy, who have been fired from early positions (as First Lord of the Admiralty and some job at Blockbuster, respectively).

This situation sucks. But it doesn't suck because you failed. It just sucks. You're perfectly entitled to feel pissed off and miserable about it, but I don't think you need to feel shame.
posted by howfar at 4:24 AM on July 8, 2017 [10 favorites]

I was laid off after a management change and I felt the same way. But two years out, I have to tell you it was the best thing that happened to me. I discovered the extent of my skills and the strength of my community and found some of the dreams and passion I'd slowly let wear away.

That's what "bad fit" is about.

At the time of course it was terrifying. But you will get through this.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:04 AM on July 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you and this company/team weren't a good match even from the beginning. That's a big hurdle of unnecessary extra effort which you managed to overcome for a long time until you weren't. There's no shame in that. Now you have an opportunity to find a better match and you'll go into it with some badass coping-with-adversity skills that will help you stand out.
posted by duoshao at 5:08 AM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

The last time I was let go I at first felt awful. But it led to some very positive changes for me - and if I hadn't been let go I'd probably be at the same company trying to make a bad fit work and feeling very stressed and unhappy. Instead I found a job with a boss who appreciated my skills and mentored and supported me.

Right now you're still dealing with the shock - in a few more days you'll likely start to adjust and feel less intensely.

Even when it's the best thing that could have happened to you a job change is still very stressful. My suggestion is to set a daily goal for yourself to apply to x number of jobs (or whatever makes sense). Get up in the morning and hit that goal, then in the afternoon / evening do some positive things for yourself - exercise, spend time with your family, take a class, get plenty of sleep.
posted by bunderful at 5:20 AM on July 8, 2017

It really doesn't seem like a failure. Many people in your situation would have seen the writing on the wall after the first meeting and given up; you pushed even harder and gave all you had. Thats a really admirable quality.
posted by pintapicasso at 5:38 AM on July 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

Here's the thing: almost everyone will get fired from a job at some point in their life. Even the most remarkable, well-adjusted, amazing employees are a bad fit for a position, or make one big mistake, or whatever. They go on to have long and successful careers and getting fired ends up just being a blip on the radar. A friend of mine got fired from a job after missing an important event because he slept through his alarm. Mortifying, right? He wallowed for awhile and a few months later got a job at one of the top companies in his city in his field. He's been there for several years and is in line for a huge promotion. The firing is a distant memory.

You know this on a rational, logical level. But I know the emotional side is tough. I left a job because it was very clear that they were about to fire me. It had been a big promotion for me to take it, and I failed miserably. I had excelled in every job I'd ever had to that point, and it was a real punch to the gut.

You haven't failed anyone. You did the best you could, and it didn't work out this time.
posted by anotheraccount at 6:31 AM on July 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

When you're a well adapted hard working person, you usually approach the world with an attitude of personal accountability and the perception that you are in control of your destiny. Psychologists call this high locus of control and usually it is a healthy and productive way to live that will make you more successful than people who assume they are victims of luck, chance and circumstance. On the flip side, it can make you crazy in those instances where you can't control everything. This is one of those instances.

Take the time to reflect on what you think you could have done better, incorporate those lessons, and let the rest go. The reality is your job changed and you were no longer a fit in this company with this manager. You acknowledge you were miserable and didn't feel seen or valued. That was probably accurate and they did you a favor by giving you a nest egg and freeing up your schedule to find a better situation for yourself.
posted by amycup at 6:48 AM on July 8, 2017 [11 favorites]

I can rationalize the fuckup all I want, but the fact remains that I had an opportunity to not fuck up, and I fucked up anyway.

Instead of trying to rationalize why the decisions you made shouldn't have led to you being fired, what if you reexamined your decisions starting from the assumption that really you kinda knew what the result would be, and made those decisions anyway? Having had a not entirely dissimilar experience at one point in my life, I later came to realize that I had at some level been intentionally sabotaging myself, because while I was deeply unhappy, there were reasons that was very hard to admit, and moreover the thought of just picking up and leaving behind such a big part of my life was terrifying. So instead I just kept making smaller decisions, ones that were much less scary at the individual level, but that eventually painted me into a corner and forced the terrifying thing to happen anyway - I left what I'd been doing, what I'd spent most of my life thinking it was what I wanted to be doing. And in the end, it was very, very good for me to move on. So now, while I'll always be a little embarrassed by the mistakes I made, I don't feel like a failure at all - I was getting myself out of a situation I was never going to be happy in.
posted by solotoro at 7:03 AM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

The situation reads to me as if they were coming up with a sly reason to get senior employees off the payroll, and in your case, it worked. I'd be interested to know how many other senior employees are struggling the way you did.

It does suck to have someone tell you "you're not good enough", but you also have to consider the messenger. A numbers-driven performance metric doesn't work for complex and varied tasks. Your manager refusing to address your concerns and dismissing your suggestions to improve the process is just plain bad management. All of it really kinda smells like a company that's struggling to execute its mission and is looking for ways to cut costs, without actually having to take the hit of having layoffs. Changing your job description to make it essentially impossible to meet performance goals, while actually doing the work that needs to be done, is slimy but useful for accomplishing that. The trope of "Restructuring + old manager leaves + new manager with new goals + suddenly you can't do anything right = you're fired" is almost a cliche in business.

Companies are also not in the habit of giving generous severance packages to people who get fired for cause.

Okay, so now you're free of this job. You say this actually isn't a terrible circumstance for you since you were considering moving anyway, so I hope you can ultimately see this as a productive development. This isn't a commentary on whether your skills have value. Ultimately, it isn't even about you, it's about how that company has decided to operate and where you fit into that. They've decided to focus on basic execution and "numbers" to look good on paper. This may not be how you would have chosen to make a change, but it looks as though it will actually be to your benefit.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:03 AM on July 8, 2017 [15 favorites]

It is a blessing. You really weren't digging where you were - you just didn't have the kick in the ass to find something better. Now you do. Get up, dust off, and find a job somewhere that you really like and enjoy what you are doing. It just wasn't a good fit; happens all the time, we just stick with things instead of dealing with the fear of leaving them and doing something new.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:05 AM on July 8, 2017

This happened to me -- recently. Fired by having new manager with different priorities rewrite my job description with new required skills. (A skilled manager could have used my skills to his advantage, but he was not skilled, creative, or collaborative as a manager.) Reorganization like this, well-planned or not, well-meaning or not, happens all the time. You didn't so much fail at the job but it changed out from under you.
posted by lathrop at 7:35 AM on July 8, 2017

Yeah, "different priorities" sounds like a key here. Your new boss slapped down your ideas because they were not consistent with whatever the new agenda or strategy is. If management is playing their cards really close to the vest, you couldn't likely have anticipated (short of tapping their phones) what they wanted. The new boss didn't give you the possibility to align with current priorities because he didn't tell you what the latest priorities were. (That thing that he pushes aside that never gets done sound like it rates low at the moment.)
posted by puddledork at 9:03 AM on July 8, 2017

Do not assume that the shame you feel today is a) the actual feeling you ought to have b) what you're going to feel forever.

Everybody feels bad for getting let go. Spend the weekend moping - I mean, take care of your responsibilities, and don't put it on someone else to make you feel better, but go ahead and feel all the sucky shitty feelings that come from being rejected and "failing" and grieving (and just being tantrummy about change because change sucks and this one's been forced on you). Wallow a little.

And then on Monday you file for unemployment if you haven't already (I mean, you could do it this weekend, if your state does it online, but Monday at the latest), and you put the most recent job on your resume and post it on Indeed (possibly there's a hotter newer portal? I haven't checked lately), and then spend a couple days really neatening it up and re-upload on Wednesday. Touch it every day or two so it stays fresh.

Dust yourself off, take advantage of what's going to be at least a few days of at-home downtime to do something that'll be helpful for you when you start a new job, like clean your closet and triple-check that your interview clothes are clean and mended and ready to go, shine your shoes.

And help your wife. Assuming you are a man, sometimes men get socialized into the belief that their real contribution to their families is a salary and nothing else, so that failure to bring home a salary is not only a 100% failure, but also a 100% loss of responsibility as if there's not a house and other people and a baby that need shit done.

A long time ago, in the dark ages when applying for jobs meant driving around town with the classified ads open on the passenger seat of your car, people would say "job-hunting is 40 hours a week" and that is totally untrue now even though people parrot it still, job hunting is 40 minutes a day and having your phone on you all the time. Do not fill the other 7 hours and 20 minutes with mindless internet surfing and Netflix; accomplish some things.

Keep yourself busy and productive, and in a week or two the sting will have faded and you will be pissed. And you should be, because you got badly-managed out of a job just because people suck. Much like after a breakup, you may want to make a list of things about that company that you would consider red flags if you saw them again in the future. Also make a list of things you liked about the work or would have liked to do more of, help yourself have those questions and answers in place before you get interviews.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:33 AM on July 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

Let me start off with a point Autumnheart made above: companies are not in the habit of giving severance packages to people they fire for cause. If you got a severance package, this counts as a "layoff." The company has restructured, and based on your description above they want to shed the more experienced people. They tried to manage you out so that they could shed your salary without the severance package and possible unemployment penalty. They failed, so they laid you off.

There is nothing about the above that reads to me as anything you should be ashamed of. Your company is restructuring. When describing this to others, and yourself, I would frame it as a layoff, not "being fired."

Congratulations! You were planning to move out of state and now you have both a severance package and unemployment to help you do just that.
posted by rednikki at 10:49 AM on July 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

If you get fired or laid off from a bullshit job that you hate going to every day, they are doing you a favor.
posted by empath at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Going through life in a privileged position often makes people feel like they're the sole masters of their own destiny. They're not. You're not. We live in a society that inflicts the chaos of fate and the whims of human bosses and shareholders upon our livelihoods, and then goes and tells us that income is the primary determination of human worth. AND THAT IS SOME HOT, STEAMING HORSE SHIT.

I've had a smorgasbord of jobs in fields ranging from finance to restaurants to startups to publishing, and the most important lesson I learned is that there's little correlation between how hard you work, or how much value you generate for the company, or how skilled you are at your job, and how much you get paid.

You haven't let your family down by losing a job. Even money wise, you said you saved up some money, and you're getting a severance package. But moreover, your role in your family is as a loving parent and spouse, which persist and are more important than your role as breadwinner.

Losing your job isn't about your failure to be a good—or even adequate—worker, it's about the ridiculous inefficiency of late capitalism. Even assuming good faith on the part of your bosses (which, as others above have noted, isn't certain), the only way you fucked up is by not being the right person for a team that changed for tasks you weren't thrilled about anyway. So chill out. Have some beer, read some books, and take time to hang out with your kid.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:46 PM on July 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

You haven't let your family down. At all.

Your family's fine. They're fine because you sensibly saved money all this time because losing jobs is a thing that happens to everyone at some point, and saving money is an insurance against that happening, and you did exactly what you should have done by preparing.

You even tried to pretzel yourself into whatever the management wanted (despite the fact that it sounds like there was just a target on your back because you were senior/expensive for what they wanted for the team) but you aren't the master of every bit of your destiny. Stuff happens. Management changes. Sometimes for the worse.

Listen I've been there and the blow to the vanity is deep. We're Americans and our work is central to our self image. But, your work ethic and quality IS NOT the same as your success in every job. Some jobs are a bad fit. Some managers are stupid. Some situations are untenable.

Enjoy the severance. Enjoy your kid. When the thoughts come (about the malicious manager, or your guilt, or whatever) just observe them, "there's that foolish thought-fart again" and let them float away. Refer to it as a layoff when you job hunt. You'll be fine.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:59 PM on July 8, 2017

Fwiw, I've been laid off twice and have worked for a company that failed (just didn't get paid one week) and another one that got bought out and quit voluntarily. Every time I got a new job I got paid more money than the previous and the job was almost always better. As long as you have transferable skills, you'll be fine.
posted by empath at 4:51 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was laid off in 2014. It really really sucked.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your psyche is to look at this as merely one closed door which opens who knows how many other doors.

Me? My "closed door" was being laid off in California. For a few years prior I'd wanted to move back home to Colorado so my little girl could know her grandparents before they get too old. And THAT was my open door! Now, I'm doing a similar but better job and living near my brother and sister and parents. I'm SO much happier than when we were living in California.

I've learned from being laid off. Yes it sucks. But keep fighting for that light at the end of the tunnel. It comes. And it can be much better than you're used to. The most important thing to remember is the fact that YOU are steering yourself. YOU are determining right now, how bright that light is at the end of the tunnel.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 9:07 PM on July 8, 2017

You totally didn't fuck up. That you feel like that you fucked up is evidence that you were being manipulated into thinking you did.

Take it easy, have a little fun, then go on looking forward to a new and better future! This is a fantastic opportunity to do a national - or even international - job search, for that dream job.

You even have a great stepping stone into a higher-titled position: old company weren't visionary or forward looking and despite you trying to play ball and cranking out uninteresting widgets, you are especially interested in the $newjob because it affords an opportunity to exercise your craft at the high level that you are capable and take pleasure from.
posted by porpoise at 9:17 PM on July 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Take pleasure in that your main quibble was you wanted more challenging work and the company couldn't step it up to retain talent by challenging you. It's a beautiful feeling to have in your next phase of career life while you interview for more interesting work. You can spin it in positive ways "I asked for more demanding widgets based on my past history at the company and I was told they only wanted 1000 additional basic models - which underutilized my skill set for which I had been hired." and you can mention the company had just gone through a restructuring which MOST businesses will understand.

You're not a failure for not meeting a quota. You tried, the work was not up to your caliber, and you did everything right in going to your manager and giving them tips on how to retain you. Their loss. Dust off your shoulders and take that winning attitude to their biggest competitor. ;)
posted by missh at 11:40 AM on July 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

But I still feel like a failure. I fucked this up, and it's my fault. I can rationalize the fuckup all I want, but the fact remains that I had an opportunity to not fuck up, and I fucked up anyway.

Sounds to me like you were in a toxic work environment, and you got screwed over through no fault of your own. You couldn't succeed because they set impossible standards. They may even have done this deliberately to reduce head count, and save money on salaries. This event says nothing about you, your skills, your worth.

I would suggest reframing this as an unavoidable event. Like, tripping over a step and hurting your leg, or a storm damage. There was nothing you could have done - the weather was bad, a branch fell down and dented your car. It's annoying, but the damage wasn't severe, and you can recover pretty easily. Toss the branch aside, get the dents fixed up, and move on.

Right now, you have some time off. Take advantage of it. Spend your time looking for a a new and better role, but also spend time with your family, work out, do your pet projects.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:11 PM on July 9, 2017

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
I kind of knew already what people were saying, but it's really helpful to hear other people say it. It was especially helpful to hear people say that it sounds like I was being set up by management. I had my suspicions about that, but I was afraid it would seem paranoid, so I left it out of my post. I'm relieved to hear that other people still saw it that way. Thanks again to MetaFilter for being so helpful.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:03 AM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I think about someone "letting someone down," I think of, say, you promised to bring cupcakes and then you got distracted or decided you didn't care and otherwise bailed without caring about the impact on others. In this case, you did your utmost to adapt to changing circumstances. Even your "fuck up" was an earnest and thoughtful attempt to keep the job sustainable for you; it was an attempt to continue supporting them. That's the most that anyone can expect. Life deals us bad cards sometimes, and that's part of why you have a family, to have joy and companionship through the good times and the bad, not so that you feel double shitty when something tough happens to you.

I'll just add, I remember how stressed my dad was about maybe getting fired at one particular job where management was changing and being really harsh to him. I would've loved it if our family had had the savings and if he could've received the severance for him to say "fuck it" about that one particularly stressful job, especially if he could then spend more time with us. (I'm not blaming him for not being able to either, if he ever reads this. Hard to build up savings with a big family.) I think your family wants you to be happy and to feel loved. The last thing your family wants is for you to beat yourself up on their behalf. Enjoy the time with your little one! You'll find something else soon.
posted by salvia at 10:23 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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