I am not the only person I know in my 60s who had a bad work experience at the end of their career. One friend was in his hospital bed after cancer surgery when his boss told him he was being forced to retire. Another friend worked for years as a successful paramedic and was then given the worst shifts in attempts to squeeze him out.
A CEO I knew was asked to step down after he was scapegoated for a personnel case he handled. For me, it was a bad decision to take a job in a troubled school district that I thought I could fix. They bought out my contract after two years – meaning they fired me, but not for cause. They simply wanted me out.
In each of these cases, people who had worked in successful careers were blindsided. I won’t blame it on ageism, although I think that played a part in each of these cases. It seems more constructive to share how I suggest ways to bounce back and heal emotionally if that happens to you. This kind of experience does not have to define us.
A bad work experience at the end or our careers can be devastating. There is a terrible sense of failure. You question whether you have actually been an imposter for your whole career. You come to feel that you are not what you thought you were. You worry that your life work has amounted to nothing. It is easy to see why some people never come back from it. That was not going to happen to me.
First of all, I gave myself time to grieve. This is important because all the sadness needed to be channeled somewhere. I let myself feel the pain of what happened. I cried. I journaled. I felt my feelings.
Next, I looked square in the face of the shame I felt. I shared what happened with different close friends and family. I decided that I was not going to hide my story. That released the embarrassment and sense of failure. At the same time however, I was careful not to get obsessed by wallowing in my emotions.
I focused on compassion for myself and also for the people who had hurt me. Books helped with this. I read about forgiveness and realized that by bearing a grudge, I would be the only person damaged by bitterness.
I did a lot of writing in order to reflect on my life. I internalized what I had learned. It was then possible to break through that sinking feeling that my life had peaked and that I was on the way down. While I gave myself the time I needed to heal, I kept moving forward.
While grieving, I was thinking about what I could do next. Your first thought might be to get back on that horse and get a similar job. Somehow you become tainted after a failure. But as they say, when one door closes, another opens. If you are open to the possibility.
For me, the opening doors included publishing a book with a colleague. I also started to volunteer for a group in a completely new industry. It was somewhere that I could make a contribution to society. I decided to give it a chance. Working nationally for this important cause turned out to be an amazing opportunity.
Through all of this, I learned to stand in integrity. Living through a tremendous amount of stress made me stronger. I learned that I could bounce back from a bad end of career experience without terrible ramifications on my lifelong career. I learned that after a bad experience, life can be better than it ever was before.
Bouncing back after a big failure at the end of a career is certainly NOT easy. My recommendations are to first recognize that you are not the first or last to go through this. Take the time to grieve and have compassion for yourself. Avoid obsessing or taking the path of bitterness. Reach out to others for support.
And remember when one door closes, another will open, if you let it.
Did you go through an unexpected for bad end of career experience? How did you respond? Did you find a way to reinvent yourself and take advantage of new opportunities? Please join the conversation.
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