When the trauma of being fired feels like a bad break-up

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Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

In the weeks following, I couldn't sleep, but I couldn't get out of bed either

In the weeks following, I couldn't sleep, but I couldn't get out of bed either Photo: Stocksy

I was coming up on six months unemployed, scraping by on the slow trickle of freelance pay and experiencing serious interview burnout, when I landed the job of my dreams. It was too perfect – after years of feeling bored at work, I was finally challenged. I loved the fact that I was learning and growing, and even when the work was tough, I felt confident I could learn and grow into what they needed. I adored my colleagues and, for the first time ever, I looked forward to going to work every day. Quite simply, I was in love.

Six weeks later, I was unemployed again.

It happened suddenly. In the morning I was frantically scribbling notes in a meeting; at 2pm I was staring at the floor while my manager and a lady from HR I barely knew gave me the spiel. Not experienced enough. We thought you'd be different. Your probation ends today. They handed me tissues as I sobbed, asking rhetorical questions about what the hell I was going to do. I wasn't ready to go back.

It didn't matter what I said – they were gentle but firm when they told me it was final. They cleared out the office so nobody could see me leave. I held the vomit back as I packed my things and walked out into the sunshine, which felt less like a beautiful spring day and more like the flames of hell.

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In the weeks following, I couldn't sleep, but I couldn't get out of bed either. I became overly familiar with the patterns on my ceiling. I can't tell you how many bags of potato gems I ate, or how many wine bottles I saw the bottom of. I withdrew from my friends, even though I needed them more than ever. I disappeared inside myself as I struggled to accept what had happened. I went to see my psychologist again, after months away. I dreaded going anywhere near my old workplace in case I was seen. I constantly stalked the company Facebook to see what they were doing without me. I wondered whether anyone would ever hire me again, or if I'd blown my one chance at what I wanted.

Sound familiar?

It was – I felt and did all the same things the last time I was broken up with.

Getting fired and getting dumped have one big thing in common – rejection. It stings when you've put your entire being into something, and somebody tells you that though they appreciate the effort, it's not good enough. When you're getting The Talk, you plead, bargain, cry, tell them you can and will do more, but you know it won't work. They've checked out of you already. You can't control the way others feel.

When you get fired and your former employer advertises your job, it's the same feeling as coming across your ex on Tinder. It feels like a betrayal – how could they move on so fast, as though you never existed? When someone gets hired for your old role, it's like that ex posting cute couple snaps to Instagram, showing how #blessed their new life without you is. You wonder what the new person has that you don't. You wonder what you could have done to make them stay.

It took me a while to pluck up the courage to start applying to jobs again, just like it took me a while to date again. When you've been hurt, or when your self-esteem has taken a hit, it's hard to put yourself out there, for fear of it happening again.

But think of all the exes you thought you'd never get over – and then think about where you are now. Do you think of them anymore? Or did you realise that it wasn't a good match after all, and learn a few things about yourself and what you really want, and apply those lessons to how you want to move in the world?

It felt like the world had ended the day I was fired, sitting in that office crying my eyes out. It also felt like the world had ended the last time I was dumped, bawling on a couch in my underwear as he refused to look at me.

But despite the shame and the sadness and the hopelessness, I survived both. I surprised myself with my own resilience, and after I allowed myself to grieve, I saw what I wanted and what I was always worth, and I was ready to move on and find it. Where I'd wondered before what was wrong with me, or what I could have done to change the outcome – after the heartache passed, I realised I just hadn't found the right one yet.