Sucker Punched and Snapping Back: Surviving the Challenge of Unexpected Career Changes

Diana K. Deese shares a deeply personal story about a forced job change
Stressed woman
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

People resist change … but change is inevitable. 

When we were young, everything was new. Everything was change. We were learning through our choices and resulting experiences. Sometimes those choices were wise, sometimes not. We changed clothing styles, music, peers, food preferences. We couldn’t wait to be 16 and drive, 18 and vote, 21 and drink, go to college, be out on our own, and freed from the governance of our parents. We were fearless, resilient, and optimistic. They were our choices and we evaluated and adjusted them to make them comfortable and personal … and we eagerly embraced that exciting change. It was foreseeable, planned, controllable, and for the most part, anticipated and positive. When change presents itself in this way, or in small imperceptible increments, coping teaches us resilience. 

Then we got older. With our job, debts, marriage, kids, and house came responsibilities, obligations, commitments, routine, and habits. We traded in our wings for roots, sought stability, and our attitude toward change became “improvise, adapt, overcome.” Maybe we started to realize our own mortality and, by not changing, we thought we could stop time and avoid the inevitable … but still embrace change that was in our best interest.

Based on its severity, disruptive change results in personal perspectives that may seem irrational but makes perfect sense to the individual. Since these individuals are not involved in the decision-making process, they take it as deeply personal criticism and suffer the snide remarks of friends and family. They feel pushed, blindfolded, off a cliff into raging waters. 

Some top changes that cause stress: 

  • Death of loved ones
  • Divorce/legal issues
  • Job loss
  • Marriage 
  • New home
  • Chronic illness
  • Birth 
  • Poor work/life balance
  • Emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger, grief, guilt)
  • Increased financial obligations

I thought 2012 was going well, as the annual review I received from my immediate supervisor was above average and I was recommended for a promotion. But there was an uneasy feeling within the corporation and, two weeks later, I was “downsized.” HR stated the reason: I negotiated my salary too well; I was on the old medical/retirement plan. I was part of the successful, but aging, workforce being forced out … giving way to younger, cheaper employees in the name of progress. It became my year from hell. From that list of 10, I experienced 8, some twice over … with the last two being caused by the loss of my job, which also broke my spirit. I had done everything right but after 18 years … poof … gone. It was unforeseen, not “my fault,” and out of my control.

I was angry and defensive! I jumped right into interviewing the next week. A bad plan, as I walked out knowing that chip on my shoulder was clearly visible. 

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Daily, I dealt with these thoughts:

  • loss of control, dignity, self-worth
  • feeling helpless, defeated, scared
  • questioning my competence
  • lack of pride in work accomplishments - completely gone, my confidence shattered
  • isolation, no one understanding what I am going through

I needed to give myself time to grieve my old life and set up plans for how to build a new one. I had to do this with grace, as my daughter was watching … this would be an important lesson for her, by my example, in how to handle adversity. I realized that who I am was not defined by my employer or my job title, that friends I had made through work may be gone. I had to push aside panic and face adversity with dignity and resilience to emerge stronger 

Forbes’ List for the Newly Unemployed:

  • stay future focused (no woulda-shoulda-coulda)
  • do not let your job status define you (stay positive and confident)
  • prioritize self-care (no regrets, no guilt)
  • surround yourself with positive people (emotions are contagious)
  • tap into your network (your network is your net worth … build/invest in it before you need it)
  • treat finding a job as your new job (keep a routine, save the end of the day for revitalizing with family and friends)
  • extend kindness (do not wallow in selfpity)

During this demoralizing type of change, you must believe in you. How you manage change defines your success. “I can’t” must become “I can.” 

I started making lists to regain control. I listed the people in my network who I could reach out to, places I was qualified to work, how to apply for a job in the virtual world, evaluated what was important to me, what I could sell or do in the meantime to generate income. Getting organized and making a plan was cathartic. Keeping a “work” schedule everyday kept me motivated and fought off depression. My job was to find a job. The only advice the employment agency gave me: “cut your hair.” I have had long hair forever and I haven’t changed my hairstyle in – well, never. With all the other change I was experiencing, this was my stake in the mud … I was not changing my hair. A small thing, but it was mine to control.

I was unemployed for 18 weeks. Allowing four weeks to put my feelings into perspective, cleaning my house like a fiend with my angry energy, making/following a plan, my diligence paid off and I took a contracting job at a 60% pay decrease from what had earned previously. Continuing to work my network, I parlayed it into a full-time position – but it took two years. 

We need change and change is inevitable. The sooner you adapt (a testament to your flexibility), the more productive you will be. What I learned is to listen to my intuition and follow my instincts. Keep busy, remain persistent, stay focused on my positive attributes, and be proactive. Organize, plan, prioritize, execute … repeat as necessary. My current job is less stressful, more enjoyable, more diversified, I’m appreciated, and I have more opportunity for personal growth. 

Honestly, the ghosts of past resentments can still creep in and haunt me, but I survived walking through hell to get here … and I am better for it.

Viktor E. Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…

Embrace the ride. It all starts with your attitude. 

Diana K. Deese, Analytical Technologist, The Dow Company
Diana K. Deese, Analytical Technologist, The Dow Company

Currently working at Dow, Diana Deese’s degree in electrical engineering technology, from Michigan Technological University, has provided the basis for a chemistry career that has spanned 35 years in research and development/analytical sciences. Her occupational adventures have included secret government projects, military initiatives, advancing silicon carbide wafering technologies, and the charged world of interlayer dielectrics for the electronic industry. 

She has experienced many changes, most planned and anticipated … save one. Her life experiences have allowed her to travel and immerse herself in several diverse cultures, the learnings of which strengthens her everyday interactions. That, and her saucy sense of humor.

Among the multitude of awards Diana has received are the 2014 ACS National Chemical Technician Award, the U.S. Army Artillery Order of Molly Pitcher Medal, and Girl Scouts of the USA “Thanks” badge. She has several patents and trade secret processes to her name.

Diana spends lots of her free time passionately volunteering. This is her thirteenth year as chair of the ACS Midland Section Awards Committee and tenth as an ACS Science Coach. She is also actively involved with the Girl Scouts and the Mid-Michigan Technician Group.

Diana will tell you her greatest achievement is her daughter, Emily, her travel and adventure buddy. When they are not scheming together, Diana enjoys photography, genealogy, gardening, and soaking up all the useless trivia she can find. The sum of these activities keeps her from having her house overrun by her weakness—cats.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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