Hillary Clinton: The Emotional Meaning Job Loss and Reclaiming Self-Esteem
“Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.” Donald J. Trump is now President, but the majority of America’s voting electorate believe Leonard Cohen’s lyrics were written for Hillary Clinton and her lost election. There she stood giving her concession speech surrounded by family and supporters who gave so much of themselves to her campaign. During Hillary’s concession speech, you could hear the pain in her voice and see the hurt in her eyes made all the more real by her grace, bravery and eloquence. Even her most fervent adversaries couldn’t help but connect to the emotional despair and empathize with her political and emotional loss.
The Greek word for wound is trauma and emotional trauma is any distressing experience resulting a lasting psychological impact. Losing your job can be so traumatic, researchers have compared it to a “living death.” In the corporate world, one is “terminated” from their employment, which conjures up a vision of death.
Job loss is more than a lost paycheck, although that in itself can create anxiety. Job loss also means the loss of life structure, a community of friends and often ambitions, meaning and identity. The degree to which trauma is felt is in part related to the attachment one feels to their work and to their underlying level of self-esteem.
Curiously Hillary didn’t have the job as President, so why was it so painful? Because for Hillary, it was the loss of a “non-event,” like being jilted at the altar, because even though she didn’t have it, the loss was just as real and just as painful. She was so close to breaking that glass ceiling and yet her dream now lies in tatters.
Grief and Pain
Like almost everyone who experiences job loss, Hillary will follow the path of grief Kubler-Ross so beautifully articulates in her seminal work, “On Death and Dying.” First is the shock of the loss and the denial hoisted as a shield, but this gracious and most welcome coping mechanism eventually gives way to reality and pain. Anger follows in its various forms, including frustration and resentment. While anger is an emotional tool we can use for self-reflection, self-revelation and growth, at its worst, anger is a poison pill we swallow believing it will hurt the person or thing that has wronged or trespassed against us. You can almost hear her wrath, “How can this man, who exploits racism, belittles women, leverages religious bigotries and spouts mistruths, win an election over me? I can’t believe it.”
Denial and anger give way to the bargaining stage as she desperately tries to make sense of and understand the loss in order to deal with the pain. You can almost hear her thoughts, “If I had spent more time in Wisconsin and Michigan…” or “if the FBI had not launched investigations without merit into the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi and twice into my private email server which resulted in zero charges of wrong doing” and “Yes, I regret calling half of Trump’s supporters ‘deplorables,’ but why is it that women and men in America are compared with different behavioral norms… that men need only to be respected but women have to be liked and respected.” In the end, it is what it is, and fairness doesn’t matter because to the victor go the spoils and Hillary lost the job she wanted most and had worked for her whole life.
Hillary valiantly admitted her pain in the concession speech and although she was stoic, sadness in emotional loss is unavoidable. Tears work to wash away the pain of the loss. Some reporters claimed with mildly sexist disdain that Hillary cried all night and that this was the reason she waited until the next day for her concession. Any insinuation that tears are weak is gender-based hypocrisy because where is the correlation between tears, emotional hardiness and strength of character? Listening to Hillary’s words and watching her display the resilience of a hundred, I wonder if Donald Trump have responded with the same dignity.
Tears are a necessary part of the grieving process and to stifle them is to prevent oneself from acknowledging the sorrow so necessary to move on. It is when sadness is not honored that one can become stuck and the trauma of job loss becomes a fertile ground for major depression. Men who have a stoic pre-occupation with emotional control as a mandatory behavioral norm can be more susceptible to depression, because they can’t embrace their emotions as a path to self-awareness and a means to acceptance.
What complicates matters is that it is not just one straight line from loss to the final acceptance stage. Rather than a linear process, it goes up and down and back and forth like an emotional roller coaster. Just when you think the sadness has passed, your mind turns back to the what-if scenarios of bargaining… “If only I had done this or that” and then to anger, etc. It helps to understand this, but it still hurts.
Stigma & Shame
Society often and wrongly attaches a stigma to job loss as if there is something inherently wrong or missing in the value and make-up of the “loser” or the one terminated from their job. Does Hillary have less value than Donald Trump? As a society, are we so obsessed with winning that it gives the victor license to do and say what they will simply because they won? Indeed, we should re-assess the stigma of “without cause” job loss for being the fallacy that it is.
Along with the public stigma comes its twin brothers guilt and shame with the latter even more devastating. Feeling guilt over a regretted action is difficult enough to reconcile emotionally, but shame is an emotional swamp signifying not the guilt over making a mistake but instead the feeling that I am the mistake. That belief is like quicksand for self-esteem – which is simply your own internal opinion of your value and self-worth. I hope that Hillary has the emotional fortitude necessary to vaporize the feelings of guilt and especially shame, which is a very private hell. The best remedy for shame is the power of bearing witness: bringing it out in the open where someone is able to see that what somebody did or happened to them does not translate into who they are as a person of value. Most people understandably need help processing the loss and how they see themselves, but for Hillary the loss was so public and the support so strong and heartfelt that I hope shame is a non-issue.
The Echo Effect
Otherwise known as the “systems effect,” this is the repercussion or impact on those around the one who suffers most directly… in this case, Hillary. Watching the concession speech, one could see the emotional loss in the eyes and demeanor of everyone around her in the room. Her husband looked angry and her running mate Tim Kaine looked sad and the audience looked at times confused in their denial of what had happened. Indeed, it seemed as though half of the voting public was in shock and mourning as evidenced a week later when I witnessed tears and anger from a stranger at a conference. This is a double-edged sword for Hillary, because on the one side, she bears the weight and burden of all their emotional loss and you could hear it in the contrite tone of her speech and the apologetic words she used. On the positive side, however, with the support of so many, perhaps “a burden shared is a burden halved.”
The Path to Acceptance
There must be time to heal and a path to acceptance. The first step for Hillary, or anyone who has lost their job, is to understand that the loss does not define their worth. As she said, the election loss “This is painful, and it will be for a long time” but it does not diminish who she is, all that she has accomplished and her value. This self-understanding of self-worth is the existential turn necessary for healing and acceptance.
Structure needs to be re-established in her life. It may not be the whirlwind of activity that occupied her before, but having structure will allow for her productivity and contribution to life to grow and flourish. In addition, having a positive vision and intention for the future will help propel her forward. Seeing the possibilities for herself and believing she can continue to make a real contribution in the future will fuel her continued the life long journey called career. This future-mindedness will help her take control of her life, search for the truth of what transpired and why, ultimately to find closure and move on to a full life.
Transfer of Meaning
Hillary derived so much of her meaning and identity from her public service and her decade-long pursuit of the Presidency. It was more than just the meaning derived from work: there were elements of community service and family embedded in her quest. Time may not heal all and I acknowledge that for some, and maybe for Hillary, there may always be a painful loss of meaning and purpose for what could have been, and for her supporters, what should have been. But what is of paramount importance is that Hillary brings other things of meaning into her life that give her real continued purpose, accomplishment and identity. This meaning may not only be found in work, but, as Viktor Frankl told us, may also be found in many forms including family, creativity and spirituality.
Hillary’s drive has always been to make a difference in the world. I am not criticizing Donald Trump’s ambitions to build his own personal brand into millions of dollars and win the Presidency, but Hillary has mostly dedicated her life to the public good, and she can continue to accomplish and flourish, and with that, better accept the results of the election and turn her emotional loss into a reincarnation of an even better and deeper self. Perhaps that is trauma’s silver lining.
We know life isn’t always fair, but with a fortitude and resilience so often demonstrated in her career, irrespective of the cards dealt on November 8, 2016, Hillary can and I believe will do great things, as she has done before. Because in the end, we each have the ability to bring meaning and purpose into our life from the work that we do and the contribution that we make—that is Hillary’s and our own individual and existential responsibility.