Psychologue du travail, coach et consultante RH
Are you constantly checking your phone as you wait to hear back from potential employers? With all the rejections you’ve received, as well as the ones you’ve heard nothing at all from, maybe you’re wondering if your applications are good enough. Is it that you’re aiming too high? Perhaps your CV doesn’t highlight your skills well enough? As you wait to hear back, self-doubt sets in and you begin to wonder about your true position in the job market. But why does looking for a job put such a strain on self-esteem? And what’s the best way to stay positive and confident?
Why job searching can be hard on your self-esteem
“I feel like I don’t have what it takes to get a job. I’m such a loser”, “They’re going to realise that I’m inexperienced and other candidates are better.” These kinds of demotivating thoughts often run on a loop when you are job hunting. While they’re perfectly normal, be careful you don’t start confusing them with reality.
Self-esteem is subjective
Determining your value can feel strange at first, but everyone does it all the time. Humans have always had this survival instinct to check their place and value within groups and communities. From this instinct comes self-esteem, which can be defined as the judgment you make of your value. The American Psychological Association defines it as “a person’s physical self-image, view of his or her accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as how others view and respond to that person. The more positive the cumulative perception of these qualities and characteristics, the higher one’s self-esteem.”
From childhood, you build up a self-image, of which self-esteem is a part. The American sociologist Charles H Cooley explained that this image is mainly defined from “otherness”, meaning your relationships and the views of others. This begins with parental relationships in early childhood, then gradually expands to your peers and others around you. Christophe André, a psychiatrist at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Centre in Paris, describes self-esteem in his book Imperfect, Free and Happy as requiring two essential “foods” to survive: social recognition and a sense of self-efficacy, which is a belief in one’s ability to succeed.
No work, no feedback
Self-esteem requires that you not only evaluate and judge yourself, but also confirm your findings based on what others may think of you. Some people even focus heavily on what others say about them and form an opinion from there. But when unemployed, there is often little to no feedback that you can rely on. Without feedback from managers, colleagues or customers, there’s no one to tell you that you’re on the right track. And because recognition from others is a key part of building self-esteem, confidence plummets when you’re cut off from that.
Without a job, you can sometimes feel left out
In a society where work is of prime importance, being unemployed is a tremendous strain. Most people are used to introducing themselves to others based on what they do for a living. “Hi, I’m Chloe and I’m currently looking for work” can be tough to say. We need others to recognise our level of conformity, to reassure us that we are similar and to tell us that we do indeed fit in. Therefore, being unemployed can make you feel like an outsider. Others may even pressure you: “You shouldn’t be so picky about jobs, you have to work” or “You’ve been looking for so long, are you being difficult?” These types of unsolicited comments leave you feeling deflated and can significantly affect your self-confidence.
The fear of rejection
It’s hard to know what you’re worth when the main evaluators in a job search—recruiters—often don’t answer at all. A negative response or no response to an application can be upsetting and awaken a natural fear of rejection. This fear can be useful if, for example, it helps you to refine your applications, but it can also leave you feeling stuck. Fear of rejection can lead to an over-negative interpretation of events, such as when faced with a lack of response to your applications. Instead of considering the sheer number of other applicants, you might think you’re just not good enough. It’s important to remember that if someone other than you is recruited, out of perhaps hundreds who applied, it’s not a personal attack and doesn’t make you less worthy as a person.
Doubting one’s abilities and the fear of being unmasked
When looking for a job, you might even begin to doubt your own abilities: “They’re going to find out that I’m not up to scratch.” The possibility of experiencing impostor syndrome is very real, especially when job postings have a list of required skills as long as your arm. You experience the fear of being unmasked: “What if the recruiter thinks I’m less competent than I say?” But it’s silly to think others expect you to be perfect and know everything. It’s normal to feel self-doubt, but you need to stop it from it paralyzing you. Doubt allows you to question yourself and avoid pointlessly applying for jobs you’re simply not qualified for, but that doesn’t mean you should be discouraged from applying for jobs that are well within your capabilities. Self-doubt is natural, as long as you aren’t selling yourself short.
Self-esteem isn’t the same for everyone: for some, it is stable and, for others, more fragile. Of course, what actually led to your job search is important. The blow to self-esteem can be all the greater if what led to your unemployment was dismissal or something similar and the damage might drag on for a long time. Such difficulties can also be worse if your recent life experiences have been particularly tough as it has for many during the pandemic. So here are a few tips on how to improve your self-care during your job search.
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Job hunting: how to get some perspective and stay confident
1. Look at yourself—and your added value—objectively.
Since self-esteem is a subjective and, therefore, potentially distorted assessment, why not seek some objectivity through talking to a professional? André reminds us that it is better to “be cautious about the hasty conclusions of one’s inner criticism”. That’s why taking stock of your background and skills with a neutral person can really help you to pinpoint the differences between your own interpretation and the true facts of the matter.
Completing a skills assessment or career review can also be useful in obtaining a clearer picture. Getting a coach to help support you will allow you to take a step back and take stock of your true assets and strengths. Another way to establish your labour market value is to meet with recruiters, headhunters or recruitment consultants. They’ll give you useful feedback on your profile, providing you with a clearer outlook and even new tools to attack the job market.
2. Build up confidence by taking action.
The longer you wait to act, the greater your fear of doing it becomes—and the likelier your self-esteem will suffer. Spending a week browsing job sites, feeling disillusioned and miserable, is not good for your morale. André, in his clinical practice, emphasises the extent to which taking action can help boost self-esteem. Getting things going will raise your own awareness of your ability to change your situation and your future. What if you’d like to get moving, but nothing seems to be happening in the job market? Well, there’s nothing like taking small steps regularly to gain a little confidence and pride. You can make things happen, one step at a time, by setting yourself achievable goals.
In addition to completing applications, you can also:
Completely revamp your CV, LinkedIn profile and portfolio, and have them checked over by friends and family,
Make contact with professionals in the sector/s you’re targeting,
Reconnect with former colleagues and classmates, as well as others in your networks,
Make unsolicited applications to organisations whose visions closely align with your own.
Any actions you take that provide concrete results, even if they’re small, can allow you to regain control and strengthen your sense of personal effectiveness. The philosopher Charles Pépin, who explored the notion of self-confidence, wrote that if an act carries a risk of failure, then any success is particularly useful as it provides the “pleasure of seeing the results and the gain in confidence that comes from them”.
3. Give your mood and self-esteem a boost with personal projects.
If you were previously getting your sense of self from work, you might well find job hunting a particularly trying period. Since self-esteem is increased through experiencing self-efficacy and recognition from those around you, it’s important to maintain activities beyond the world of work that make you feel positive and centred. Don’t feel guilty going for a run in the morning while others are beginning the day’s work. Remember, these activities may be what’s keeping you going.
Playing sport, being creative, getting involved in various social activities or even doing one-off jobs can help keep your spirits up. Why not try volunteering or helping others where you are needed? Many areas in life can help to remind you of your value as a human being.
4. Don’t close yourself off: stay open to support networks.
There really is more to life than just work, so it’s essential to ensure that you take care of yourself during your job search. If you become isolated, you might protect yourself from the critical gaze of others, but you’re also depriving yourself of potentially useful feedback. “The judgments that we constantly make about ourselves can then only be informed by our own subjectivity, and that is enormously risky,” says André, warning against the sometimes mistaken perception you might have of yourself.
Positive relationships, sociability and time spent with friends can allow you to focus on your self-worth while taking care of yourself. For example, you can get close to people in the same situation as you, help to support each other and perhaps start to build a network. Beyond the professional opportunities this could open up for you, it’s an opportunity to discover the value that others see in you. Also, you really can’t spend every minute of the day looking for work, so make sure to enjoy yourself with family and friends whenever possible. Being with loved ones will improve both your mood and your self-esteem.
Searching for a job can feel like an ordeal as it brings your fears and fragilities to the surface. Staying busy and keeping in touch with others are good ways to maintain self-esteem and not get locked into negative thought processes. Taking care of yourself is especially important during a job search. What’s more, it can only have a positive impact on the effectiveness of your searches, as you will be more approachable, open and dynamic if you feel good about yourself. It’s important to stay attuned to your emotions and needs as well: be kind to yourself while working on your self-confidence. The road to a new job won’t always be smooth but remember that you have the inner resources to overcome whatever obstacles you encounter along the way.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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