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5 Lessons On Self-Worth And Boundaries You Can Learn From Being Fired

Sis, being terminated won't make or break your life.

Workin' Girl

No one wants to hear that dreaded phrase, “We have to terminate your employment,” especially when you’ve got bills to pay and things to do. (And that cliche “You’re fired,” seems to be something that only happens on TV. Even as a manager, I’ve never yelled “You’re fired,” when letting someone go, but I digress.) It can seem like one of the worst days of your life to be let go from your job, but you know, the first time I heard that “terminate” phrase, I was relieved.


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It was at a job I hated. My manager at the time was toxic, would gaslight me and disregard my concerns about work-related issues (of which I was actually asked my professional opinion), and I was given duties that weren’t on the original job description. The job turned out to be a horrible catfish that I really wanted out of from day two. My mom didn’t raise a quitter, and at the time, I didn’t feel empowered to just leave. I cried. Stuck it out. Almost lost my mind. Then that termination day came. While I had a pretty decent salary and several financial obligations, I still felt like I was given a huge favor.

Sometimes losing a job can teach valuable lessons about self-worth and boundaries that no other experience can really teach. Here are a few:

1. It's okay to set boundaries and stick to them. As a matter of fact, it's essential.

When I was offered the position, I was told I’d be able to use my previous experience in the role and that I’d have autonomy. Well, I found out, through observation as to how my manager behaved the first week, that this wasn’t the case. If I would have nipped things in the bud from the beginning, I would have at least gotten a boost to my confidence and might have been able to avoid a terrible snowball of toxicity down the road.

Some employers need a reminder as to what work was actually contracted, what you were promised in the role, and the various legally binding insights that were shared as part of the job offer process. And some managers will also try you until you kindly and professionally remind them of what you were hired to do, based on the job description and offer letter you signed (which is indeed legally binding.) Again, set those boundaries early through open communication and stern, but respectful language when you see things going left.

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2. Standing up for yourself doesn't make you 'difficult.' It empowers you.

I could liken the manager I had at this particular job to a schoolyard bully, and my mother always taught me, “A bully will always mess with you if you do not stand up for yourself. You must stand up for yourself.” I can remember the one bully I had, in all my school years, who thought they’d try to threaten to beat me down in front of the whole school during lunch period one day. Well, let’s just say she learned the hard way that I’m not one to bully. Good thing she chose a public place. I defended myself, and not only did she never bully me again, but no one ever bothered me, either.

The same can be said about a manager or supervisor in the workplace who just seems to always be riding you–always down your throat about something or being super-unprofessional in the manner in which they talk to or relate with you in the workplace.

After being let go from the company, I reminisced on that day in school, as that confident young girl I was, and thought to myself, ‘Janell, you should have spoken up for yourself and quit.’

You can professionally approach addressing toxic behaviors in the workplace, and be sure to have them on record, by at least reporting them to human resources or other parties who are responsible for HR-related issues. Even if you don’t feel like it will do any good, at least it’s on record, especially if, like me, you’re fired. You might also need these insights on record for getting unemployment benefits, suing the company for wrongful termination, or disputing when the company fights against your receiving any benefits.

3. Never connect your value as a human being to insights (or opinions) about your job performance or experience.

Oftentimes, the manager I had during this awful firing experience, would be very disrespectful and mean, both in manner, voice tone, and words. Sometimes I found myself, as a result, feeling less-than, inadequate, and beat down by the end of a workweek. I came to the position with great references, amazing industry experience, and a great attitude, yet I’d allowed another human being to make me feel low and unworthy as a person. (That’s called abuse, by the way, something of which I’d been a victim in personal relationships both as a child and an adult. I have always had to cope with the healing from those experiences, but had never been victim to it in the workplace at the level of this particular job.)

I had to remind myself that it was the job (well, the manager really) not me. Also, even if I was not doing a great job, that does not mean I’m not a great person. Our value, as human beings who deserve love, respect, and dignity, does not diminish because of issues at a company.

(And trust me, I did the best I could, as a high-achieving leader, considering the very unorganized, toxic environment I’d been working in.)

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4. It's okay to walk away almost immediately when you feel unsafe, unhappy or know that the job simply is not a good fit for you.

It can seem daunting to quit anything, especially, if like me, you were raised to just stick things out, ‘put on your grown-woman panties’ and overcome. Well, not every situation is worth the trouble, and oftentimes, our early fears or insecurities about a job are proven valid and problematic in the end. As an experienced professional, I now know that it’s better for me to walk away as soon as I see major red flags. That firing experience gave me the confidence to not only quit a job when I know it’s just not a good look for my long-term success and wellness but to feel totally secure and unapologetic in doing so.

I’m not saying you should just give up as soon as someone on your job tap-dances on your nerves a bit too hard, or when a job seems like it’s challenging you a bit too much. What I am saying is that you shouldn’t stay in any environment where you consistently feel unsafe, unworthy, or loathful coming to work every day.

And sometimes the reasons have nothing to do with the work environment. It could just be the fact that the job just isn’t a good fit for you. Maybe you're not at your best because you're simply not passionate about the type of work you're doing. Maybe there are some personal things you need to work through. Maybe the company culture, while awesome, just isn't your vibe. Just like you’d break up with someone in a romantic relationship who, while nice and wonderful, is just not the right person for you, leave that job that’s not compatible, too.

You can go through a benefit-of-the-doubt process where you bring up your concerns to your immediate manager or escalate things to a union rep or HR manager, but at the end of the day, if you know, that first week or month, that deep down in your gut, that the job is not right for you, it might be a better idea to just gracefully bow out early, with your dignity and mental health intact.

5. Life indeed does go on, and you will, indeed, be more than fine. You'll probably be even better after the experience.

Many of us can feel “at fault” when it comes to being fired, even if whatever situation led to the firing really wasn’t our fault. There’s shame, self-defamation, and other horrible fall-outs that can happen when you’ve been let go. But let me tell you: Since that experience, I’ve gotten several amazing jobs, made way more money, I’ve traveled the world, and I can look back on that day and laugh knowing that I am well taken care of by God, today.

I did a bit of self-work after that experience, and I found that much of the reason I stayed in the position even after all the red flags I’d noticed during that first week, for me, had to do with self-worth issues and old traumas I’d experienced in the past that I had not addressed within myself. I also learned to forgive, especially in reference to that manager, because I held on to a lot of hurt and anger about the situation. I’d had high hopes for that job—things that were promised to me by the manager—that never materialized.

I take my work seriously, and when something doesn’t work out as someone says it should in a position, it’s like my whole world ends thinking about all the amazing things that could have been accomplished had I been given what I was promised and allowed the chance to thrive in the role. I’d also turned down other opportunities to take that job and felt a lot of resentment about that. You can’t get time back, so that part really made my blood boil. I had to forgive myself as well.

It’s an amazing feeling to be able to take your power back by looking inward, rallying support from family, friends, and mentors, and remembering who you truly are as the person God made you to be. I’m an auntie, a sister, a lover, an advocate, and a damn good writer and editor. I’ve blessed folk with opportunities, mentorship, and financial investments. Being fired did not define me, stop my coins, or destroy me.

I’ve continued to seek God, work through healing, and take the lessons to be a better person and professional in the long run.

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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