A few months ago I had lunch with some of my old colleagues from my most recent corporate job that I left 9 months ago. As they were busy stressing about having taken a lunch break (my boss will kill me!), shuffling papers for work (I just need to get this one thing done!), and generally apologizing for their human need for oh say food and connection, I could see much more clearly with the eyes of having been removed from that environment. Energetically I felt more stressed out in their presence than I had in months and I started wondering about the self-inflicted hell we create for ourselves.

Now I’ll be the first to say that this whole self-employment thing is an interesting journey. There is most definitely uncertainty and a lack of security around cash flow. Yet, I wonder how much more uncertain and stressful it really is.

As my friends were stressing, talking a mile a minute, and seemingly wound so tight that their body could snap, they looked at me and said something like “Wow, I wish I could do what you’re doing. But I don’t think I could ever handle the stress and uncertainty!” At that moment I was the calmest person at the table. All this drama while they are chattering on about all the layoffs, reorganizations, and recent market/product failures within the company. How safe and snuggly does that make you feel?

There is a huge psychological toll that accompanies the slash and burn we’ve seen in corporations — to those getting laid off and to those left behind.

Most recently the article in the NY Times “Wall Street Exodus: Fear, Panic and Anger” focused on these tolls in the financial industry:

Since August, banks worldwide have announced plans to eliminate as many as 65,000 jobs. Many losing their jobs now have lived through other crises on Wall Street — the 1987 market crash, the widespread layoffs of the early 1990s and the financial upheaval of 1998. But investment bankers, recruiters and psychologists say the current economic downturn, the cascade of layoffs and the steady beat of grim financial news have exacted an especially daunting psychic price.

“These are people’s lives,” said an investment banker in his 30s who was laid off in November from his job at a Bank of America office in New York. “It’s not head count. We’re not cattle.”

Cattle or not, it seems the trend toward a continual season of layoffs is just becoming more commonplace. The tension with those who survive layoffs are palpable. Like it or not and whether you own up to it or not, your job is not safe, secure, or certain. It is an illusion my friend. Not to mention as an LGBT person in so many places it is entirely legal to be fired since we are not protected by anti-discrimination laws. Even if a company has a policy in place, we all know it could be hard to prove wrongdoing if someone really had an axe to grind with your sexuality.

In “7 Reasons to Change Careers Now (Never Mind the Recession)” Pamela Skillings shares reason #1 (with an awesome “Caution — Cliff Edge” sign on her post to boot):

You may be tempted to grit your teeth and cling to your current position until the economic forecasts start to look sunnier. In today’s workforce, that’s a dangerous strategy. When an 80+-year-old Wall Street institution like Bear Stearns can disappear practically overnight, no job is truly secure. It doesn’t really matter how good you are at your job or how much boss butt you kiss.

If you have been contemplating a career change, there’s no good reason to put it off until the unemployment rate falls again. I’m not suggesting that you make any rash moves like quitting before you’re financially ready, but you can start developing your career change strategy now. Get started on the homework you need to do while you’re still collecting your paycheck. Update your resume, step up your networking, explore your options, and develop your skills.

You will be taking a career risk whether you resign yourself to staying in the job you hate or start moving toward the job you’ll love. Why not put your energies into the risk that could have the biggest reward?

Gritting your teeth and bearing it is not a career strategy, it is desperation and fear. Nothing good comes from desperation and fear unless you transform it into action.

Whether you are sitting in a job you loathe uncertain what to do next or on the path toward entrepreneurship I can tell you that it pays to keep your energies focused on the positive and keep yourself in action. One of the saving graces for me as I was making the transition was ready wise advice from some of my favorite bloggers. One of those, Pamela Slim at “Escape of Cubicle Nation” is always full of great advice. In her post “Dipping your toes in the side of the pool will get you nowhere: dive in!” she shares what she learned after taking her two year old to swimming class for the first time:

The message that hit me squarely between the eyes yesterday is that the way to exponentially accelerate your learning is to:

* Jump in and do something right away. If you want to be a coach, start to coach someone. If you are a software developer and want to create your own product, start with a small application. If you want to start a cookie business, bake 3 dozen and sell them on the street corner. Get started with your endeavor and you will quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.

* Choose the right mentors. I can think of no situation where I felt more vulnerable and at risk than with my toddler’s life at the edge of the pool. We chose an instructor that is experienced, certified, qualified and capable, and I knew that she would never harm my child. Don’t “fling yourself into the pool” with just anyone — make sure you have good support around you.

* Don’t run away from fear. We often wait to do things until we “build up enough courage.” Secret tip: fear is always present when doing new things, no matter how seasoned or experienced you are. You just learn to feel it and do it anyway.

* Trust the process. As I elaborated in my post about the “conscious competence learning model,” you can’t expect to go from novice to expert in one step. It will take time, practice and experimentation to develop competence and confidence. But if you never take the first step, you will guarantee one thing: you will be perpetually stuck in the novice stage. And the longer you stay there, the more timid you become.

Fear and panic lie in the state of inaction. DO something. Even if you can’t just up and quit your job, take steps right here today that will get you moving toward the next best thing for you. Even if you never want to work for yourself, you need to constantly be improving yourself and your skills if you plan on staying marketable and earning a living in one way, shape, or form.

Perhaps the next generation is onto something. Many seem less entrenched in what something “should” look like than those of us in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. In “Job-hopping Gen Yers aren’t disloyal. They’re smart” Nadira A. Hira shares:

For those of us who saw our elders give years — even decades — of service to major corporations, only to find themselves suddenly and unceremoniously jobless, corporate America often appears just as scary and unstable (and untrustworthy) as the world at large, if not more so. And whether that’s a fair characterization or not, it certainly doesn’t help when companies operate the way some of those in this New York Times story do — creating a culture of fear and distrust by, among other things, keeping employees completely out of the loop, to the point where a bounced e-mail from a now-former colleague’s work address is the first indication s/he’s gone.

Is it any surprise that Yers are quick to move to the next opportunity — or, to hear some recruiters tell it, be “disloyal”? Could any of us really justify staying “loyal” to a place that we’ve learned could turn us out into the street at any moment, without so much as a farewell e-mail? That sounds a lot more like stupidity than loyalty to me.

The truth is — neither being an employee nor being an entrepreneur is inherently more certain. It is like financial planning — there are all different types of risk and it is a personal choice based on your unique situation and personality. What I know for sure, though, is that my stressed out old colleagues will go on being unhappy and feeling like they are at the mercy of someone else until they take the wheel on their own decisions and choices; even if it is as simple as simple yet powerful as choosing to set and enforce boundaries in their current job. Maybe then they could actually enjoy lunch!

Paula Gregorowicz, owner of The Paula G. Company, works with women who are ready to create their lives and businesses the way the want rather than how they were told they “should”. Ready to learn how to achieve success on your own terms? Download the free 12 part eCourse “How to Be Comfortable in Your Own Skin” at her website http://www.thepaulagcompany.com and Coaching4Lesbians blog.