When Friends Lose Their Mojo

05/01/2012 09:55 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2012

I am pretty certain every adult woman has had this experience: you have a friend, she's dating the wrong guy, and she's in denial. You try to tell her to cut the jerk loose. She doesn't want to hear it. She gets mad. Other people tell her. She bumps along, trying to get you and her other friends to see the guy in the same rosy light she's fixed on him in her delusion. One day, she's had enough. She dumps the guy and you and the girls go out for drinks. She turns to you and asks you "Why didn't you tell me?"

Your friend will come around and realize eventually that no message in a bottle, even repeated drip marketing messages from well-intended friends like you, was ever going to penetrate the thick wall of denial that separated your girlfriend from reality during her fling with Mr. Slime. One day she'll say "It's like waking up from a coma. I feel like myself, again. I can't believe I ever trifled with that loser."

We face a similar situation when our friends lose their professional mojo. Here's how you can tell when a friend experiences a precipitous mojo-drop: your friend is suddenly scared of everything, and unsure of his or her value. It can happen after a job loss, or just after another tough quarter that leached away more juice than your friend had in his or her fuel tank. "I don't know," your friend might say, even if he or she is still working. "Maybe I have to keep this job. Maybe no one else would hire me. I'm not sure I still have it."

It's the most natural thing in the world to try and buck up a friend who's experiencing mojo loss. You'll jump right into your attagirl/attaboy pep talk. Here's where you'll see the depth of your friend's mojo deficit, in his or her reaction.

"You're naive," your friend will say. "You don't know how hard it is [for me/on the job market/in the big ad agencies/in a tech startup]. You have no idea. This isn't your field."

Mojo-drained friends can get hostile, fast. Your suggestion that they might improve their situation by speaking up to the boss, by setting boundaries at work or by changing jobs is met by anger and resentment. I answer job-search and career questions in my online community every day, and I run into this phenomenon at least once a week.

"I can't keep working these killer hours," a community member will write. "Does anyone know of a PR firm in New York that doesn't require its employees to work around the clock?"

"All of them will ask you to work late, and some of them will demand it," I write back. "You are going to have to set a boundary, at a job interview and all the way through the process. If they value what you have, they'll have that conversation with you, and if they don't value it, they won't."

"You don't understand what it's like," will come the reply.

People in a mojo-deficit state don't want to be told to grow a backbone, and it's easy to see why. If there might be some oasis in the desert in the form of a mystical New York PR firm where people go home on the dot at five o'clock, it would be easier to look for it (for the next thirty years, if necessary) than to look in the mirror and say "I am a doormat."

My friend Molly says "When people lose most or all of their mojo at once, it's terrifying. They don't necessarily want you to remind them that they used to have their mojo and that they'll have it back again soon. Sometimes they want people around them to say 'It's unfair. Life sucks, and work sucks most of all.'"

I have learned to say, "I will commiserate with you for 45 minutes, and then we've got to plan for forty-five minutes after that." We all need to lick our wounds. If you can get your friend to say "I know I'm qualified, and I know I can change my situation," you're over the worst of the don't-talk-to-me-about-mojo hurdles. If not -- if your friend insists that doom and gloom are the order of the day and that you won't be a true friend until you acknowledge that reality -- you may have to withdraw for awhile. The one thing that I haven't seen benefit a mojo-drained career person is a gaggle of friends around to say, "There, there -- it isn't you."

It it hard to see that when you choose control over your situation, whatever you give up in sympathy you get back a thousandfold in personal power and, over time, good results. That's a tough message to send a friend, just like the message "Your boyfriend is a pig."

Keep in mind that your mojo-starved friend's bristling "You're so naive" and "You don't understand the industry" protestations are evidence that s/he can't see his or her place in the my-job-sucks equation. That's okay. With your support, your friend will be back in a high-mojo state soon, and you'll laugh over margaritas about the insane boss or the toxic environment your friend finally burst out of. Won't that be a pleasant celebration of the mojo-spark you helped to relight?