How Entrepreneurs Can Protect Their Most Valuable Asset
5 strategies to guard your mental health from the challenges of entrepreneurship
Posted October 14, 2015
Being a successful entrepreneur is not easy. It requires a clear head, a big heart, and above all a strong stomach. The entrepreneur’s daily life is fraught with all kinds of demands and stressors, the collective impact of which can drain their motivation, shake their confidence, and kill their momentum.
If you are an entrepreneur, you already know how easy it is to drive yourself crazy. Having to juggle multiple roles and tending to millions of tasks, while at the same time dealing with ambiguity, risk, and scrutiny on a daily basis is recipe for misery, not for a balanced life.
Entrepreneurs live in the zone of the unknown, unable to predict when and where ideas will pick up and turn into sustainable businesses. They have to constantly test and question the value of what they have to offer. They become regular consumers of negative feedback. Their life is full of small failures. The funding didn’t come through, the potential client didn’t call back, the article didn’t get published, the focus group didn’t like the concept, the family trip has to be cancelled for lack of funds.
Yes, failure is an integral part of success. Successful people say so, failing people say so, gurus say so, and inspirational quotes say so. But dealing with mistakes, complaints, and rejection on a regular basis, could make even the strongest self-esteem crumble. Especially when that self-esteem becomes synonymous with being successful.
Entrepreneurs make huge emotional investments in their ideas. They become one with their concepts, their services, and their gadgets. Their business becomes their identity. Any loss or failure is no longer just about time and money. It is about their self-worth.
And that kind of investment can be a slippery slope. It can take a serious toll on your mental health. In fact, research shows that there are several mental health issues to which entrepreneurs are prone. Some of them include depression, anxiety, hypomania, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and even obsessive-compulsive disorder.
What can you do to prevent the little failures, the multiple demands, and the relentless ambiguity from making a big dent to your sanity? What will keep the entrepreneur focused, productive, and immune to emotional distress?
1. Take care of your body
The mind-body connection is strong and reciprocal. Your physical state affects your psychological state and your own thoughts and emotions can have an impact on your physical well-being. When you have a nasty cold, you feel unmotivated, distracted, and irritable. Your ailing body is dragging down your mood. In a similar manner, when you are worried about making payroll at the end of the month, you may start getting severe tension headaches on the 25th of the month.
Taking care of your body is the first line of defense against emotional distress. Here are a few things you could do.
First and foremost, get a physical. Make sure that the hardware works well, that your body is healthy, before you fix the glitches in the software. There is significant overlap between emotional and physical symptoms. For example, feeling sad could be a symptom of depression or a symptom of a malfunctioning thyroid. Not sleeping well could be a symptom of insomnia or a symptom of sleep apnea. Let your physician decide if your problems are psychological in nature, instead of drawing conclusions on your own. Being misdiagnosed is a huge risk because it means being mistreated. If you are feeling panicky, it is better to have your heart checked first than to take Xanax to calm down.
Next, be aware of how your body reacts emotionally to what it needs or what goes into it. Dehydration can make you feel sleepy, tired, and unmotivated. Hunger can make you cranky and agitated. Too much sugar can make you feel more depressed and anxious. And a lot of medications (prescriptions, over-the-counter, and recreational drugs) have a strong impact on your brain. They can slow down your thinking, give you mood swings, and make you paranoid.
And finally, be physically active. Exercise is a preventative measure for a lot of physical problems, but it also gives your mood a jolt, clears your head, and sharpens your thinking ability. The entrepreneur’s life doesn’t always have the structure and regularity that make it easy to fit an exercise regimen into the work schedule. This is why it is important to be flexible with your exercise options and to broaden your definition of physical activity.
2. Learn to read your emotions
Reading other people’s facial expressions and knowing whether they are happy to see us, or bored to death with our jokes is a good skill if you want to have a social life. But while most people are pretty good at detecting emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust in other people, they neglect their own feelings. They don’t know what their own feelings mean, where they come from, and how to leverage them to their advantage.
Emotions are such complicated entities, that even psychologists have a hard time explaining them. I was once following a discussion in a LinkedIn group geared toward psychologists and other mental health professionals. Someone posed the question: how would you define emotions. Hundreds of answers flooded the comments box, but no two answers sounded alike.
Here are three facts about emotions you need to know:
- Everyone has emotions. Everyone. They are part of our biology. Not having emotions is a sign of very serious brain damage.
- Emotions are involved in all our decisions and actions. They have a much bigger influence on how we run our lives than we give them credit.
- Emotions are a sign of how close or how far we are from accomplishing a goal. The benefit of “analyzing” an emotion is that it helps you realign your actions to make them more consistent with your goals.
3. Check what you tell yourself
Self-talk is the subvocal speech you use to operate day to day. It is the silent (and sometimes not so silent) way you use to keep yourself in check. It is how you make decisions, how you take actions, and how you judge your ability to generate outcome.
If you feed your brain with messages about how incompetent you feel, how worthless your ideas are, how no one cares about what you have to say, and how impossible it will be to create the life you want, then that’s how you will operate. Think about the powerful messages, both positive and negative, you heard from other people and the strong influence they had in your life. Whether it was a teacher praising you about a talent, or a classmate bullying you about a shortcoming, those messages could have a lasting effect on many of the choices you make. Imagine how much more of a lasting effect what you tell yourself regularly could have.
Here is how to keep your self-talk in check.
- Track what you tell yourself about yourself
Your self-talk is constant. It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t censor. And it doesn’t have mercy. If you had the opportunity to record everything you say to yourself in your head and then you heard it played back, you would be surprised, curious, and maybe even ashamed.
What do you say to yourself about yourself? About the world? About the future? What words do you use? What is your tone of voice like? How does the way you talk about yourself make you feel? How much of that do you really believe?
- Clean up your self talk
Be courteous, kind, and supportive to yourself. Talk to yourself the same way you talk to a person close to you going through a rough time.
Remain objective. If it’s not your style to pump up yourself or to act “as if” then at least stop acting “as if not.” Between telling yourself “The universe will make it happen!” and “Nothing happens in this terrible economy” there are many better ways to express your odds and assess your progress.
Put things in perspective. Think in terms of progress. How far along are you? How much more do you know today than yesterday? Has your vision become clearer?
And finally, turn negative statements into action questions. Translate “I have no idea what to do” into “what am I missing?” or “what are my options?” or “whom can I ask for help?”.
4. Connect with others
The stress and isolation that mark the entrepreneur’s life can easily turn to serious emotional distress. It is easy to neglect your need for social contact when you are so immersed in your business. Social support is one of the most effective buffers against depression and anxiety. When you have people in your life who understand you and respect you, and whom you can trust and rely on, you have a strong antibiotic against mental illness.
There are millions of ways to connect with others. There are the traditional ways of spending time with other people face-to-face, up close and personal. If it doesn’t happen naturally, take the time to plan activities with family and friends. Do things that are very different from your day to day tasks, and avoid talking about work if possible. And keep in mind that spending time with clients is not a means of social support!
In addition to the traditional ways, technology and social networks enable us to connect with as many people as we want and as often as we want, regardless of how far they live. You can join professional communities, social groups, and even virtual lifestyles!
To prevent social support from becoming social comparison, remind yourself that people on social media share a disproportionate amount of positive experiences. They tend to mention victories more often than they mention struggles. If you start feeling that you are falling behind other people, remind yourself that everyone has skeletons in their closet and that you are not the only one who is not on top of the world.
5. Seek professional help
We all want to solve our problems on our own, and most of the time we can. Sometimes, however, and for various reasons, an informed opinion from a mental health professional may be necessary.
When is it absolutely necessary? Well, if you can’t fall asleep at night because your head is teeming with worrying thoughts about the future of your business; if you can’t get out of bed in the morning because you don’t feel ready or able to deal with the world; if you can’t get any work done, you miss deadlines, or you have to apologize a lot for not being on top of things; and definitely if you start thinking that the world would be a better place without you in it, it may be time to pick up the phone and call a professional for help.
Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean that you are too weak or have lost your marbles. There are many benefits to working with a therapist, even when you don’t feel like you have reached the end of your rope. Learning coping skills, understanding yourself better, and finding someone with whom you can share your craziest ideas without worrying about judgment is an invaluable gift that most therapists are well equipped to offer.