Updated: Dec 16, 2019
At times we can be our own worst enemy. The challenge is to minimise those times. As this week is mental health awareness week I wanted to share my ups and downs and experience with what is known as founder depression.
We often hear choosing to become an entrepreneur – and the life that accompanies it – is not for the faint of heart. This is absolutely true. But for the longest time I didn’t really understand what it meant. Or moreover, I didn’t fully respect the ramifications of the simple choice of taking my entrepreneurial leap.
Yet now being on the other side of this experience, I understand on a deeper level what entrepreneurship all about, and how to best navigate through it the rest of my life. As I describe some of my thoughts and observations, I hope they might resonate with you as well and help you through whatever your situation you might be in currently.
Entrepreneurs, by default, are high performers. And high performers, by default, are hard on themselves when times get tough. Combine those two and you could get a deadly combination. Entrepreneurs hold themselves to higher standards than others and often are disappointed when things don’t necessarily end up as great as they had thought when they initially set out. But you know what? Entrepreneurship never ends up like you initially thought. It’s messier than anyone ever imagines and more extreme than anyone ever describes.
After I experienced a few poor quarters I dropped into what I now can identify as a depression. I was not – and am not – depressed as in the clinical sense, but it was more like what you would think when people refer to the last economic depression we recently survived. It was temporary and externally triggered. Things weren’t right and I was responding to them certainly in a negative and self deprecating way.
It was painful. It felt troubling. It sucked because I wasn’t supposed to be there. Or so I thought.
What I discovered was I denied myself some truths I should have admitted at the time. I wasn’t admitting things like: 1) I really didn’t know what I was doing, and neither does anyone else. 2) The business was not working the way I had positioned it. 2) Startups actually do fail at times 3) It’s okay to walk away rather than being so committed to a project you drive yourself into the ground. 4) Your personal value is more than just your company’s success.
I did not admit those things and the result was just that – nose dive right into the ground. Being a friend or family member you probably wouldn’t have known it by being around me. I do a great job of burying the issue and grabbing another beer to selflessly talk about your challenges and issues. Yet deep down inside was some of the worst self talk anyone could imagine. I was not my biggest cheerleader, supporter, believer and best friend. If you are wondering, negative self talk is not the path to success. It took a few months to pull myself out of it and it’s a repeating issue. It took me accepting the fact that although I knew I could be a great founder, now was not the time. It took me putting my ego aside and accepting I needed to go back to basics, I could add value and learn more about building companies.
The problems persisted as my state of mind then reflected on my family, building an image of advising people on how to run their business but you have your own issues sounds crazy right?! Well no, I portray this image of positivity for the benefit of my own self motivation and my clients.
One minute you’re up with the highs of a successful rollout, a cool new feature, finally getting some quality time with your family; the next minute you’re in the mires of the lows, when something goes wrong, when customers complain, or when you’re just so tired.
It’s perfectly normal that we all experience these highs and lows, but what about when the lows stem from something other than the regular emotions we all go through? What about when that low feeling becomes something more chronic? Something more painful.
Fortunately, founder depression is something that is being talked about more and more. And it is something that is treatable.
Most entrepreneurs are great at keeping things looking good from the outside. The company is growing, the opportunities are flowing, profitability is just around the corner….
What can’t be seen from the outside is exhaustion, numbness. Depression is a void or sense of emptiness. Founders may feel physically and emotionally drained. They start to question their decisions, struggle to make decisions, find they’re unable to sleep well, and that they just don’t have the same “spark.” Food doesn’t taste good. Life feels blah. This loss of interest, indifference, or generally depressed mood can start to impact their ability to perform on a daily basis, yet they often feel extra pressure to “put on a face” for the people around them.
“Now is not the time to ‘hack’ your mental health.” It’s tempting among the entrepreneurial set – everything is about streamlining and better efficiency, but when it comes to your mental health, seeking professional help and allowing yourself the space to follow the process is the best thing to do.
If you suspect that you may be experiencing depression, seek professional help. There’s no reason to suffer needlessly. Your feelings shouldn’t be pushed aside, but seen as an addressable part of the mental health equation. As is often appealing to the entrepreneurial mindset, you could look at your feelings as data – they’re all telling you something!
Being a founder, particularly as you move into a CEO role can be very isolating, so making the space to just talk with someone who has an understanding ear can make a huge difference. I was fortunate being surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs that I could talk about my feelings and issues which essentially saw me through. The odd message “are you ok?” or being able to message someone and say “today is a good or bad day” that level of support no matter how small is invaluable and those people know who they are.
The lesson here is not that you can do things to avoid the founder depression. More than likely it’s inevitable for you, me and every other entrepreneur.
The lesson is in identifying the oncoming founder depression, quickly observing its symptoms, and then finding mitigation strategies you can deploy to keep you afloat – and happy.
Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. Speak out!