Over the past few years, much of my work has been dedicated to hearing entrepreneurs’ stories of struggle and perseverance. Whether I’m interviewing them for The Failure Factor or coaching them to optimize their mental health, I’m constantly in the midst of an informal qualitative research project exploring entrepreneurial resilience.
My curiosity in entrepreneurs’ mental health was, unsurprisingly, influenced by my personal history. A decade plus-long battle with perfectionism-fueled eating disorders, depression and anxiety led me to pursue a masters in psychology and a career as as therapist. Uncomfortable with relying on others or acknowledging to them my limitations, I took matters into my own hands and decided to “figure myself out” (fifteen years later, I’m still in the process…). But I realized many of the characteristics that caused my suffering came from the same roots as the characteristics that caused my entrepreneurial strengths (more on this later), and became fascinated with entrepreneurs’ psychological wellbeing.
Today we have ample research beyond my case studies to support that – despite its glamorization – entrepreneurship is negatively correlated with mental health. Here’s why:
Shocker: #entrepreneuriallife is stressful. We’re easily trapped in a “never-not-working” mentality, forgoing opportunities for fun and connection and thinking about work even when we’re not actually working (remember vacation? LOL). We’re notoriously sleep-deprived, undernourished, over-caffeinated and financially constrained – with little emphasis on self-care and adaptive coping strategies such as (healthy) exercise and fun. Many of us live with a predisposition to addiction, vulnerable to developing unhealthy relationships to substances or other numbing tendencies (for me, that was eating disorders).
2. Uncertainty. So much uncertainty.
As humans, we like to create an illusion of certainty to manage our anxiety around our ultimate powerlessness (womp womp). The ability to envision the future and anticipate job-security is an avenue to this experience of certainty – one less accessible to those of us working for ourselves. Thus we’re susceptible to higher levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and responsibility for what’s truthfully out of our control.
3. Social isolation
Particularly in early stages – when oftentimes working alone – entrepreneurship can be incredibly socially isolating, a precursor to (and outcome of) depression. Additionally, even when not experiencing colleague-less aloneness, the interactions we do engage in are often networking or sales-focused, thwarting the vulnerability necessary for authentic connection.
Yet another way we stand to experience isolation is if we feel unsupported or isolated in taking a nontraditional path. If we’re surrounded by “Nine-to-Fivers” or have loved ones telling us to get a “real job,” we experience further loneliness, frustration and shame.
4. (More) shame perpetuated through “impression management”
Contributing to our isolation is what’s known as “impression management” – the idea that for optics we have to come across as “having it all together” and not show weakness. Many entrepreneurs believe that, in order to be considered competent by stakeholders, we need to be perceived as infallible – a stark contrast to the stigmatized stereotypes of a person with compromised mental health. This perpetuates shame and disconnection (which both cause depression), and discourages help-seeking behaviors. There’s also evidence to suggest that impression management prevents the development of a ‘sense of self,’ contributing to insecurity and identity confusion.
5. Barriers to mental health resources
Mental health resources are limited for most, but we entrepreneurs tend to have very basic (or no) insurance without the “premium” coverage for mental health support (facepalm). And unaware just how important mental health is for success, many bootstrapping entrepreneurs don’t factor therapy into their budget.
6. Predisposition to mental health challenges
The typical accompanying lifestyle notwithstanding, entrepreneurial types have a higher prevalence of mental health challenges than comparison populations. As I mentioned earlier, the qualities that make me a great entrepreneur – creativity, empathy, adaptiveness, humor, independence, risk-taking, multi-tasking, and crisis-management skills – come from the same roots of trauma as my experiences of shame, anxiety, perfectionism, ADHD, and discomfort with stability. Fortunately through self-awareness, psychological support, and emotional intelligence we can learn how to harness the gifts of our trauma and support ourselves through areas it’s created limitations.
7. Identity and self-worth become fused with our company
“I don’t know who I am if I’m not the founder of X” my clients anxiously admit. Many of us lose ourselves in building our businesses. We become detached from our own needs, disconnected from friends and loved ones, and sacrifice other sources of meaning such as relationships, parenting, travel and play. The looming existential void (and self-worth tied to our company’s success) is a manifestation of perfectionism that causes both anxiety and an emotional roller coaster – dependent on our everchanging company forecast.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur or not, I encourage you to reflect on which of the aforementioned points resonate with you. In future articles I’ll be offering suggestions for how to mitigate these barriers to psychological wellbeing, and I’ll share raw wisdom from interviews with entrepreneurs who’ve been open about their mental health journeys. And above all, know that you’re not broken, you’re not alone, and you’re more resilient than you know.