Talk to most entrepreneurs and they’ll most likely attribute a portion of their success to a special mentor, life coach or even “rabbi” for helping them shape their careers.
Far fewer will speak about going to a shrink.
There’s something about psychology that scares off you self-sufficient, eat what you kill, small-business owners. You’ll embrace philosophers like Ayn Rand or even preach the benefits of meditation, but you wouldn’t be caught dead Lying on the Couch. That can have tragic consequences, especially when you consider that the biggest cause of workplace absences is depression, which costs companies an estimated $23 billion in annual productivity loss.
The strong correlation between stress levels and the workplace has led several companies to work towards improving their environments, as well as a new crop of innovative organizations such as Two Chairs that are poised to elevate the link between mental health and healthy professional performance to a new level.
Yet, there remain too many entrepreneurs whose own thinking has boxed themselves into their corner office. From crippling anxiety to out of control OCD, many of these conditions stem from the beliefs we hold dear -- many of which are actually irrational and end up unwittingly exacerbating already tough situations. It’s a kind of hero or zero mentality where we swing wildly from “killing it” to suddenly feeling like imposters if not failures.
I sat down for coffee recently with a new friend, Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis, a therapist and professor of psychology at Columbia University who is an expert in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. She’s also a disciple of, and evangelist for, her late husband, Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of the field of cognitive psychotherapy and considered one of the most influential therapists of all time.
Don’t worry, this is not some Freudian dream analysis, but rather a tactical and practical approach to very real scenarios. Nor is it unrealistic Pollyanna-ish “positive thinking,” which Ellis argues will often defeat you in the long run. Instead, he acknowledges that sadness, frustration, disappointment, regret and concern are healthy negative emotions, and reminds followers that it is possible to overcome situations that are not ideal and go on to thrive. The Ellis approach is not only a most effective evidence-based therapy -- but also a way of life.
Debbie and I discussed some of the common triggers for small-business owners and how “vigorously disputing” irrational beliefs, and getting to “rational coping philosophies and beliefs” can make a world of difference. It starts when we entrepreneurs are able to separate our net worth, and company’s P&L, from our self-worth.
In How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything -- Yes, Anything!, Albert Ellis directed his enormous brainpower to helping people like us distinguish between sane thoughts and thoughts that are “foolish” and self-defeating. Often, these thoughts are “commanding," “dictatorial” and “rigid” and can be replaced by applying what Ellis calls U.S.A., or “unconditional self-acceptance.”
During the “fresh out of college” job-hunting phase before we found ourselves on the entrepreneurship track, how many of us conducted a job search with the aim of landing the total dream job and it will be awful if I don’t?
Ellis answers: “I definitely want this job, but I never, never need it. I can be happy if I don’t get it, though not as happy as if I do.”
That’s a prelude to one of Ellis’ most powerful stories about applying his philosophy to business that’s told in the book above:
“Tony was a 46-year-old owner of a retail store, severely anxious and depressed about his business. He desperately needed, especially at Christmas time, to do better than last year’s sales. When he didn’t, he was depressed for the next several months.
He forcefully and persistently asked himself, ‘Where is it written that I must have better sales this year?’ Answer: ‘Only in my nutty head! I don’t have to, though that would be lovely.’ And: ‘In what way would it be horrible if sales fell off?’ Answer: ‘In no way! It would only be damned frustrating. But, not the end of my life!’ And: ‘Could I really not bear the hardships of a poor sales year?’ Answer: ‘Obviously I could! I won’t go out of business. My family won’t starve. And I can work to make things better next year.’
When he answered himself, ‘Too bad. If I do poorly at sales, so I do poorly!’ he stopped to inquire: ‘Do I really accept that ‘too bad’ or do I still really think ‘It’s awful’?’ He answered: ‘Yes, dammit, whether I accept it or not, it is too bad. Not awful! Not unbearable! Just too damned bad!’"
Maybe you’re still like the earlier version of Tony. To which Ellis and Joffe Ellis would ask, are you “shoulding” on yourself in business? Engaged in “mustabatory” thinking about your career? “Awfulizing” a setback in that is really just a cyclical ebb and flow? Stuck in the “deserving” mode, rather than doing the hard work to challenge yourself and go outside your comfort zone?
Ellis sheds light upon the link between economic and emotional health. I know the importance of that connection first hand; the counsel of smart and caring mental health professionals helped me both enter, and stay on, the entrepreneurship track.
After a banner 2016, this year, so far, has been quite disappointing in terms of profitability. We recently took proactive measures to streamline and cut costs, while simultaneously re-doing our website and marketing materials to help me connect with clients I actually want to work with.
Remember, hockey stick like growth usually only exists in business school case studies. In real life, however, growth is not linear. Aided by the wisdom of Ellis, at the ripe old age of 53, I return to the opening words of a self-help book from my childhood by Scott M. Peck: “Life is difficult,” and the sooner you understand that, the happier you’ll be.