Mental Illness: The Silent Destroyer
Entrepreneurship demands so much, it can be easy to lose ourselves as we chase success.
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My world had collapsed around me. The mask I wore had been ripped off, exposing me for who I really was: a human, blemished, with a serial habit of making mistakes. The world now knew that I was imperfect, despite all my attempts to persuade everyone otherwise. This was no nightmare with hope of awakening. This was my life with real people, real terror and real humiliation.
I was terrified to leave my house. The ringing of the phone sent me into a panic attack. I declined invitations to go out because I simply was too mortified to speak to anyone. I could feel judgment all around me. I decided life was easier and much safer where I could lock doors and silence my notifications.
By all accounts, I was clinically depressed. I understand that now. Living in the moment, however, I believed those who lived with depression were victims of tragedies beyond their control. Life had done something to them. Me? I had no justification for being depressed. This was the bed I'd made, and I was determined to lie in it without complaint.
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With intention and the right support, I realized the sources of my depression and got back to health. But strong feelings stir up now and again, and current events sometimes trigger vivid memories. I reflected on my journey earlier this month, when Jason Kander announced he was dropping out of the Kansas City mayoral race to focus on coping with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kander was thinking suicidal thoughts even as he propelled himself to the height of his career.
"So many men and women who served our country did so much more than me and were in so much more danger than I was on my four-month tour," he said in his public statement. "I can't have PTSD, I told myself, because I didn't earn it."
As entrepreneurs, we often make the mistake of thinking we can do it all -- and that we have to accomplish everything right now. These four false justifications aren't only unrealistic but also unhealthy and ultimately counterproductive to building sustainable success. Keep reading to learn how to reframe these arguments and discover helpful steps you can take toward real healing.
Related: 4 Things My Battle With Depression Taught Me About Entrepreneurship
Justification 1: "I didn't earn it."
How many of us have suffered in silence, like Kander did for so long? We rationalize we haven't endured long enough to complain because others have it worse than we do. Or we blame ourselves because we've made mistakes and wrongly decide the entire situation is our own fault.
Growing up, I heard my parents give plenty of advice: "Walk it off" and "Suck it up, buttercup" were favorites in our household. Whining only would get us sent to our rooms. My parents had little empathy for the hurdles we faced, and conversation rarely focused on emotions. We skipped right ahead: "What is the next step?" and "How are we going to fix it?"
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To be fair, this mental fortitude has served me well in life. I spend little time dwelling on setbacks or heartbreak. I swallow them like vile-tasting medication and move on. In fact, I attribute my successes to my ability to get up and "walk it off" each time I fall.
This grit, though, is inseparable from the "I-didn't-earn-it" mentality: I haven't earned the right to be sad, complain, suffer from depression or develop PTSD. That's an unfortunate connection, as research from federal health agencies and nonprofit professional associations affirms that entrepreneurs are far more likely than other adults to live with mental illness. This holds true across diagnoses including depression, ADHD, substance abuse/addiction and bipolar disorder.
Justification 2: "I should be happy."
In the Netflix documentary "Avicii: True Stories," the title character -- a critically celebrated and commercially successful DJ -- shares his inner turmoil: "I looked at everyone around me, and they looked as if they were doing well. I felt crazy. I have everything I've always wanted, so I should be happy." Tim Bergling, whose stage name was an alternate spelling for the lowest realm of Buddhist hell, died by suicide in April 2018. He was 28.
In some of my own lowest moments, I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling to remind myself I had a roof over my head and food in the fridge. I said the words aloud, over and over. I wish I could say it was some sort of gratitude incantation, but my eyes weren't filled with tears from my overwhelming appreciation for life. The words were a sharp, prescriptive chastisement that I should be happy and grateful for all I had. Each time, though, I felt an increasing guilt and shame around my depression.
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The relationship between success and happiness is a complex one. In his TED Talk titled "The Happy Secret to Better Work," author and former Harvard psychologist Shawn Anchor shared a few questions he's asked repeatedly. "Shawn," friends say, "why do you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard? What does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about?"
Embedded within the larger life question, Anchor said, are the keys to understanding the underlying science of happiness: "Because what that question assumes is that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels, when in reality, if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict about 10 percent of your long-term happiness."
Justification 3: "Mental struggles = weakness."
Marketing and leadership training sessions toss around the word "authenticity" as a quality sought by customers, employees and people in general. In other words, "Cut out the BS and just be real!" At the same time, we all have at least one Facebook friend who shares details we didn't need or want to know. When a person holds nothing back, we find ourselves wanting to say, "Time to dial down the authenticity."
Impression management is the art of finding that balance between what you share and don't share to thoughtfully present yourself to the world. Most entrepreneurs are hyper-aware to the fact their choice of dress, words and actions shape others' opinions of them.
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Humans don't like to be exposed. We prefer to control what others can and cannot see, framing perceptions of our public selves. The stigmas surrounding mental health typically contrast starkly with the infallible strength we entrepreneurs want to project. Our innate response: Keep it hidden. We don't ask for help because we fear how even a hint of uncertainty will negatively influence how others see us -- or potentially jeopardize our business futures.
Justification 4: "I will be happy when …"
Success is an ever-changing goalpost. My son is one of the most determined teenagers I've ever known. As a scrawny 12-year-old, he saw our high school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) perform in an armed exhibition team competition. Of the nation's more than 1,700 JROTC programs, ours consistently ranks in the Top 10. In that awe-filled moment, he decided success meant making that team.
Camps, bruises, workouts and stitches in his head all were part of the process. He earned his place during freshman year, but his definition of success already had changed. As a sophomore, he worked to achieve an undefeated season. He arrived first, left last and volunteered for every task. Now, he's a junior -- and commander of the team that rendered him speechless just four years ago. This summer he sat wide-eyed as he watched the U.S. Army Armed Exhibition Team perform. And just as he did when he was 12, he decided that success meant making that team.
Related: I've Been Running My Company for Almost Half My Life. Here's What I've Learned.
Success is just a moment. Yesterday's triumph no longer is enough. But what if we believe happiness always lies on the other side of success?
- I will be happy when I can afford an assistant to help me.
- I will be happy when I earn a six-figure income.
- I will be happy when I make a seven-figure income.
- I will be happy when my company is bought out or goes public.
- I will be happy when I retire.
The truth is we obtain success more easily when we decide first to be happy. Anchor calls this "The Happiness Advantage."
"The brain at positive performs better than at negative, neutral, or stressed," he explained in his TED Talk. "Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive, 37 percent better at sales, and doctors are 19 percent faster and more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis."
Helpful step 1: Take it seriously.
My "Suck it up, buttercup" upbringing has made it difficult for me to open up about any mental health issues. A part of me still wonders, "Why sit around and talk about it? It's not going to change anything, so why waste my time, money or energy?"
It's taken me years to confess I'm not 100 percent certain I would still be on this planet if not for my children. The thought of their growing up without me -- and hating me the rest of their lives -- kept me from fully entertaining the idea of suicide. Yet even as I experienced those horrendous thoughts, I believed I wasn't that bad off. Surely, time would heal everything.
I know now it's a serious mistake to treat mental health lightly. It doesn't matter if you believe you should feel happy, you don't deserve to be depressed, or you ought to be able to walk it off. If you're experiencing any symptom of depression or isolation, find help. Don't try to handle it yourself.
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Helpful step 2: Rewire your brain.
Professional help is a must. Once you've made contact and found someone you trust, you can practice positive habits outside of those scheduled visits. Anchor, the former Harvard psychologist, believes great rewards can come from small steps.
"In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully," he says. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Document happiness. Every day, write down three new things for which you're grateful. Or, write a longer journal entry about one positive experience. This trains your brain to shift away from the negative and allows you to relieve happy moments.
- Exercise. It teaches your brain that behavior matters.
- Meditate. This type of deep reflection helps focus your attention and creates mindfulness, releasing you from the scattered brain pattern created by continual multitasking.
- Express gratitude. Write one email each day thanking or praising a person in your social support network.
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You are not alone. That realization is the single most important thing to remember as you cope with the stress of balancing entrepreneurship and other aspects of life.
When Kander dropped out of the Kansas City mayor's race, he uplifted military personnel for their bravery. As a person who's suffered silently from depression, I admire the courage it took for him to share his struggles and admit he can't do it on his own.
As more leaders tell their stories via public platforms, entrepreneurs will better understand others are feeling many of the same emotions and doubts. Ultimately, this broader awareness will encourage more business founders and partners to seek help on their paths to success.
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