Startup Founders Need Therapy

Get real with a mental health professional.

Photo by Michael Anfang on Unsplash. My startup is for chickens, so pictures are relevant, I swear!

Too Many Problems, Too Many Feelings

I am a failure as a founder. No — I’ve gone to therapy. I know how to phrase this…I feel like a failure as a founder.

My startup was progressing, but too slowly. Everything was taking so long. Was bootstrapping the wrong choice? I’d lost my only employee, failed to get face time with investors, failed to deliver prototypes on time, and, quite frankly, had no idea what direction to take things. I’m certain there was a pathway, somewhere, but I was so deep in the funk I was unable to see a clear path. It had all come so easily at first — the roadmap seemed to illuminate itself, and each step came with the effortless energy of wu wei. In contrast, in my current state, I was about as useful as a freshly rotting potato, with roughly the same problem solving capability. My relationship with my wife and family was struggling. My anger, stress, fear — they all channeled into outbursts that could destroy my relationships, my business, and my own sanity.

Every day was painful. How could I keep working with my brain full of mush? I had stopped taking outside work and money was drying up. I’d tapped my savings and retirement. Nothing I tried felt like it was working. I didn’t know how to go about seeking help, but I was desperate for a mental and emotional crutch. Any requests thrown out to the universe, the internet, or groups supposedly interested in helping with startup mental health went ignored. Folks seemed very interested in talking about mental health. Actually finding useful help was difficult. Why isn’t anyone proactively helping me?, the victim inside me screamed. The world should be catering to me, because I’m trying to do something ambitious. That’s how this should work, right?

Photo by Michael Anfang. At least my chickens helped keep me sane.

Founders, we are familiar with solving problems — but it gets tricky when its our own mental health. If no one else will step up, then we step up. It’s our way.

I’m sure your problems and mine look different from the outside, but we all end up looking like similar human dumpster fires when faced with extreme stress. Often, that dumpster fire is converted into a flamethrower, which we point directly at the ones we love most and who support us most.

Channel your problem solving abilities, and realize this problem is one you need outside help with…and the solution is already laid out for you to accept. There’s nothing to solve — you just need to act. Get out there and find a therapist. A good therapist will work with you and your brain and your emotions, so my aim is to tell you that, most importantly, you are not alone. I want to share a broad framework of how to work with with a therapist, based on my experience.

And, honestly — once you start, it get easier. I hope you can start sooner than I did.

1. Find Compatibility

Compatibility is the number one requirement for you to bond with your therapist. I won’t tell you what I discussed my first day with Chelsea. It’s a private space, where I can freely voice what’s in my head without worry of judgement, and you, dear reader, are definitely filled with judgement. In my mind, it was too intense, too personal, and probably too ridiculous. She didn’t bat an eye, and jumped right in. She never made me feel like my problems or emotions were weird or insubstantial. I felt safe. With your therapist, you must allow yourself to feel, and therefore you must feel comfortable. If you cannot accomplish that with this particular person, move on. If you’re not crying, ever, you might be doing it wrong. If your therapist is sobbing and you’re not, then you’re almost definitely doing it wrong.

Finding a therapist is a lot like dating. You’ll know immediately if it’s a bad fit, and if it seems like a good fit, keep going! Trust your gut. They are the professional, not you. Put the burden on them — it’s their job, and one they are trained to do. Really, you’re finding a mental and emotional health consultant — take the same approach you would investigating any other area of your life or business that you’re not yet knowledgeable about. Jump right in and open up — this will accelerate understanding your compatibility.

On paper, it didn’t seem like it’d be a great fit — she was not a business coach, and I don’t think she had any experience with founders. She’d worked significantly with LGBTQ+ communities and people dealing with highly traumatic backgrounds and addiction. Some days, I wondered if I was a walk in the park compared to her other clients, or a real entitled pain in the ass. Nevertheless, it worked.

For lack of a better term, in a spiritual sense, we were highly compatible. She placed a great emphasis on mindfulness, checking in with your own emotions, the balance of the universe, and the neuroscience behind how all this emotional brain-stuff works — alongside this mushy mess of emotions, drives, habits, and thoughts are chemicals and electricity and science. That’s exactly the synthesis I needed, and something the therapists I had previously connected with had not emphasized. Most of the skills you need in life cross boundaries — for me, learning the emotional coping skills to deal with my marriage, family, and work were one and the same. The skills she built with people who came from trauma backgrounds were the same skills I needed.

During therapy, I realized I didn’t need to learn how to be a better entrepreneur. I needed to learn how to be a better me.

Photo by Michael Anfang on Unsplash

2. Be Honest

I am astonished that some people do not bring their authentic self to therapy. Anything else is a waste of resources. Be a self aware human, and be a self aware founder. There will be some gamesmanship when dealing with your startup — how you present yourself to your employees, colleagues, and business connections matters. You’ll have a persona that you project, and one that people place on you. Sometimes resolving these two can itself drive you to therapy. Despite all the talk of being authentic and the concern for mental health, no one wants or will trust a hot mess of a founder. Channel your hot mess to appropriate venues, and work on being a…cool mess…for the rest of the world. Be the mess with your therapist — and if you find the right one, they’re totally into you being honest about where you are. That’s what they got into this business for. The hotter your therapy mess, the less of an actual mess you’ll be.

Talk honestly. Just talk. Don’t pretend to be something that you’re not — the act of speaking honestly will birth more honesty. You won’t be able to help yourself.

I’ve found the same skillset used in being honest with myself has allowed me to be honest about my work — to objectively view what’s working and not working, while dismissing my egoistic attachment to all the work that I’ve done. If it’s not working, toss it out (but remember — reuse and recycle. There’s valuable lessons learned!). Clean it up. Grow, and get better. You set the culture as a leader, and what better way to build a healthy, nontoxic culture than to be a healthy, nontoxic leader?

Learning to be honest allowed me to get to the root of what I was honestly feeling. This wasn’t always a straightforward path. My default feeling tended to be anger — yet when I traced this genuinely felt anger down to the root, I often found it wasn’t actually anger at the core. I could blame some combination of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, but the reasons don’t matter — why in the world would I hang on to anger if that’s not truly what I was feeling? That leads my final advice…

3. Be Emotional

At some point, you need to emote. Just like going to see a therapist, once you start, it gets easier. You’ve poured your heart and soul into your startup, and made sacrifices along the way. You’re going to feel a lot of things — have you had a platform to voice these feelings? Have you even voiced those feelings to yourself?

Explore the feelings freely. Trace your anger and sadness and frustrations, and all those feelings that you don’t even have a name for yet, to their core. Are you afraid of letting down your family? Your clients? Your investors? Fear is a deep, hidden emotion, often masking itself behind other feelings. Fear is paralyzing, and I find myself unable to move unless I can correctly assess what I’m feeling and why.

To experience emotions freely and genuinely is a transformational experience. For some, this will come quickly. For others, it will take time. I encourage you to be emotional about your work and your life — this will give you experience and perspective necessary to learn how to harness those feelings. How can you expect to lead as an emotionally mature leader if you don’t experience the emotions and learn the skills of working with them? This exploration of emotions does not need to come with a goal — feeling the feelings and exploring what that means is, in and of itself, all you need to give yourself and your therapist at this moment.

Photo by Michael Anfang on Unsplash

Bring it Home — Final Thoughts

It’s likely when you begin therapy you have a few major issues on your mind besides your startup. Those issues are probably social — family, relationship, friends. Tackle those first, and tackle them honestly. Think of therapy as a massage — find the knot, and work it out. If you lie about the knots, you’ll never be able to work them out. The knots are, among other things, your emotional hangups. Your frustrations, sadness, depression — if you have chronic anger, that’s a big red flag that you have knots under the surface. For me, anger was a result of all the things…so much stress in so many areas just turned me into an emotional child with a single, unhealthy emotional expression. In the end, as cliche as it sounds, I wasn’t dealing with any anger whatsoever. I was dealing with fear and sadness (and some serious self-imposed isolation).

Are you not sure of what your hangups are? Too bogged down to think about it? That’s cool. That’s why you are in therapy. Let them be the professional and guide you — seriously, just lay down on that couch and talk. You’re outsourcing this — there’s no pressure on you other than to show up and be yourself. Isn’t that how we wish more things could be?

I’m doing much better mentally and emotionally now. I’m taken responsibility for my part in hurting my marriage. I’m regaining the ability to think clearly and find my own path in life…becoming the version of me I need to be is infinitely more important for my life and my family than my work. But, since I’m getting my ducks all in a row, it’s time to start thinking about chickens again…

Photo by Michael Anfang on Unsplash

If you are struggling with mental health, specifically as a founder, please feel free to reach out. You are not alone.

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