“I suffer from depression.
I have a beautiful, loving wife and two incredible children. I own a successful business with my friend Max and we employ nearly 100 people. But I struggle with inadequacy and constant feelings of dread.
I have amazing, supportive and caring friends. I have a loving family and I want for nothing. But everything is difficult.
My sleep isn’t restorative. I wake up with chest pains from anxiety each morning. I must stay constantly busy or else dark thoughts creep into my mind.
I have no reason to feel this way. But I do.
I have mental health issues. For as long as I can remember, I have battled them. I take medicine every day and it helps. Most people would never know because I’m an expert faker. But it is always there.”
This is from a Facebook post I made last year on Mental Health Awareness Day. Though I was nervous about posting it, I felt obligated to. For too long, I had suffered in silence. And I’d seen friends and family members take their lives, succumbing to their illness. My hope was that it would be useful for those who may be struggling to hear someone who—by many metrics “has it all together”—admit this painful truth. Personally, it was freeing. My friends were wonderfully supportive, and I think that in some small way, my admission helped de-stigmatize mental health struggles for those in my circle.
As comments expressing support and empathy poured in, it was plain to see my problem was not unique. Depression is a common but often unspoken part of the lives of many. Including the self-employed. The unfortunate by-products of the creativity and seething ambition that drive the building of a company can often include emotional fragility, perfectionism, fatigue and neglect for personal health.
There are the obvious factors—long hours, financial stress, lack of sleep, etc.—but there’s more going on. Professional isolation, owing to lack of workplace peers, looms large, but not nearly as much as impression management. Writing for Forbes, Megan Bruneau says this is “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.”
And she’s absolutely right, especially about the sense of self. For better or worse (often worse), I view my business as an extension of me. When an aspect of it fails, it feels like I fail. When we get a bad review, I’m devastated. When an employee quits, I feel like they quit me. Rarely does a week go by without a crushing blow to my ego and sense of self-worth.
These struggles aren’t unique to entrepreneurship, of course. Mental health issues are present in every workplace, and I don’t mean to discredit or lessen anyone else’s experience. But the experience can be different for the entrepreneur. It’s not only the ennui that typifies the American workplace; it’s the near-complete fusing of work and self-worth. The job crosses over into everything. You bring it home. You bring it to dinner. You bring it to bed. And you even bring it to dedicated “time off.” As most entrepreneurs will attest, the notion that vacation is a time to “recharge” is laughable. While everyone else is relaxing on the beach, you’re on the phone solving an HR issue that just can’t wait. You’re stepping away from the table at the restaurant to call a plumber to fix a water leak thousands of miles away. The march of responsibility is relentless.
This commentary reeks of privilege. I get that. The ability to own one’s own business, take vacations, etc., is not an opportunity afforded to all. But that doesn’t make the mental struggles any less real. The notion that affluence or professional success equals happiness is patently false (see the relationship between winning the lottery and depression). We’re talking about a mental disorder. One that no one group is immune to. One with poorly-understood causality. And one that festers untreated and unacknowledged because of the generations of shame surrounding it.
Thankfully entrepreneurship teaches you plenty, especially about rejecting the traditional. When it comes to mental health, it’s time to reject the expectation of strength for strength’s sake, and understand that vulnerability can be an asset. Especially for the boss. My experience has taught me the inefficacy of stoicism. Our staff doesn’t look to me for strength; at least, not always. Certainly there are times when it’s required, and they depend on me to make the tough decisions. But they don’t expect me to be unhappy. They want me to be strong when it’s time to be strong, and vulnerable when it’s time to be vulnerable. They want me to afford myself the same kindness they desire for themselves.
Thanks to influential authors like Bréne Brown, a new narrative is emerging, one that paints vulnerability as an essential part of leadership. This includes being honest about our mental health struggles. As Brown says, comfort is the enemy of vulnerability, and we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. For the entrepreneur, this is far easier said than done. It’s completely contrary to the attributes that have always defined the archetype, and requires a constant and conscious effort to achieve. Just last week, I admitted in front of a classroom of students at an area community college that I take a daily antidepressant. It was in response to a student’s question about the role of managing mental health in the workplace. It wasn’t something I planned to discuss, but I saw right away how it deepened the connection between us, and turned what might have been considered a lecture into a conversation. It was uncomfortable, sure, but in the best way possible.
In that moment, I also realized something else. When it comes to demonstrating vulnerability, young people are light years ahead of the generations that preceded them. Both in terms of prioritizing their own happiness and actively shattering mental health stigmas, they’re leading the way. They teach us that no matter what our age and experience may be, we have to find what provides us with meaning in our professional lives besides job performance if we want to be happy at work.
Being ashamed of our struggles is a vestigial artifact of an old and toxic ideology. It’s unnecessary and potentially fatal baggage, and it’s time we put it down for good. To do so, we must reject toxic masculinity. We must educate ourselves about mental health stigma in order to reduce its deadly toll. Most of all, we must activate the support systems we have but may not recognize.
The people in our lives that truly love us don’t expect us to suffer unduly. They esteem our “strength” and unflappable resilience far less than we do. They simply want what’s best for us, and they can’t help us if they don’t know we’re suffering. If being an entrepreneur is about nothing else, it’s leadership. Admitting our own struggles makes it easier for others to admit theirs and get the help they need. That’s what a true leader does. Let’s accept that responsibility above all.