Featured on Forbes. Author: Megan Bruneau
I recently wrote an article highlighting the reasons why mental health is particularly challenging for entrepreneurs — social isolation, predisposition, uncertainty, and impression management are just a few of them. As a therapist and executive coach whose mental health hasn't always been optimal (we're talking years of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders), much of my work is dedicated to researching entrepreneurial resilience. Whether I'm interviewing founders for The Failure Factor or coaching them in my practice, I'm constantly exploring entrepreneurial mental health.
Every human differs in their specific needs; in my informal research, however, I've identified seven strategies for optimizing psychological well-being in entrepreneurs:
1. Prioritize connection
Social connection increases happiness. Though working might seem more productive than say, spending time with friends, you can trust you won't be productive when depressed. In fact, depression negatively affects motivation, productivity, memory, and concentration. Every entrepreneur I interview credits their "tribe" — often one comprised of fellow entrepreneurs — as responsible for their resilience through challenging times and their empowerment amidst unsupportive voices. If entrepreneurial communities seem sparse in your area, consider joining one online or starting your own.
And let's not ignore dating and romantic relationships. Most humans yearn to connect romantically, but many of us exhibit patterns in relationships that subsequently leave us depleted rather than energized. Thus many entrepreneurs choose singledom, thinking they're "too busy" to date, and experience resultant loneliness and dissatisfaction. While some believe love distracts from our focus, a healthy relationship provides a secure base from which we're empowered to take risks, feel supported through challenges, and bounce back from failures.
The most important factors in building this type of relationship are awareness and communication. Studies show while male entrepreneurs tend to be more securely attached — meaning they're more relational, in tune with their needs, and likely to reach out to others during times of distress; female entrepreneurs tend to be more avoidantly attached — meaning they're more likely to internalize their needs, isolate during times of stress, and feel smothered by a potential partner should they believe their independence is threatened. Get to know your partner's needs and your needs for intimacy (particularly during times of stress) and communicate them to each other effectively.
2. Notice where expectations are ruining your life
Holding inflexible, unrealistically-high expectations is just one of the ways perfectionism makes us miserable. The disparity between our expectations and our reality is at the root of our stress (and actually all of our suffering, if we wanna get spiritual about it). Expectations manifest in all sorts of sneaky ways: expectations on ourselves, expectations on others, and expectations on outcome or experience. Notice where you're creating unrealistic expectations and:
- Aim for good enough (remember "perfect is the enemy of the good")
- Remember you — and your co-founder(s) and employees — are fallible humans and ought to be treated that way
- Ask yourself if you would have the same expectations for another that you have for yourself
- Ask yourself what's in your control, and focus on that. Expecting yourself to control what's out of your control is a major source of unnecessary stress, anxiety, and shame
- Make room for mistakes, failures, challenges, and uncertainties – they are inevitable and expecting everything will go perfectly is only setting you up for disappointment, shame, guilt, frustration, anxiety, and more
3. Make self-care (and vacation) a non-negotiable
Once upon a time, choosing acupuncture over emails or Netflix over a networking event might have been perceived as indulgent or inefficient. However, sustainable entrepreneurship should (ideally) be a marathon — not a sprint . If we choose to sprint, we risk burning out, producing poor-quality work, and resenting the very thing we once felt passionate about.
One theme I hear from successful entrepreneurs is just how valuable exercise has been on their journeys. This aligns with research suggesting exercise boosts both creativity and mood, independently of one another. And remember exercise doesn't have to mean going for runs or throwing weights around: consider dancing, rock climbing, or joining a rec sports team if the gym doesn't appeal to you.
When we talk about the importance of self-care, many of my clients lament that they don't know what makes them happy outside of work. If you can relate, trust you're not destined to a life devoid of fun and rejuvenation. It can take time to get to know what lights you up and what resets you. Try not to attach to expectation for fun or joy as you explore life outside of work.
In addition to exercise, I recommend healthy forms of self-care such as:
- Reflective and contemplative practices like acupuncture, massage, meditation, yoga, and journaling
- Paying attention to lifestyle, being mindful of diet, substance use, and sleep
- (Audio)books, podcasts, Netflix, video games, concerts
- Joining a club, organization, or group
- Nurturing your creativity outside of work, making art or music, cooking etc.
- Setting boundaries, saying "No," canceling, quitting, and asking for help. Oftentimes we think of self-care as doing more, when what we really need is to do less.
Finally: Take a vacation. Studies show "recreational travel" increases cognitive flexibility, leading to more creative insights. Vacation also (unsurprisingly) increases happiness, health, and sense of wellbeing.
4. Work with a coach or therapist and get to know yourself
Awareness, coupled with self-compassion (more on this shortly), is essential to entrepreneurial resilience. Many of my clients have spent years busying themselves as a distraction from their inner worlds or beating themselves up for what they do have insight into. They push through physical and psychological warning signs, ultimately breaking down and burning out — then criticizing themselves for falling apart.
I recommend working with a coach or therapist to proactively optimize your mental health and resilience. In addition to healing traumas that are holding you back from success, you can get creative in working within the limitations of your mental health predispositions (I, for example, implemented a "Nothing before 10am" rule after accepting it massively reduces my insomnia). Finally, coaching or therapy is a safe, confidential space where you can gain emotional intelligence, develop assertiveness skills and boundaries, find the gifts in your shadow-side, and experience authentic connection — mitigating that mental health-sabotaging shame.
If you absolutely cannot justify the cost of traditional therapy or coaching, consider joining an online support group like Campfire or lower-cost counseling option like BetterHelp. I also encourage you to sleuth around your area and see if there are counselor training programs, low-income services, or if a therapist in your area has a sliding scale (many do).
5. Find other sources of self-worth and meaning
Time and time again I hear from entrepreneurs that one of the best things they've done for their mental health is separate themselves from their business. This detaches our self-worth from the success (or failure) of our company. Even if your business involves a personal brand, it's important to separate it from the self.
Consider these questions in building your separate-from-work self:
- If I asked your friends why they adore you, what would they say?
- What qualities about yourself do you most appreciate?
- How do you want to be remembered after you're gone (not what do you want to be remembered for)?
- What gives you a sense of belonging and mattering?
- When, if any time, do you experience a sense of flow?
6. Redefine what success and failure mean to you
One of the reasons I started The Failure Factor was that I wanted to show "failure" is part of the journey to ultimate success. I always refer to the parable of the Old Man and His Horse to impart the Zen concept of "We'll see" – that nothing is inherently good or bad, and it's oftentimes what feels like a "failure" or disappointment that leads to our next opportunity or success. I help my clients learn equanimity – nonreactivity to the inevitable highs and lows of their journey.
Finally, reflect on what "success" means to you. If you're focused on outcome and are defining success solely by revenue or short-term growth, you risk setting yourself up for frustration, disappointment, anxiety, and shame. If your definition of success focuses on meaning and process — including self-awareness and personal growth, learning, impact, experience, creativity, and challenge — you're never not succeeding, even in the face of failure.
7. Learn how to show up for yourself during difficult times
I cannot understate the importance of creating a supportive relationship to yourself, which is achieved through the practice of self-compassion. This isn't some fluffy New-Age BS; it's an empirically supported intervention proven effective in treating depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, eating disorders, and more. Ultimately with entrepreneurship — and with life — our most valuable skill is learning how to be with difficult emotions . If we live our lives trying to avoid them, our behavior is governed by unconscious and reactive decision-making. Instead, if we learn how to welcome and respond to them, our behavior is governed by intuition, desire, and courage.
The determining factor is self-compassion — which is essentially treating yourself as you would a friend or loved one, adopting a "coaching" relationship to self rather than the critical one perfectionism creates. In doing so, we maintain (realistically) high expectations with a focus on growth — whilst having empathy, patience, understanding, warmth, and so on. We respond to difficult emotions with presence and support, rather than further beating ourselves up, numbing or suppressing (a behavior that produces unnecessary shame and precedes anxiety, depression, breakdowns, burnout, and more). We recognize that we are imperfect humans, like everyone else, and that's okay.
At the end of the day, no amount of traditional success is worth it if you're miserable. Optimizing your mental health is one of the best things you can do for your business and, more importantly, for you. Start employing these strategies today and get closer to the happiness, connection, and fulfillment you deserve to experience.