As someone who has been self-employed for twelve years, I’ve known just how dark it can get when you’re running a business on your own with very little support. The days when you can’t get out of bed because you don’t know what to do next with your business, the empty bank account that won’t afford you your next meal and the overwhelming pressure to make your next marketing campaign work. It doesn’t take much to feel exhausted and with nowhere to run.
I know I am not alone in this.
When I run my Expert Economy introduction sessions, everyone nods their head in agreement when I point out the harsh realities of the life we have chosen. Although we can choose our own hours and opt to take the day off when we need to, few of us actually do.
And few of us realise just how compromised we are and how at-risk our mental health is.
It wasn’t until two months ago when I interviewed Poppy Jaman OBE, co-founder of City Mental Health Alliance and Mental Health First Aid England to write her LinkedIn profile, that I actually realised that throughout all these years, during my darkest times, it was my mental health that was compromised.
Honestly, I just thought I was failing. A conclusion that compounded my feeling of inadequacy and continued to not only compromise me further but worse, would lead me to make decisions about myself and what I am capable of, and ultimate shape my identity. Something that is probably the most precious assets we have since from it we create our external world. Our identify forms the basis of whom we think we are and whom we think we are in the world, and therefore what we believe we can achieve.
For many of us, as solo-entrepreneurs, we suffer alone.
We’re likely working from home. We’re probably the only person in our family taking this brave step into the unknown. We’ve left full-time jobs to pursue a business selling our expertise independently with the promise that we’ll be controlling our own destinies and earning more money than if we’re working for someone else.
No one sees us. No one is there to encourage us in the simple things and reflect back what we’re doing well when we feel like we’ve failed. We have no choice but to become our own cheerleader and rally ourselves along. Something that is a habit many of us will spend years learning to do.
There is also no one there when our mind starts to go to a dark place. When our thoughts begin to spiral into self-destruction or when we start behaving as the worlds worst boss.
One day during my first year in business I caught a glimpse at my self-talk and was so shocked I burst into tears. I was putting myself under continual pressure to succeed, I chastised myself over every little detail with very little grace, and I continually compared my early beginnings to others on the super-stage. In fact, I was so nasty to myself that I wasn’t just the world’s worse boss, I was an abusive boss – to myself.
“I am so stupid. I am such an idiot. Why did I do that?” I heard my friend whom I share an office with exclaim a few months ago. “Excuse me?” I said turning my head in her direction “Girl you wouldn’t speak to your children that way, so don’t you dare speak to yourself that way!” Often we don’t even realise we’re doing it.
Many things can spark this self-talk from losing a critical sale to miscalculating your tax bill, to a client not being thrilled with our service. Without the right support, it can take years to build the reliance you need to keep yourself on track no matter the knocks.
And, no matter how big the knock or how much you want to run, the reality is you have to keep going. You have no choice. Your rent is due. You’ve promised to deliver that piece of work. Your reputation is at stake, and you need that next piece of work to cover your car payment. You’ve told everyone you’re building this business and you can’t back out now.
Giving up doesn’t feel like an option.
In my first book Grassroots to Green Shoots, I detail the lessons I learned during my first two and half years in business, which ended in dramatically in 2008 on the same day Lehman Brothers went down. Nine miles from Canary Wharf in London, I too was having my own financial meltdown in Putney. Only mine was entirely my own making and had nothing to do with the economy.
At the time my mental health was very bad. Only I didn’t know to call it that. The Doctor had signed me off work but what did that actually mean? There was no one to give a doctors note too, and there was no sick pay to claim.
I had Key Man insurance, and an evaluator travelled a halfway across the country to assess my condition, but I felt like a fake as I sat with her in my living room and told her I felt unhappy and didn’t feel like working.
When she left, and I didn’t hear anything more from the insurance company I just concluded that having been prescribed by the doctor to read a book called ‘Living with the black dog’ to help my ‘depression’ how I felt didn’t qualify as a condition they’d pay out on or even a response. I just felt humiliated and alone. I’d wasted her time and how I felt didn’t matter. With no financial cushion I couldn’t give in to how I felt and lock myself away, I just had to keep going and claw my way back mentally and financially.
However, clawing our way back or simply deciding to carry on, often means putting ourselves in situations that compound our issue.
I think all of us know the feeling of showing up to a networking event not feeling like ourselves. We smile through the introductions and make polite conversation, but inside we feel like dying. Although we’re in a room with other solo-entrepreneurs, who are probably the only other people in the world who will really get what we are feeling, we can’t show it. This isn’t the time or the place.
In fact, it’s the place we’ve come hoping for our next business introduction that will actually save our business (and potentially our home), so we have to be on ‘form’.
If you’re a speaker, you probably know all too well the pressures of getting up to speak on a good day when you’re on top of the world. But a bad day? Many times I’ve had to get up on stage and give the audience when I’ve been running on empty.
One morning I attended a networking event where I was also speaking. When it came to my turn to give my 60-second pitch, the leader said: “Naomi, you’re speaking today but do you also want to do a 60-seconds?” I said ‘No’ with a quiver in my voice and tears that was hard to hide. Ten minutes later I am entertaining the crowd with the latest insights on marketing your business with LinkedIn. I come to live but afterwards? I am crushed! I leave the building and the flood of darkness takes over me and there is nothing left in me but to hide under the duvet for the rest of the day.
In many respects, I have it lucky. I don’t have the kids to pick up from school or employees I have to put on a brave face for until home time. I have some choice. I’ve also mastered how to build and manage a business as a solo-entrepreneur that allows me the freedom I need so I don’t get into that place in the first place.
The truth is, the road of entrepreneurship really is the road less travelled. Not just for the individual pushing into the unknown, but also as an industry. The world has changed dramatically in the last decade. New technology has opened global markets and removed the barriers to entry to such an extent that anyone with a computer can begin generating an income online.
As successful as someone looks from the outside, or as successful as they are today, the world is changing so fast everyone is running to keep up.
No one has all the answers and no one is doing it perfectly.
Having been in this game for over twelve years now and having spoken to hundreds of individuals about their businesses, I know I am not alone and the challenges I have faced are not unique.
In fact with so many people now sold on the benefits of having your own business, it’s actually epidemic.
From the constant need to self-promote, being an introvert in an extrovert’s world, to the bank account that needs continuous refilling, to fulfilling multiple roles within your company that are usually handled by employees, to continually handling customer feedback and meeting demanding deadlines, this road isn’t easy.
So this World Mental Health day I invite you, the entrepreneur, to take a step back and give yourself an honest once over. How are you really doing? Do you have the support you need?
Can you give support to someone else? Have you not heard from one of your fellow solo-entrepreneurs lately? Is there someone at your networking event that looks exhausted that would really appreciate an invitation to talk privately?
The answer to this problem isn’t simple. By nature, we work alone and the very people who can support us, other solo-entrepreneurs, are the people we most want to hide it from when we go networking. However, if you can find a networking group you enjoy and will attend regularly, it is worth carving out your own little tribe within it and creating your own group of supportive friends. You might consider working in a co-working space or clubbing together with friends to hire an office. One solution I provide my clients is a monthly ‘Workout’. The opportunity to come together once a month and spend the day working on our businesses. The support provided between members is invaluable not to mention the regular reminder of the marketing strategy we are following and the insights other members share from their own story. You can find out more at meetup.com.