Building a business and managing mental health
Posted Thursday 20 September 2012
I have battled with mental health issues for much of my life and, like many, often find life something of a struggle. So when I decided to set up my own business, I knew that it was going to be a challenge.
Setting up on my own was something that I've always wanted to do, although there's no denying that when I started, I wanted to try to address some of the issues which I had encountered in the workplace. My career had been reasonably successful, although each job brought its own challenges in terms of my mental health.
The first few months were very difficult. Naturally, I was hoping to be very busy and to generate a good income, but neither really happened. This quickly led to negative thoughts flooding my mind to the point of a planned suicide - again, something which I have had issues with previously. When I told the doctor that I thought I was having a nervous breakdown, I wasn't sure whether I was struggling with my own difficulties, the stress of running a business, or both.
With a combination of medication and CBT, I have started to see some light coming through. My business is definitely busier these days, although it is yet to be where I want it to be. However, what I did get right was the assumption that running a business gave me the opportunity to confront many of my issues head-on. I'm still here. I'm still fighting - just. And, perhaps surprisingly, it has given me the clarity of thought that I simply didn't feel when I was on someone else's payroll.
Addressing my breakdown made me see that I have probably had three previous breakdowns in my life, and I am starting to understand what the patterns are and how to spot them early on. I'd like to use that clarity of thought for more positive benefits, and I hope that the CBT can help to address that.
Having run my business for two years, these are my top tips for keeping mentally well through the process:
1. As Morrissey once sang, we hate it when our friends become successful
Seeing friends and contacts make a success of their business or their career has been very hard to deal with. I know that I shouldn't worry about it and that envy isn’t always very positive, but the way I feel about myself means that sometimes I can’t help but see the success of others as a negative reflection on the way I run my own business. I’m trying now to focus on my own goals.
2. You are not just 'the business', and 'the business' is not just you
One of the facets of my long-term mental health is my very low self-esteem, and I'm still working through ways of separating that from the impact of running a business, particularly as we’re in such a deep recession. I think it’s really important to believe that not every business issue is about you and that there are some things you can’t plan for or control.
3. Share the difficulties
I have had no mentoring or support, so setting up was a learning curve from day one. That has made me learn more about the details of business management, but it would be nice to share some of the difficulties too. You'll need a strong network around you when setting up a business, and you probably already have one that’s stronger than you think – don’t lose that.
4. Keep alternatives open
It’s true that your business might fail, but if it does, don't feel that you have backed yourself into a corner because that's a dangerous place to be. Keep your details on the books of recruitment consultants and keep applying for jobs until your income is sustainable. If you're going through a tough time at work, being recognised for your achievements by a potential employer can give you a little lift, even if you don’t take the job.
5. Customers are people too
Some of your customers will be lovely, and some won't be. Some projects will go really well, and some won't. Don't take the harder stuff as an indictment on your own conduct. If you make a mistake, admit it and move on. If you do all you can and the customer is still unhappy, then it can say more about them than you.
6. Keep on moving forward
A quote that I discovered early on in running a business is that of Winston Churchill: “If you're going through hell, keep going.” It has worked brilliantly for me. I have a greater admiration for the businesses that have carried on chipping away and striving to build something in the hardest economic climate in decades.
There's no question that running a business is difficult and that it can really affect someone’s mental health. I'd love to see more discussions on mental health and business. It's easy to keep quiet through fear of coming across as unprofessional, but that's not the way to get through the problem.
I really enjoy running a business; I like every day being different, I like the ability to manage my own time and it gives me a sense of achievement that nothing else in my career has matched. It's both a personal challenge and a personal struggle.
I hope that my own experiences can be of benefit to others and that business life can ultimately be more open in terms of how it understands mental health.
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