For those pushing themselves to the bleeding edge of success, our own minds can be a form of personal Hell. For me, it’s a place I’ve found myself far too many times the last few years as an entrepreneur.
I’ve been guilty of striving to “be somebody” and achieve at the expense of my own health and well-being; of naively believing that one day I would start being intentional with my life.
One day, I said to myself, I would choose to live a life of fulfillment, impact, and creation… rather than one mindlessly vying for recommends, INC op-eds, and more email subscribers.
That day never came.
I carried on with my rapid, mindless existence and chose to ignore the growing darkness within me, until the universe decided that enough was enough.
Universe to Ben: Wake the heck up!
Panic. There I was, along a subway platform, gasping for breath as the train sped by no more than 2 feet from my face. I had just looked death in the face for the first time and I wondered how long it would be before her claws finally took grasp of me for good, unaware that my constant need for more, the very ambition I believed made me successful was the same that caused my breakdown.
You see, just a week before, the startup I had been working day and night on for months had utterly failed. Along with it went my sense of meaning and worth. My life was empty. Without meaning. Without purpose. I felt like there was no reason to keep on living. When the universe rejects your lifestyle, it is time to wake up and change, right?
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. As a man and an entrepreneur, I thought only wimps shared their feelings.
So instead of seeking help and talking about my wounds, I used alcohol and work to mask the pain, digging myself an even deeper hole. Then one day, as I was voraciously reading startup blogs, I came across an article about a husband/wife entrepreneurial team that had taken their own lives after their startup dream had failed. It was a heart-wrenching piece that shook me to my core and made me rethink the path I was on. I could intimately feel the pain and turmoil that their decision had on their families as well as the wider entrepreneurial community.
I realized that night that if I continued to ignore my mental health, I could easily live my entire life in a state of fear — or worse, take my own life. That night, I made a pact to myself that I would no longer surrender to my suffering. I decided that I would speak up, tell my story, and begin the journey to recovery.
The Problem No One Is Talking About
One in three entrepreneurs live with depression and 30% of all entrepreneurs experience depression, according to a study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Depression among entrepreneurs is much higher than depression among Americans in general, which is estimated at about 7% – although that number could be even higher because of the stigma associated with talking about it. But at face value, it suggests that entrepreneurs are four times more likely to suffer depression than everyone else.
The biggest problem of all is when you compare yourself to others and have an unrealistic expectation of the success you believe you should have.
“The bigger the gap between where you are and your expectations of where you should be, the higher the stress,” says Glen Moriarty of 7 cups of tea, a website that provides free 24/7 counseling. For example, take Tim Ferriss. The man created his own genre of self-development that is centered around succeeding in life in the most efficient way possible. In the eyes of most, his life seems perfect and without a major flaw.
That was far from the case. Tim shared how he battled depression and suicidal thoughts when he was a senior at Princeton. Here is a guy that is epitome of a self-made entrepreneur talking about how he was days away from taking his own life.
Fast forward 18 months and I still struggle with my demons, but I no longer allow them to control my life. I have continued to show up and lean into my fear every single day — by telling my story and being true to myself.
I have recently adopted a new view of my fear that I read about in Elizabeth Gilbert’s amazing book, Big Magic. Her declaration to fear:
“You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice. But you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps, or suggest detours. You’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
Note: These are strategies that have worked for me. They may not work for you and you should NEVER stop taking medication without your doctor’s consent.
Okay, now to a new life…
The 9 Steps I Took to Get My Life Back
1. Speak Openly About Your Struggles and Stop Feeling Ashamed
Anxiety and depression happens to the most extraordinary people. It is something that you can live above if you are committed to treating it like an obstacle rather than an inherent flaw that you cannot fix. View your illness like any other illness. Just because you experience depression, doesn’t mean you have been diagnosed with a lifelong condition that you will not be able to live above.
2. Transform Your Weakness Into Your Superpower
For most of my battle with anxiety and depression, I looked at it as my weakness. I was looking for the piece of me that I needed to try to correct and keep hidden. However, I now realize that I can leverage my anxiety to act as my superpower. It alerts me when I am in misalignment. It is a tell-tale sign that I should get out of my comfort zone. It has allowed me to connect emotionally with people on a deeper level than ever before.
Instead of letting it define you, you can use it as a catalyst for growth. Although we humans love to think of ourselves as rational beings, we are driven by emotions. Through working on my anxiety I have been able to understand emotion and suffering on a much deeper level, which has allowed me to build amazing relationships and be an all-around happier person.
And who doesn’t want that?
3. Assign Meaning To Your Suffering
In the amazing book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl highlights that the people who were able to survive the holocaust were the ones who were able to assign meaning to their suffering. For me, the meaning of my suffering is to tell my story and help others who may be going through something similar. It has provided me with so much more fulfillment than anything else I have ever done.
4. Build Your Mental Resilience
Spend some time each day working on your mental fitness. There has been loads of scientific research done on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation on the brain. It can help lower depression and anxiety, but it has also been shown to increase focus, creativity, and happiness.
Understand that anxiety will always be there waiting for you. Even if you have kicked the demons out of the house, they are in the parking lot lifting weights, waiting for you to open the door. That is why it is vital to not have good mental health, but to have great mental fitness.
Here are some exercises I suggest:
- Meditate/Priming: Spend 5–30 minutes every morning “clearing the fog”
- Journal: Write whatever comes to mind
- Set reminders on your phone to go off several times a day that alert you to take 3 deep breaths
- Laugh or Play
- Keep track of your small “wins” throughout the day and week — I have a special Gmail Tag for “wins” where I keep any small win. This helps me stay positive
- Take a long walk without music, podcasts, or a phone
- Take (what I call) Innovation Blocks : A 1 – 2 hour block of time that you spend alone with a journal and no technology. I have gotten some of my best business insights from my innovation blocks.
5. Do Not Tie Your Self-Worth To The Success of Your Company
I am not saying you should not care about the success of your business, because you should. What I am saying is that you should maintain an appropriate amount of responsibility for the company and realize that you cannot control everything that happens.
There are forces outside of your control that can tank your business that have nothing to do with your aptitude or ability. Take an inventory of what you can and cannot control.
6. Work On Your Physical Health
It goes without saying that you are what you eat. Even further, your body will operate at the level of its training. Do not lie to yourself and say that you do not have time for exercise and healthy eating. Busyness is a lack of priorities. Make the effort to prioritize your physical health over an extra hour of work.
Play the long game, not the short game.
7. Play or Create Daily
When you are running a business, you tend to lose sight of the significance of creation and play to your work, because you are so tied up in keeping the business running. That is why I advise that you schedule at least 30 minutes a day of deep creative work or play. Whether it is directly tied to the growth of your business does not matter. What matters is that you get yourself into a flow state. Here is a great piece on how play and creation can decrease your anxiety and make you more productive.
8. Get Quality Sleep
Most entrepreneurs have no clue that by getting poor sleep they are substantially increasing their anxiety levels. It is probably the single most overlooked aspect of physical health. Protect your sleep like nothing else. Nothing should affect your sleep schedule. Put a reminder on your phone that will alert you to go to bed about an hour before you want to fall asleep. Then turn off your phone and start to wind down for the night. A consistent nightly routine will help tremendously.
9. Limit Your Inputs
In the world of informational overwhelm, it is critical to your success in living above anxiety and in your success as a business person to be able to limit your inputs.
Every 90 days, I open up my browser and email, and determine what my 3–5–10 will be for the next two months.
5 Email Newsletters
I limit it to these 3–5–10 because there is so much information out there that it can be overwhelming to ever feel like you are on the right path. I am sure some will go on a full information-diet, which is great, but I found that if I limit my inflows to only the highest quality thought leaders that I align with, my overwhelm does not flare up.
To Wrap it Up
When I was in the darkest part of my storm, I felt like it would never fade away, but like everything in life, my suffering eventually subsided and transcended into healing. As Ryan Holiday would say, my Obstacle became the Way to my recovery. I hope these 9 tenets will provide you some relief, but most importantly know this, if you struggle with anxiety and depression, I want you to know that you are not alone. It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to feel darkness.
You have a beautiful life to live. You do not have a defect. You are a human that has so much give this world.
“And when the darkness comes, when you are fighting the demons, just remember: I’m right there fighting with you. The gems I’ve found were forged in the struggle. Never ever give up.” - Tim Ferriss
Check Out These Additional Resources
If you occasionally struggle like me, these resources, videos, and articles might help you rebound. I share more resources like these on my own community — join us here.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1 (800) 273–8255 (website and live chat here). It’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in both English and Spanish. Outside the US? Please click here for a list of international hotlines.
Photo credit: Getty Images
Previously posted on Medium.