Dealing with Depression as a Business Owner
I live with a monster inside me. Usually, it’s curled up small and sleepy, little twitches moving its toes. But every once in a while, it erupts into wakefulness and rips its claws through me until I’m hollow.
When that happens, I’m left with nothing. Every sound sends its claws down my spine again. Unexpected movements make its teeth close around my throat. The only safety is in darkness and stillness, in escaping the world.
But those aren’t options when you’re a small business owner. Or at least, many people would have you think they’re not options…
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was sixteen. It’s a constant battle to be productive and not just curl up in bed when I’m having bad days.
I’ve learned how to take care of myself over the years. I know the steps I need to take when the monster grips me. It’s a lot of self-care, taking time to be by myself with a book and a cup of coffee. When I can be quiet and undisturbed, I can put the monster back to sleep.
So I never felt guilty taking days off for my mental health. I learned in my teenage years that it was necessary to keep myself functioning. Throughout college and my job as a teacher, I never felt bad or like I was doing something wrong if I took a day for me.
But then I decided to start a business.
And I learned pretty quick that I was going to need to make some mindset shifts to make it work. The good news is that I eventually figured out the things I needed to do to manage my monster and my business. The bad news is that I followed the wrong advice first and almost crashed and burned.
These are the most important things I learned about navigating business ownership when you have depression.
I’m usually pretty good at maintaining my boundaries with other people, but I needed to make sure my boundaries were strong with myself.
It was easy for me to tell clients when I was available and when I wasn’t. It was easy for me to say no to extra meetings or to make sure they were within my office hours.
What I struggled with was creating boundaries for myself.
It took awhile to learn how to turn my brain off from business work and on to relaxing. Or doing housework. Or spending time with my family.
This is a pretty common pitfall when you work from home. You have to make sure you set strong boundaries so that you don’t end up in work mode 24/7. I struggled with this for a long time. It was common to find me sitting in bed with my iPad busily working away.
So how did I end up setting strong boundaries and keeping work at work? I started by making an end of the day ritual. If you work outside your home, you have a commute that creates separation, so I set out to do something similar.
Every day, when I get to my cutoff hour, I do three things to signal to my brain that it’s time to be done. I turn my computer off, not just sleep. I record my accomplishments for the day in my journal. And I go for a walk. This signals my brain that it’s time to shift gears to “home mode,” and I’m much more relaxed and present when I get back from my walk.
Tell Trusted Loved Ones
It’s ok to tell someone you’re not feeling alright. Just make sure it’s someone who will support you and not one of those people who tell you to just “Get over it.” Or “What do you have to be depressed about?” Or “Didn’t you choose this?”
You know the type of people I’m talking about.
Talk to people who will support you, not the ones who keep dragging you down.
I have two friends in particular that I make a point of telling whenever I’m having a low day. One of them is just someone to tell. Someone who then knows that I’m not in a good place. Sometimes you just need to say it out loud, acknowledge the monster, and it makes it easier to handle. She doesn’t offer me advice or commiseration, just an outlet to express that I’m not ok.
The second friend kindly gives me a kick in the ass and helps me figure out ways to break out of the cycle and get back to being my normal awesome self. I don’t reach out to her all the time, but it’s effective when I do.
Find your people and figure out how they can help you. Only you know you, so do some self-reflection and figure out what type of support is most beneficial for you personally. We’re all different.
Find Things That Help and Use Them
I’ve struggled with depression for just over half my life at this point, so I’ve learned some reliable techniques that help me feel better.
The key thing for me is to eliminate the overwhelm I feel when I’m surrounded by people. As an introvert, my energy is renewed by quiet, purposeful time. When I’m with large groups of people for an extended time, my energy gets drained. The lower my energy, the easier it is for the monster to wake up.
So I make sure to take time to renew my energy. Often this means completely unplugging from anything social and cuddling under a blanket with a book or a video game. Letting my brain rest and escape into a fantasy world always works to get my energy levels back up to where I can face people again.
This was a big struggle as I started my business. I didn’t feel like I could disconnect. My energy drained faster and faster until I found myself in crisis.
I had to disengage, but this made me feel like a failure as a business owner. Everything I had read or studied said you NEEDED to show up consistently every day. But I couldn’t. This sense of failure caused me to completely spiral out.
Take it from me, you can’t run a business if you’re in crisis. One of the beautiful things about entrepreneurship is there is no one right way to do things. So if something doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. Protect your energy and do the things you know will help even if it goes against what other business owners say.
Hire People to Help You
This one can be pretty tough when you’re starting out, but it’s so worth it. At some point, you need to hire people to help you.
This should be part of your business strategy anyway. After all, you can’t do everything yourself, and you shouldn’t be wasting your time and energy on tasks that you can outsource to a skilled professional.
You know what absolutely drains my energy the quickest? All the organizational and administrative work of business ownership that I hate doing. Especially phone calls. I despise phone calls (video calls are ok).
Guess what I’m going to do as soon as I have a little bit more money coming in? Yup. I’m hiring a virtual assistant to take all of those things off my plate. I’ll also be hiring someone to clean my house because that’s another area I struggle with.
I grew up in a very frugal household and was taught to DIY as much as possible. But here’s the thing. My energy and my time are the most precious things I have. I need to protect them, and business owners do that by outsourcing.
Everything cycles back to energy. Protect your energy, and protect your mental health.
We don’t talk about mental health enough, and it can make people feel like they’re totally alone, especially when they’re running a small business. There is so much conflicting advice out there, and it can be hard to sift through it to figure out what will work for you.
But the more we talk about it, the more we share our experiences and stories, the better we’ll be at finding systems that work.
Got a story about mental health and business ownership? I’d love to feature you! Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s support each other by sharing our experiences!
School's Out: The 7 Steps I Took to Escape the Classroom is now available on Amazon.