I Didn’t Really Learn to Apply My Therapy to Daily Life Until I Started My Business
“So, what are your goals for therapy?”
The therapist had asked a simple question. I found myself grappling for the answer. I wanted to feel better, of course! But with some thought, I came up with a more fleshed out answer.
“I want to learn how not to go from zero to sixty every time I’m feeling triggered by something,” I replied.
“Uh huh,”she said, her tone laid back and friendly, “ We will probably work on that right away.”
“And I want to learn how to tell people I have a problem with something they’re doing without being absolutely terrified to tell them.”
“Uh huh, perfectly reasonable”
“And I want to be able to feel sad and not just go numb, or make myself work all the time to block it out, or start getting angry or anxious about being sad.”
This last goal seemed so insurmountable at the time, I didn’t know if it was attainable. But my therapist was reassuring as ever, telling me it was something I could learn given enough time.
While I had been a hot headed kid, for much of my life I was the sort of person my friends would have described as logical, cool-headed and tactful. The kind of person you wanted to have around in an emergency. Unflappable. I saw myself that way, too. And then “the year” happened.
I was in the final year of a degree and transitioning careers. We were trying to sell a house and move to a more urban setting. All three kids had entered adolescence. And then my daughter began to have serious mental health difficulties that escalated into suicide attempts . While some issues were most likely due to biology, others were rooted in difficulties with unhealthy romantic relationships, sexual orientation and peer bullying. I was frustrated navigating the mental health system, the schools and the legal system. It felt like everyone was focusing on what was wrong with her and not at all on what was wrong with a culture that turns a blind eye to interpersonal violence if you can’t see the bruises. I was traumatized by the fear of nearly losing a daughter while also hurting for her. I was angry with medical professionals for being dismissive. “Kids these days,” said one clinician, “They just don’t have the resilience we did.”
All this brought back the feelings of my young self that were hiding inside of me. Feelings from a kid that spent most of junior high friendless due to rumours of being a lesbian. A kid who was told, “Friends come and go all the time, just get over it,” when she talked to the guidance counsellor about it. The kid who got so tired of crying after rocks and punches were thrown that the only solution seemed to be to strike back, still hurting that I hurt someone, regardless of if it was deserved. As these feelings came back, I became reactive to criticism of myself and others, to having my feelings disregarded, and to people misreading my intentions. With acquaintances, I vacillated between snapping in irritation and blinking tears out of my eyes when confronted with these things. With those I was close to, I’m ashamed to say the irritation was sometimes replaced by screaming, uncontrollable rage, followed by a crushing despair as both my pain and my inability to sit with it rolled over me. And so, I was now sorting this all out with a therapist in my mid-forties, when I thought I should “have it all together”.
I gained a lot of skills and insight from therapy. I was still (and sometimes still am) going from “zero to sixty”, but I could get myself back down to ten pretty often. I learned to be more aware of my needs and to better manage my physical and mental resources. I practiced drawing my personal boundaries and communicating them clearly. Most importantly, I learned I could feel sadness and be aware of it without always being afraid it would drown me or leave me vulnerable to attack. But somehow, I still felt like at any point something could happen that would cause me to break or wish I had. I wasn’t confident that I had what it took to become the person I wanted to be. I was a crazy person pretending to be sane. That started to change when I started a consulting business this year.
One thing that really helped was that I participated in a business “start-up boot camp”. I met other women who were going through some of the same experiences I was. I felt very supported as I grew my business and developed as a business owner. I also really appreciated being able to give support.
I also found some terrific business mentors on the way. Much like good therapists, they listened to my concerns, kept me on track toward my goals, modeled effective behaviors, and helped me find my own solutions.
Eight months into starting a business, I realize many of the business-related skills and insights I have gained have been just as useful in aiding my mental health recovery. Here are some of them:
- I learned to ask for help and to outsource without guilt.
Often, when I was overwhelmed with a multitude of tasks or was experiencing a lot of emotional distress, my therapist would suggest I ask friends and family to help with household tasks and errands, or outsource some jobs to a professional. I would mean to take her advice, and then bail out. I felt like I was imposing and making myself a problem, even though I knew I enjoyed it when others asked me for help. But when I started my business, I needed so much help, I was forced to ask. There were so many hats to wear: Marketing person, website builder, bookkeeper, strategist, educational program developer, researcher, and more! I simply didn’t know how to do everything that was needed, and I didn’t have the time to do it all, either. I learned to ask for help even if I thought the answer was no or that I couldn’t afford it. By doing so, I learned there was willing help than I ever imagined. I also learned that asking and looking for resources is part of being resourceful.
2. I learned to try new actions if the old ones weren’t helping me reach my goals.
During therapy, I would often describe something I had done (often thoughtlessly) and have my therapist ask me what it was I had been trying to accomplish. She pointed out to me that all behaviors happen because we believe they will help us get something we want or need. While I was learning to question the self-limiting beliefs behind the behaviors, I found myself getting into a rut where I would behave in the same old way even though I knew it wasn’t doing me any favors. But when I started my business I was held accountable for my action choices by my mentors, other members of the business incubator, lenders, and colleagues. I had to show why I thought a particular action would help me meet my goal, and come up with a new plan if it wasn’t working in practice. Now when I work on a personal goal, I make a written action plan, on paper, and track my progress just as I would for my business. And if the plan doesn’t work, I try something new. I even have a friend who is working on similar personal development issues who acts as an accountability partner. Sometimes I still backtrack and resort to ineffective things like ruminating out loud for long periods, hoping to be understood. But I also sometimes remember my plan to briefly state my problem, listen to the other person, and then find an activity or environment that will help me move on to other things. When I am better understood with less frustration and fatigue on both sides of the communication, I can say, “That’s progress”.
3. Learning to listen for “pain points” improved my interpersonal problem solving skills.
Between being in therapy and previous experience working in the social service sector, I was no stranger to the concept of active listening. But looking back, I believe I was often using my active listening skills in a shallow way. When I was doing the feasibility study for my business concept, I did a lot of customer discovery interviews where I spoke to people I believed were experiencing the problem my services were trying to solve. I learned to listen to the emotions behind the “pain points”, or problems. I also learned to ask for examples about the problem, follow up on why something was hard, and ask what they had tried already to solve the problem. Now when I try to solve a shared problem between myself and my husband or the kids, I take more time to understand their perspective and find out what they have already tried and deemed ineffective so that we aren’t wasting our time.
4. I learned the “Call to Action” isn’t just for pitching an idea. It’s also useful for drawing personal boundaries.
During “business boot camp”, we did a lot of work on making an effective sales pitch. First, connect with the target customer and build rapport. Ask if they may be experiencing the problem you are trying to solve and really listen to what they think and feel. Tell them about your possible solution, see if they think it would work for them, and then make a call to action. At this point you need to let them know in a concrete way what they can do to solve their problem.
In therapy, I practiced stating personal boundaries. I was managing to state my problem without blaming, and to generally point to what I wanted (a solution of sorts). Here’s a real life example: “Kids, when I come home from work I know you have a lot you need to tell me (building rapport). But when everyone has questions for me at once, I feel overwhelmed (problem statement). I need more time when I get home (solution, kinda).” What was missing was a “call to action”. How about what I said above with this added on: “After I have used the bathroom, put the groceries away and put on a coffee I’ll be ready to talk”. Much more effective.
5. I learned the most important thing is to take care of the people in your network.
In business, they say it’s not as much about what you know as who you know. I would add that it’s especially important how you treat the people know and meet. Whether it’s a customer, your accountant, a competitor or an employee, being in business requires getting to know people, listening to what they have to say, and showing they’re important to you. Your personal network matters just as much. When the going gets tough, having the support of friends, family, and professionals can make the difference between bouncing back and staying down. And your support matters to them. I no longer feel like my social time is “stealing” from my business. Making time for friends and family makes me a healthier and more productive person who is able to give more to my business and my community.
6. I got out of “paralysis by analysis” and learned to take action.
When I first decided to start the business, I had to write a multitude of business plans for lenders, the business incubator, government programs, and more. I took forever making these plans. researching and analyzing and revising and never feeling they were good enough. Eventually, with the help of my business mentors, I realized there were a lot of things I can’t predict and that I will only know the outcome of my plans by taking action. I started to just try things more. I trial ran workshops,cold called customers,spoke at conferences, and had demonstration products. Doing things brought me closer to the answers I needed. I realized that in my personal life, I would often tell myself I was solving a problem by endlessly researching, when in fact no action was being taken. I challenge myself to take action in my personal life more since starting a business.
7. I learned I can handle more than I tell myself.
Sometimes, when I’m trying to cope with difficult emotions, I catch myself saying, “This hurts too much. I can’t do it, ” or “I’m not good enough at this”, or “This is all ruined. It’s too late.” One day my husband called me on this. He said, “I see you get up and manage things for your business when something has upset you all the time”. I thought about it and realized I have learned to do all kinds of things I thought I wasn’t good at or that were emotionally stressful for the sake of this business. If I can handle difficult things in business, I can handle these things in my personal life as well.
I know the things I learned from starting a business that promoted my recovery were all things that I could have learned from therapy alone had I been more receptive to the message at the time. But for me, learning these skills when they weren’t attached to “icky, personal, emotional stuff” helped me believe in my ability to make positive changes. I also think that everything we learn can be applied across our whole life. For me, starting a business was some of the best therapy I could have.