Founder Stress: An Expert's Guide

Founder Stress: An Expert's Guide

Originally featured on Forbes.

I've chewed my fingernails until there was no white left thousands of times, worst-case scenarios swirling in my brain as I did so. I've made a career out of scaring myself and convincing myself that I needed the fear. It’s what drove me. It’s what drove my business. Stress was fuel, and I wore the stress like a badge of honor: “Hey! Look how stressed I am. I’m working really hard over here. Take note everyone!”

I believed with every ounce of my being that ambition requires stress. I woke up every morning and drank that Kool-Aid. I told myself every day how good it tasted. It was a necessary part of my daily regimen as a founder. In the evenings, I'd usually go back for another glass — checking email feverishly to make sure everything was as under control as possible.

It took years of pain and loneliness before I finally slowed down enough to take a look at how stress ruled my life. I was surprised by what I found.

Today, it's rare for me to meet a founder who doesn't experience regular stress in their work. But like me, few take the time to understand the dynamics at play or how they might interrupt the system.

Stress 101

Stress is a low-grade, persistent form of anxiety or fear. Fear is a felt emotion based on a belief that something is threatening you and therefore you need to protect yourself. Connecting the dots: Stress is a persistent belief that 1.) you’re under threat, and 2.) you need to protect yourself.

For founders, the business usually feels under threat in some way. So, as a result, stress shows up. It's our bodies’ way of telling us that we’re scared and that we better protect ourselves. I’ve seen how excellent founders are at protecting themselves by working harder, faster, meaner. We make a habit of sacrificing ourselves (and others) in the name of success.

Being a founder, I mistook the stress as part of the territory, something I'd need to learn to live with. In fact, I always knew some founder who had it worse, so at least I was coping better than them — or was I?

The Real Reason Stress Is So Intense

It was only when, out of necessity and on the verge of burnout — that I slowed down to peek beneath the stress. Here’s what I found: It was never just the business that felt under threat. It’s what the business meant to me that was under threat. For me, my business was my identity. Founder. Leader. My ego liked those titles — a lot.

The business meant that I had my tribe. I belonged. I was accepted. The business meant that I might get rich, perhaps beyond my wildest dreams. If I had that cash money, then maybe I could finally relax and enjoy life a bit. Most of all, the business was stability. For the moment, I had everything I wanted — or at least a path to it.

But if the business faltered? Everything would crumble. The stability and hope were under threat, so stress stepped in. It wasn’t just the business that felt in danger. My entire identity was on the line. If I wasn’t the founder of a successful business, then who was I?

Nobody. At least that’s what I believed at the time. My self-worth and my business were joined at the hip. No wonder it felt so intense.

Shifting The Focus

It was only by noticing what the stress was really telling me that I saw the truth: The business didn’t need more work done on it. It was my beliefs about myself that needed the work. I was using my business to try an address a belief that I’m not OK as I am. And because I didn’t think that I was good enough, I had to prove myself. I had to be a founder. I had to build a business. I had to always keep climbing to prove my worth. 
I was always chasing; never arriving.

The reality is there was never going to be a time where I achieved enough or did enough to prove myself. So threat and stress was my experience.

Look, there are tons of ways out there to cope with stress. Keep using them, but know they’re just bandaids. If you want to understand the source, then you need to take the time to understand the beliefs that your stress is built upon. In fact, when I work with founders, we go straight to uncovering these beliefs through a process of inquiry that might go something like this:

  • What is the stress really a fear of?
  • If that fear were realized, what would that mean about you?
  • Then, bridging the two: What beliefs about yourself and the business do you notice beneath the stress?

Finding honest answers to these questions opens a deeper understanding of what you perceive is at risk and what truly is at risk. Often founders experience shifts simply by bringing new awareness to the truth of their stress.

Ultimately you'll find that your business, and your being a founder of that business, have nothing to do with your self-worth. It’s only by looking inward that you can find that.