The Mental Cost of Owning a Business That We Need to Talk About

It’s the perfect formula to happiness – setting your own hours, creating something new, being the boss, calling the shots, being idolized for your unstoppable success, living a life of freedom… In theory, the concept of entrepreneurship just sounds so sexy (at least I can feel kind of sexy working from the couch in my favorite dreamy kimono robe).

But there’s a dark side. Reaping the benefits of this romanticized career choice requires risks. Gambling with something far more precious than money, time, and security… mental health.

The expectations of starting a business are brutal. Everyone around you tells you it’s not going to happen or that leaving your 9-5 to pursue your idea isn’t worth it. You want to prove them wrong. You neglect their forewarnings. Talk yourself up. Read every inspirational article out there on making shit up. You keep telling yourself “you got this”, but slowly, the balls start dropping. You’re running out of money. But you’re still trucking along.

Instead of turning to your friends and family who doubted you, you shut them off. Maybe they were right. You can’t face that reality. With a startup success rate of a puny 10%, your entire heart is dedicated to making sure your business baby isn’t going to fall into the 90% of them that don’t survive (and because good things come to those who hustle, right?). I get it. Now, not only are you struggling, but you can’t go to your friends and family for support because you’re too fragile to take the hit of the dreaded, “I told you so”.

No one said starting a business would be easy, but I didn't expect it to be this hard.

It doesn’t help that every entrepreneur Facebook Group and the badass business babes you follow on social media rarely share the shitty parts of starting a business. When everyone else looks like they have their lives together, it only increases the pressure for you to pick up your own shit.

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“Many entrepreneurs tie their self-worth to their net worth. When the business is doing well, their self-esteem skyrockets,” explains Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. “But when they lose a little money or fail to meet their goals, they find themselves struggling with their identity because their business isn’t what they do — it’s who they are.” Every day you go for a ride on a mental rollercoaster and when you wake up in the morning, once you can muster up enough motivation to get out of bed, you never know what is going to trigger an exponential rise, or a sudden drop.

Your confidence starts to deteriorate. Everywhere you look, other people are succeeding and you’re not. Maybe you can’t do this? What were you thinking giving up everything to start your stupid dream? This isn’t worth it.

“I have had depression my whole life. As a business owner, it can be terribly hard to focus and stay energized when you are depressed. Having to reach out to clients or even sending an email can seem insurmountable at times. Getting on the right medication was key for me. Also, working out, eating right and getting rid of toxic people in my life… that was key for me. I have recently started yoga and meditation and that seems to have made a difference in my stress level and anxiety too. Gosh, I could go on and on.  Thing is depression never really goes away. It’s a constant battle such as alcoholism. One day at a time.” – An anonymous entrepreneur

According to a study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, 30% of all entrepreneurs experience depression; a significantly higher rate than depression in Americans in general, which is 7%. That is 1 in 3 entrepreneurs. I wish I could  say I’m surprised by this statistic, but I’m not.

My dad committed suicide, and so did his mother. I have an intense fear that I’ll commit suicide (which I have gone to therapy to help cope with, among other things). I’ve spent countless nights bawling my eyes out for not being able to keep the lights on, go food shopping, or pay rent on time and sinking further into debt by the day. All while trying to stay inspired enough to keep my business going and mindlessly working 100 hour weeks. At the end of every long day, all I was left with was a pit of emptiness and a heart filled with 80 different emotions all at the same time. There have been times (many times) that I have been so stressed and depressed that I was actually comforted by the fact that suicide could be an option if things got bad enough. It’s a terrible storm.

Reaping the benefits of this romanticized career choice requires risks. Gambling with something far more precious than money, time, and security… mental health.

I am not alone. Back in March, Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec, a multimillionaire tech mogul, shared with People that he’s contemplated suicide. Depression doesn’t discriminate regardless of success, money, fame, race, or gender. Anyone can be swept away by mental health disorders at any time.

Trying to hold a smile while you’re sinking only takes up more of the energy that you already no longer have. And that’s part of the problem.

We must put an end to what social psychiatrists call impression management — the “fake it till you make it” mindset. It’s a very, very poorly executed marketing tactic. We’re convinced that if we become vulnerable and show our customers that no, everything isn’t okay and sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, that business will suffer. Who wants to buy from someone who doesn’t have their shit together?

Me. I’m a fan of supporting people. Real people. Being a human is a far more powerful way to market your brand than any Facebook Ad, finely executed sales copy, or super high profile press placement will ever be. Being authentic is a long term strategy. It’s not a fast track to a few quick sales like other methods. It’s the foundation of a successful creative entrepreneur. When people can trust, relate, and connect with you, in time, they will buy ANYTHING you tell them to.

Kristl Yuen, Business Strategist, Mindset Coach, and co-creator of Joy Patrol shares, “Being an entrepreneur often feeds my depression because of the tendency to do everything yourself, work long hours, isolate from friends and family, and compare yourself to everyone else. I used to suffer in secret, but I found that once I started sharing my feelings, I started connecting with people. Other entrepreneurs reached out and told me they dealt with similar feelings and that hearing me talk about it made them feel less alone. THAT is why we need to talk about it.”

I had a rough week this week. I’m feeling lost. I have to pay my student loans (and my 2014 taxes still). I need so badly to turn my house into a home and decorate it in a way that inspires me, but instead, there’s minimal furniture, my clothes are folded on the floor because there’s no dresser, and I definitely don’t have a dining room that’s capable of hosting a Pinterest worthy dinner party. I still owe money, but I’m thankful that I’m finally at a point where I can pay my utilities within enough time for things not to be shut off. I can feel by business going in the right direction, and the momentum is there, but I can’t seem to create a profitable component and it’s driving me nuts. I just spent hours listing a ton of stuff on ebay the past few days – including barely worn jeans and even crossing my fingers that I can make a few hundred bucks on this supposedly rare Beanie Baby (not even joking).

No matter where you’re at with your business or what you’re struggling with, make your mental health a priority, because guess what? When the success starts to come, that doesn’t mean the stress will stop. The good news is, it is possible to physically make stress your friend. In fact, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal makes a fascinating case that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case.

“When you embrace stress, you can transform fear into courage, isolation into connection, and suffering into meaning.” Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress

In the seemingly uncontrollable cycle of entrepreneurial stress, we do the worst things we can do – we stop taking care of ourselves. “You can get into a startup mode, where you push yourself and abuse your body,” Freeman tells Inc. “That can trigger mood vulnerability.” Truth be told, if you’re looking for a work-life balance, it’s not going to happen because your business is you. It’s far too easy for “burnout” to slip into something deeper, without you even knowing it. I’m still stressed out of my mind and my depression still creeps in, but I’m learning how to manage my mental struggles. And I’m working on making self-care part of my routine – putting taking care of me on the same playing field as taking care of my business.

“Emotional difficulties aren’t a sign of weakness. It’s just a fact that the entrepreneurial lifestyle often lends itself to reduced resilience against mental health issues,” Amy Morin shares on The Huffington Post, “Take a proactive approach to preventing emotional problems by building mental strength. If you’re already noticing the psychological toll of business ownership, seek professional help before it gets worse.”

Be stronger than the stigma. Being honest and accepting your struggles is not only going to help you, but it will humanize your brand and show your audience you are real. You don’t know who else is struggling. You are not alone. If you’re building a brand, you’re constantly networking. Take 9 of the other entrepreneurs you know. At least 3 more of them are struggling mentally just like you are.

Here are a few things to try that may help improve your mindset and mental strength:

If you are in crisis, please call 800-273-TALK (8255). If you are worried that someone in your life is suicidal, call the same number and they will help you. For more information on suicide, prevention, and coping with a loss to suicide, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a number of informative and helpful resources – https://www.afsp.org.

My Mission & #GemNation:

After years of working one-on-one with clients, building brands through marketing and public relations efforts, I couldn’t help but realize how many business owners were struggling. Not only with typical startup setbacks like finances and time management, but more importantly, mental health. It broke my heart to see so many amazing entrepreneurs being hustled by their very own businesses. Not to mention I was also one of them. I was stuck in an awful state of “I have no time because I’m working on my business all the hours and all the days and yet I still don’t have enough money to both keep my lights on and put food on the table”.

After an incredibly hard year and many trial and error projects later, I decided that I needed to do something about the way we start up businesses. Not necessarily for how we start a business, but how we take care of ourselves mentally on the journey. Our goal should not be to start a business, it should be to create a lifestyle, and that starts with YOU.

Gem Nation is designed to help you develop the skills, internal tools, and success systems you need to shine your way to your dreams. We’re about taking the craziness of life, and using it as motivation, fuel, and inspiration to make big things happen rather than letting stress get in the way of living.

The intent of this site, article, and subsequent programs is not to give medical advice, but to raise awareness of this issue and offer communal support. If your are struggling or know someone who needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.


**This post may contain affiliate links because we all have to pay our bills and I’d rather keep creating awesome content for you than get a real job. All opinions are my own.**

  • Thank you for sharing, Allyn. This needed to be said.

    • Your support means the world to me, Megan. Thank you!

  • I really needed this today. Thank you.

    • Thank YOU for taking the time to read this. <3

  • This post really resonated with me. Especially this line, “Everywhere you look, other people are succeeding and you’re not. Maybe you can’t do this? ” It really sums up how I’m feeling closing out this week.

    I had never realized that being a solopreneur/freelancer would take an extra toll on me. It is difficult to deal with working and trying and not to see any pay off, it really does take a toll.

    Thanks for sharing and it’s given me a lot to think about!

    • You have made it through 100% of your worst days and you will make it through every one that comes because you are strong enough to handle anything life throws at you! Just remember – everyone is a real person, no matter what their Instagram feed looks like. Everyone is going through their own struggles and every single person on the planet has their issues. I’m rooting for you, Shaylee. I know you can do this!

  • This is such a beautiful post + every single entrepreneur needs to read this. I’m consistently open + honest about my history of anxiety + depression (something that I still work with daily), and I’m incredibly grateful that you were willing to share your deep experience with this common-but-often-hidden side effect of entrepreneurship.

    • You are such a Gem for your kind words, Victoria. Thank you for being open about these issues too and for all of your support. Keep doing amazing things! I think you are incredible.

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  • You’ve probably seen those memes joking about the mental cycle entrepreneurs go through day-to-day (“I can do this!” followed by self-doubt and comparison). I cringe when I see people joke about that stuff. It’s such an easy path into depression, anxiety, etc. Kelly McGonigal’s book is one of my favorites.

    I think about this kind of stuff pretty much constantly – as mental health relates to our ability to keep performing (in the sense that we trying to be our best selves and “shine bright” as you say – not just monetary or material success).

    I recently moved from personal training to writing a blog about mindset and performance development for this reason. I just started my blog and I’d love your feedback if you’re interested.

    Good luck with the VIP program! I look forward to seeing how your story continues to help others pursue their dreams!

    • Those memes are so accurate, but they also hint at an underlying problem that so many entrepreneurs face. It’s incredibly stressful to put yourself out there, every day, investing your time and energy into something that may or may not succeed. That wears on your – physically, emotionally, and mentally.

      I think this may be a wonderful new avenue for your to be a spokesperson for. If you ever do an interview series, I’d be happy to share my full story.

      Small world! I was a full-time Yoga teacher for 3 years before I devoted myself fully to Virtual Assisting and Online Business Management (with a long history of other businesses before that). I also have a passion for how our entrepreneurial stress affects us physically, which then affects us in business – it’s a nasty cycle.

      I’d be more than happy to provide feedback if you’re looking for it 🙂 Feel free to email me and I’d be delighted to help how I can.

  • Terri

    I like this article and would share it, but is there any chance of correcting

    “balling my eyes out” to “bawling my eyes out”?

    It undercuts your credibility and would bring conversation on an important subject to a dead stop.

    • DONE! Thank you a million times for pointing that out to me so I could fix it. You rock! <3

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  • Allyn, I could not agree more. This is so beautifully written and would love to know more about your experience. I am the founder of Impact Founder, a multimedia movement building authentic entrepreneurshipans we share founder stories. Visit our website and please reach out. We are releasing podcasts, and writing a book in addition to curating photo exhibits around the US, and then expanding globally.

    Impactfounder.com

    • Thank you so much for reading this, Kristin, and for your support. I will definitely head over and check out Impact Founder! Looking forward to seeing what you’re all about! =)

  • Can very much relate! Thank you for this well written and insightful article.

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  • Excellent post and very vulnerable of you to put it out there like that. Not many will. But the more we share the more we give others permission to do the same. A colleague actually sent me this way as I’m working on a book about women entrepreneurs and mental health disorders. I’ve also had the privilege to correspond with Dr. Freeman about my research on this topic though my background is sociology and social work. Keep shining!

    • Lynette, that is exactly why I do what I do. Sharing is so powerful. I would love nothing more than to read your book and to hear about your research. PLEASE keep me posted on the progress – allyn@allynlewis.com. Perhaps we can even chat about you doing a guest post! <3

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  • Thank you so so much for writing this. I’ve been having a down week that started with some careless words from a loved one the night after I had been celebrating my successes from the month. Everything has seemed to pile up over the course of the week and I’d been feeling like I was one of the few doing what I love and still dealing with depression. This was what I needed to hear, and I’m so glad you’ve created a community for folks dealing with this as a part of their work-life.

  • “Being authentic is a long term strategy.” This is such a gem, such a valuable piece of advice. Learning to separate my identity from my job has been difficult, in fact I think it’s taken almost a year to sort of unwind myself from it. It’s so hard not to get caught up in the roller coaster rides that our businesses take us on!

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  • Yep I have had my own business for 13 years as a Massage Therapist and Spa Owner. There have been so many times I wanted to walk way due to the stress and depression. Granted I have a great job, but that feeling of no downtime mentally gets old. I have built a $70,000 a year practice ( shooting for six figures this year) but I always feel like my life does not compare to those women who look great, have time for family and working out and in general seem to be so much more fabulous. It gets old. I doubt they are authentic about all you sacrifice to make a business happen.

    • Thank you so much for reading this, Robin, and for sharing your story with me. I truly believe that we all go through our fair share of struggles when we start and own a business. I think it’s a matter of how much time and effort people use up putting on a perfect front. I’ve never met a business owner that was like, “well, that was so easy.” We are all fabulous! When you embrace your struggles, you start to accept yourself, and that is what the true meaning of “having it together” looks like. Sending you lots of good vibes to reach your six figure year!

  • Sandra

    My dear lord, it’s not just me. Thank you

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  • Lakisha

    Hello I have been running a cleaning business for four years and it’s starting to take a toll on my mental health; Each day it gets harder for me to get out of bed don’t get me wrong I have because the best cleaning service in my city but I feel like all that I have invested into my business I don’t see pay off and I would like to learn now to become apart of your facebook group.

    • We would love to have you, Lakisha. Sign up here (http://allynlewis.com/join/) and then you’ll get an email with a link to the group in it! Looking forward to having you in the community and arming you with lots of support and encouragement! <3

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  • Larry

    I find that it’s been easier since I had my mental breakdown.

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  • Sharing your story definitely helps me and others! Thank You! I have to do the same and I have yet to do it. I will, very soon!

    • I’m so glad to hear that, Nestor! It warms my heart to see others that support the power of our stories. I actually just launched (as in yesterday) Strategy Sessions to help others discover and develop their stories. I’m running a half off launch special until Saturday on sessions booked (with code READYTOROCK if you’re interested). I’d love to help you with your story! http://hitthegem.com/discover-story-strategy-sessions/

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