Living in the Silicon Valley and being surrounded by the never-ending list of startups, stories of raising rents, successful IPOs, companies struggling to meet aggressive expectations, and employees being poached for crazy high salaries and luxurious benefits means that the question of when or if the bubble will burst is often coming up in conversation or can be overheard your neighborhood coffee shop.
I’m not here to theorize when a repeat of the dot.com era is going to happen, because as a San Francisco therapist specializing in startup employees and founders (and a former startup employee myself) I am already focused on the “Emotional Bubble Bursts” that are happening daily.
The “Emotional Bubble Burst” is the anxiety, depression, and constant stress that have become a common experience among the startup employees and founders who have helped establish this exciting time of innovation, creativity, and technology. According to a recent study by Dr. Michael Freeman focusing on the mental health of entrepreneurs, 30% of founders report experiencing depression and another 27% are experiencing anxiety. Startups are infamous for requiring long hours, yet ignoring the increased likelihood of work-related depression that comes with 11+ hour days.
The emotional bubble burst results from feeling isolated and terrified of stigmatization, yet startup founders often ignore the warning signs with the hope that maybe it will all just go away.
Creating The Emotional Bubble
As a smart, determined, and high achieving individual, you may start to notice the bubble during the intensive interview process that has the undercurrent of competition and anticipation. Once you finally make it through all the rounds of interviews, survived the on-boarding process and actually get to your desk, there is a sense of honor and excitement but also the awareness of the expectations and responsibility you have taken on by just accepting the job and being the Chosen One among other hundreds of applicants.
You have the very best equipment and an unlimited supply of drinks and snacks to fuel you, so all you have to do is work and bring the company to the next level of success. While it can be inspiring to be part of a talented company, feelings of doubt begin to creep in as you find yourself surrounded by other accomplished people. You begin question if you are good enough and desperately hope your weaknesses won’t be discovered.
Long hours are a part of the job and even when you are “off,” your phone doesn’t leave a three-foot radius from your body. You are taking on more than you can really handle, but it’s got to get done so you figure out how to make it happen with minimal resources. You can’t complain because everyone is working hard and you assume that this is what it takes.
When The Bubble Bursts
What causes the bubble to burst? It’s not necessarily one thing. It’s not like you hit the red panic button and the alarms start blaring. It’s more subtle than that.
Sometimes it’s like removing that one block from the wobbly Jenga tower while holding your breath anticipating how much longer you can make it and hoping someone else crashes first. It’s the constant feeling of anxiety, pressure and stress and trying to hold it together while still being productive.
The emotional bubble burst happens when a company’s valuation drops by half and suddenly the founder is left with regret of not taking that acquisition offer, the talented employee who can’t stop working ignores the warning signs of burnout, the new hire who feels they are an imposter and tries to ignore their constant inner critic, and the people who are wrestling with their anxiety and depression and feeling isolated from the rest of their team.
The bubble has burst and you find yourself in a constant survival mode. After finally falling asleep, you wake up in the night panicked about what you may have missed. You are overwhelmed and your mind is racing, but you have no idea where to start or how to manage it all. Your relationship with your partner feels disconnected as the tension and strain seem to directly correlate with your stress levels, but there is no time to deal with it. Getting out of bed becomes a thankless task to start the day as you have lost your sense of passion and drive that fueled you start this adventure. You feel stuck in this cycle that constantly demands more of you with little hope that it will change.
We continually accept that “this is how it is.” This is the cost of getting to be a part of an exciting startup. We don’t realize that things could be different. It is possible to be successful and fulfilled all while being the best version of ourselves – a self that isn’t crippled by anxiety and constant stress.
But instead of learning how to thrive, we fear looking weak, worried that asking for help means we just couldn’t cut it.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
It’s important to recognize the warning signs that perhaps you are at risk of your bubble bursting or it’s already happening.
- Feeling Isolated at Work
- Losing interest in things
- Difficulty Sleeping/ Sleeping too much
- Irritability with Others
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Mind Racing
- Feeling Stuck
- Frequent Worry
- Insecurity and Low Self-esteem
- Changing Appetite
- Weight Loss or Weight Gain
- Distance in your relationships
- Constantly on Edge
- Avoiding formerly fun/pleasurable Activities
What To Do To Prevent The Burst
Chances are this is not a life-or-death situation and nothing is going fall apart if you simply pause to assess the situation. How are you feeling? What should you do next? It often feels like “pausing” isn’t accepted because it’s all about being agile and moving fast even if there are mistakes. While I’m not taking away from any of that in terms of a product development philosophy, I will argue that your mental health needs to take priority. When you’re in a putting-out-fires mode for too long you begin to lose focus and perspective and your work performance can significantly decrease while impacting your quality of life both physically and mentally.
Take a step away from the chaos, take some deep breaths and ground yourself. Maybe your pause is a 60-second break to refill your water bottle or a 30-minute walk to gather your thoughts. Remember, it’s ok to pause.
Make Self-Care Happen
You need to take care of yourself in order to recover from or stop that emotional bubble from bursting. You being drained, stressed, and overwhelmed cannot help things. Are you sleeping, eating, exercising and staying hydrated? Again maybe sounds obvious, but often when I ask clients about these “basic” things, they are not happening. A regular lack of sleep is tied to depression and anxiety and will exacerbate those symptoms if you are already experiencing them.
What are you doing for yourself that has nothing to do with work? Identify a list of things that recharge and energize you and then make time for it to happen. As with pausing, self-care may go against the startup mentality, but when you make time for pleasure and self-care you will be able to engage and be at your best while coming from a balanced and refreshed place.
Find Support in Community
Isolation can be a scary thing and it usually has a magnifying effect on the negative feelings surrounding you. Identify the people that you trust the most and have an honest conversation about how you are feeling and what’s happening. You’ll be surprised to hear how they can relate and that you aren’t alone in your experiences.
These are the people that will often notice the signs of the emotional bubble burst before you do, listen to them.
Call a Professional
If your usual coping strategies aren’t working, talking with friends or family isn’t enough or these unmanageable feelings have been lasting for over a month, then it’s time to call a professional and explore starting therapy. A therapist is going to help support you in finding ways to manage and cope with your unique situation and experiences, and be an outside person that is focused and there for just you. Ultimately, together you can discover how to be your best self personally and professionally. In my work with people who are startup founders and employees, I’ve found that in therapy we are able to make lasting change that prevents emotional bubble bursts and drives the ability to achieve and find fulfillment in your life and at work through taking the time to invest in you.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few ideas.
Remember that you are not alone in this experience of feeling like you’re at your wit’s end and it’s not a reflection on who you are, your potential or what you have to contribute to your company’s success. It’s important to recognize when it’s happening and be able to take steps to manage it, take care of yourself and know that you are not alone.