Being an entrepreneur is hard, and being in a relationship with a founder isn't easy either. The stress can be overwhelming, the days long, and the financial insecurity miserable. When your significant other starts a company, the emotional roller coaster of building a business comes home to you, too.
Entrepreneurs suffer a host of mental health challenges, more so than the general population. There is far less information on how entrepreneurs' loved ones can help founders build the mental resilience they need to survive and thrive. The industry has a long way to go in destigmatizing entrepreneurial mental health, so you may be one of the only people who sees your partner struggling.
I recently spoke with Lisa Andresen, ASW, a San Francisco therapist who focuses her practice on entrepreneurs and their loved ones. Here are her top recommendations for anyone who cares about an entrepreneur, but especially their significant others.
Keep your own sense of self intact.
As the significant other, you are exposed to many of the same financial stresses and pressures as the entrepreneur, and it's critical to keep your own sense of self intact. Honor your feelings, don't dismiss them. While the passion entrepreneurs have for their ventures can help temper their stressors, as a loved one you are along for the ride, not in the driver's seat, which feels more unpredictable.
Charisma, ambition, and a bias for action characterize many, if not most, of those who decide to embark on the entrepreneurial journey. They often assume an alpha role in their relationships as well. Such a strong personality can make having a difficult and vulnerable conversation even more challenging.
Communicate what you're experiencing.
Resist the urge to bury your feelings and instead communicate with your partner about how you're feeling and what you're seeing. Respect your perceptions, and if you feel like something is wrong, discuss it clearly.
Remember your home is not the place for an entrepreneur to "sell the sizzle" or "fake it 'til they make it." It may be hard to counteract their habit of wishing away the bad news. While there is a place for that in an investor presentation, you may need to stand firm about discussing the real story in your relationship.
Help them zoom out to see the bigger picture.
When people, especially small-business owners, are under immense stress, there's a tendency to develop tunnel vision. Faced with the pressure of building a company, entrepreneurs can experience a spike in stress hormones that literally narrow their vision into hyperfocus and reduce their creativity and empathy. These physiological responses are there to help us fight off a threat, but they're counterproductive in a challenging situation that requires higher-level thinking.
Oftentimes, a loved one may be the only person to help an overloaded entrepreneur see the bigger picture. It may be as simple as helping them take a break, stay hydrated, and get a good meal and some fresh air.
Ask open-ended questions.
Remind the entrepreneur that they're a real person whom you love and not simply the human embodiment of the company they happen to be running.
Ask open-ended questions to help them consider new solutions they literally can't see. Helping the entrepreneur broaden their perspective and make space for themselves outside of their company can be incredibly helpful.
Look for signs of hopelessness, guilt, or doom.
Entrepreneurs often focus so much on building the business they forget to take care of themselves. As someone who loves them and knows them well, you have a unique perspective to help them with that burden.
Depression is rampant in the entrepreneurial community, so be aware of the signs. If you notice persistent feelings of hopelessness, guilt, joylessness, or doom, these are telltale signals.
Notice changes in sleep, diet, exercise, or substance use.
Be aware that your loved one may try to protect you from the burden they are carrying, so look for nonverbal cues as well, such as major changes in sleep habits, substance use, diet and exercise, or the development of new twitches. They may also experience heightened irritability and explosive anger. Founders may need your love the most when they deserve it the least.
Help them get help.
If you notice these symptoms, they may need more help than you can provide. Consider telling your partner that you love them and are noticing they are not acting like themselves. Suggest the load they are carrying seems to be getting heavier. Expanding their support team to include a therapist can provide coping strategies through a confidential and non-judgmental approach.
Entrepreneurs bring many amazing qualities to a relationship, but there are unique challenges as well. Take care of yourself first, help them keep perspective, and involve professional help when needed to keep your relationship healthy amidst the turmoil of the entrepreneurial world.