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Stress and Self-Doubt: Normative Responses to Starting a New Business

This is the first in a series of She-Suite blogs attempting to address the psychological effects of building a business. The topics have been generated by the members of The Startup Ladies, so I hope the questions and some of the answers will be helpful and informative to those seeking support as they maneuver through the landscape of building a business.

All human beings living in the Western world experience stress and self-doubt during the course of their lifetime. It is an inevitable part of life, especially as we navigate in the business realm. The level of stress can rise when we begin a new business venture. Self-doubt can underlie stress. I remember back to 2004 when I sold my interest in a large architectural, engineering, and interior design firm. It was time to leave the corporate world and begin something new; something more aligned with my personality and sensibilities toward serving clients on a more personal basis. However, I was not really sure what I would do professionally. After a 22-year goal-oriented career at the same firm, I was ready to re-align my professional goals based upon my values. Self-doubt crept in and more than occasionally visits my thoughts and feelings about how I am in relationship to my businesses. The first question I will attempt to address is:

What do you do when you feel overwhelmed and doubtful of yourself?

So how can you cope when stress and self-doubt creep up, threatening to derail your business-building efforts? When you start running your own business, you are unprepared for what’s coming. You don’t know exactly what the path looks like. You certainly cannot know what the finish line looks like, let alone understand how you might get there. You can’t know how people will react to your ideas, your services, and your products. So you just have to start without all the answers and without a perfect road map to show you the way.

Over the years, I have felt crippled by fear from time to time. I could do nothing but stay in a place of safety and familiarity to keep the self-doubt at bay. Unable to make a move, I was scared that my efforts would be wasted and I would be a failure. I came to realize that some of my fears were not rational and that the self-doubt was crushing my confidence that I could move into a new phase of my professional life. Here are some things that were helpful and I hope some of the learnings will be helpful to you too.

  1. Move forward in small steps. Go fast enough to stretch yourself, but don’t go so fast you collapse under the weight of self-doubt. Rather than write your first book, write a blog post about your book topic first. Then write a series of posts, and only then write a book. No, I am not planning on writing a book, but stretching to write a blog is a great small step to send my voice out into the world.

  2. Get feedback from people you trust. Develop a circle of trusted friends and business associates that can provide feedback to help improve your business. Is this not what The Startup Ladies is all about? Improving a product or service can boost confidence by confirming you are on the right track.

  3. Accept that self-doubt is normal. Some degree of self-doubt is a sign you’re learning and developing. Fighting self-doubt leaves me more frustrated, so I’m learning to accept it and understand its origins. I remind myself I’m only fearful because I’m learning new things.

  4. Sleep enough. Everything is harder when you’re tired. Seriously, the better rested a person is, the more resilience they have to stand up to self-doubt and feelings of doom. I often forget to listen to my body (I am a high intuitive, and this can be a curse). When I’ve worn myself down, self-doubt strikes without mercy. Sleep and rest are a necessary, healthy part of staving off doubt.

  5. Celebrate your successes. Don’t get bogged down by everything you still have to do. Write down a list of things you’ve achieved and what you’ve learned. Especially when you’re setting up a new business, you go through a huge learning curve–from quoting for projects to bookkeeping, from learning WordPress to mastering Twitter. Your newly acquired knowledge and skills are precious. Celebrate. Be proud.

  6. Be careful with setting goals. Big goals---like reaching 1,000 subscribers in two months---can be disheartening, especially when you’re only at 57. Rather than get frustrated by your lack of progress, focus on the tasks you can do to achieve your goals, like writing at least one guest post a month. Things will become easier over time when you consistently focus on a limited number of tasks.

  7. Separate your must-do’s from your nice-to-do’s. Whether you’re launching a service or a product, it’s impossible to get anywhere unless you prioritize to accomplish the more salient “do’s” from the less important things. I find that the less important things are often easier to do, so I gravitate to that list, but it does not really help me to allay my self-doubt if I do not do what’s important now (WIN). I’m more comfortable when I focus on a really small number of must-do’s, so I can do them well. The stress level subsides when I am accomplishing “bite-sized” must-do’s and my self-doubt remains in check.

  8. Find ways to hold yourself accountable. If I hadn’t told Kristen I’d post this initial blog, I probably would not be writing this. Whenever I create a deadline for myself, I am not as successful as I am if I account to someone else. When I agree to a deadline with someone else, I stick to it. I find ways to commit to deadlines. For instance, when a business associate or partner or client doesn’t ask for a deadline, I’ll email to let her know when I will submit my assigned task.

  9. Walk. Cycle. Swim. Om. Staring at your computer monitor can be soul-destroying–especially when you get stuck in a rut. I’ve found swimming, cycling, or walking are ideal activities to feel good, gain confidence, and stimulate creativity. Did I mention yoga and meditation? Yes, this has been invaluable in developing self-confidence, clarity, and community. Move in the vessel that is your sacred body.

  10. Find mentors and make friends. If you are part of The Startup Ladies, you’ve discovered what a close community of mentors can do to boost your confidence! You can also have regular calls and email with a few friends to bounce off ideas and keep each other accountable. The right relationships fuel your confidence and your creativity. You can’t do it all on your own.

  11. Build your audience first. Ask for input and engage in conversations. When you listen well, your audience will tell you how to improve your product, what services to offer, and what courses to develop. When you get to know your audience, you can be more confident about how they’ll receive your ideas. Had Kristen not listened to her audience, there would be no She-Suite. They told her and she responded in kind.

  12. Get started. Anywhere. Any time. Any way. The perfect blueprint doesn’t exist, so stop looking for it. When you keep analyzing what’s the best way forward, insecurity increases. But when you take action, your confidence grows.

In conclusion, there is no self-doubt fairy who takes your fears away. You simply have to learn to live with it. Each time you experiment and learn, self-doubt will be there with you .Set your own rules. Move at your pace. Reflect on what’s preventing you from the move forward, and find ways to deal with it. Step by step. Above all, remind yourself of why fear and self-doubt seep in. When you push yourself outside your comfort zone, you learn new things. It’s exciting. Fulfilling. Hugely rewarding.

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