Navigating the Emotional Challenges of Start-Up Life

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Start-up life can be really hard. And it can be really awesome. And it can be really freaking
awful. And sometimes it is all those things in the span of a day.

As a business owner and an entrepreneur who is launching a start-up within my start-up, I can confirm through personal
experience that it can feel all over the place.

I’m also an Organizational Psychologist. Which means that I put more energy into understanding emotions than the average person.

I recently read an article about managing emotions by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. One of her strategies was to make up names or invent new words for the emotions that we experience.

The process of identifying emotion with more granularity and specificity builds our resilience. I think this is because of the fabulous concept of “name it to tame it.”

So, I thought I would invent 3 words that fellow entrepreneurs can probably relate to.

1. Emotion: Confligned

This is the emotion associated with feeling misaligned, confused, angry, and questioning the partnership with a co-founder.

How it happens: Many of us decide to go into business with people we care about – family and friends. And start-ups can be challenging and unpredictable. There are so many decisions to be made on a regular basis;, there are often missed goals as we
venture down uncertain roads. It’s easy to get into conflict.

And when things are hard, and we feel tension with a co-founder, we may start to question that partnership, which is disappointing because again – in many cases, these are also friends and family members.

How to Navigate it: This is the essence of everything that we do at Gallaher Edge, so it can be hard to narrow down, but I would prioritize two concepts.

A – Let go of blame. Focus on self-accountability, especially when it’s hard. Remember why you wanted to work together in the first place, and focus on solutions, rather than who to blame.

B – Sloooow doooown. Breathe slower, move slower, and speak slower. Slowing down will increase the likelihood that you are speaking from a place of being centered and authentic and reduces the likelihood that you will say something you regret.

2. Emotion: Graduse

This is the emotion associated with the feelings of doubt and weight of the world on your shoulders, believing that everybody expects you to know everything, and you realizing how little you know.

(From the Latin word “gravis” meaning “heavy,” the latin word “dubium” meaning “doubt,” and the latin word “se” meaning self.)

How it happens. When it is your own company, part of you knows that it always comes back to you. Even in defensive moments when you blame the world – your employees, your investors, your co-founder – you know that it is still the result of your own choices.

You are where you are. So, yes, sometimes you fool yourself into thinking that it’s all on you, and everybody is depending on you to solve ALL THE WORLDS’ PROBLEMS!!

How to Navigate it: First, breathe, of course. A lot of this is about just tapping back into the logical parts of your brain.

A – One thing at a time. That’s all you can do. Sometimes when I already feel overwhelmed with work to do and problems to solve, stopping to prioritize feels like the last thing I want to do. I just want to start tackling my ridiculously long to do list so I can convince everybody (most importantly, myself), that I know what I’m doing. But every time I stop, spend 5-15 minutes prioritizing, I can feel my anxiety transform into focus, and then my productivity goes back up.

B – Ask for help. Once you have prioritized, the next thing you can do is lean on others. Practice vulnerability. Respect for leaders genuinely increases when they acknowledge their own imperfections. And if you think I’m wrong? Well…I might be – some people will judge a leader for showing vulnerability. But frankly, I don’t want to work with people like that. I have too much work to do to put energy into trying to seem perfect. I’d rather focus on progress.

3. Emotion: Magfectious

This is the emotion associated with being so excited about something that, in and of itself, is so small, but as an entrepreneur, the feel is disproportionately and overwhelmingly positive.

(From the Latin words “magnum” meaning “big,” “adfectus” meaning emotion)

How it happens. In start-up life, turning ideas into reality often means we just don’t know for sure if the idea will be profitable, or if we have a business strategy that will be effective. And with limited history behind us, sometimes we feel the high highs and the low lows. I remember being unbelievably excited when a prospective client asked if I would meet for lunch instead of just a 15-minute phone call. And I remember feeling crushed when my follow-up email went unanswered for days.

I was never like this in high school, but I imagined myself sitting by the phone, waiting for a boy to call as I waited for a return e-mail. And I remember feeling elated when I got my first $500 payment, and my business was revenue positive! So many ups and downs!

How to Navigate it: For a lot of people, higher highs mean lower lows – or the suppression of negative thoughts and feelings. Some people can pretty genuinely be and feel positive a lot of the time, without faking or suppressing during the hard times.

And while high highs run the risk of leading to over-confidence, (a definite possibility for entrepreneurs,) the bigger risk is lower lows. Here are the two most powerful ways to navigate those lows.

A – Build resilience. Part of the beauty of the ups and downs is that you can choose to remember that when you’re down, that you will be back up again. Consciously remembering specific times that you were down and came back up is really useful,
especially if you can recall what choices you made before to start the upswing. Read more about resilience here.

B – Gratitude. Sometimes one of the most annoying things I can hear when I’m struggling is “Be grateful!” Sometimes I want to sit and stew in my crankiness, my self-doubt (see graduse above), or my sadness. But when I can decide to practice gratitude – maybe for everything else that’s going well, or for what I’ve learned from this setback, I can change my emotions, my physiology, and of course, my mindset.


This article was written by Dr. Laura Gallaher, founder and CEO of Gallaher Edge. Laura has worked in the field of professional and personal development since 2005. Laura is an Organizational Psychologist, Speaker, Facilitator, and Executive Coach. Laura works closely with entrepreneurs, startups, c-level executives, and rapidly growing companies to assist in the growth of their staff, emotional intelligence, and strategy for company culture. Laura’s core values that she teaches entrepreneurs are power of choice, uninhibited teamwork, and progress over perfection.

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About Connor Gillivan

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