The following is my perspective on owning a business, experiencing trauma, and bringing my failures to light.
I used to hate the idea of sharing details about my personal life or business publicly, mostly because it’s not fun to get rejected by strangers. As an entrepreneur, my business and personal decisions are intertwined; so negative feedback about my company can feel like a personal attack.
Sometimes, it seems like everyone else is succeeding while you’re the only one struggling. But the truth is, we all face challenges of some sort. Most of us just don’t like to talk about it. Because being transparent is scary.
If you are having a banner year, then congratulations! I can’t wait to read your upcoming Year In Review blog post.
But if you feel like this past year is full of failures, then we have something in common. Today, I want to pull back the curtain and share my story with you.
The Pain of Failure
I’ve been a business owner for 3-1/2 years. And truthfully, the only reason I even considered starting my own company was because my previous employer asked me to leave.
Getting fired was really hard on me. I replayed the events that led up to that final workday over and over. What could have gone differently? Were there any warning signs? There weren’t. For months, I felt a paralyzing fear of repeating the same mistakes, yet couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong.
Rather than try to find another job that matched my rather unusual skill set, I decided to learn as much as I could about fixing problems in other companies. Eventually, I did land my first client and have been providing strategic planning consulting to business owners in several states. While self-employment has not been easy, it has been fairly successful.
Until this past year.
It started when I was teaching a series of webinars. One attendee sent the organizer some negative feedback that shook me to my core:
“She was unprepared.” “Her examples were confusing.” “My housekeeper could teach this better than her.”
Talk about a wake-up call. Despite all the positive notes and glowing testimonials I’d received from satisfied clients, the words of one anonymous person completely rocked my world. All the shame and embarrassment of losing my job came back. Suddenly, I was reminded of other traumatic experiences from my past; they re-entered my consciousness like waves.
Over the past year, I have been on a very painful journey of confronting and healing from past trauma. Here are a few examples:
- I was nearly kidnapped at 5 years old and resisted the assailants in a busy piazza in Florence, Italy.
- I was publicly humiliated in school settings (both in Italy and in the United States).
- I observed and experienced violence in school, workplace, and in public places.
- I experienced religious abuse — including brainwashing, indoctrination, hostility, and intimidation — from an organization whose members include the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting (read more about it here).
- I worked in several jobs where my boss said I “didn’t fit” and was unjustly fired from 2 job roles.
- I’ve been told to “shut up and sit down” for asserting my rights as a woman, citizen, mother, and supporter of people who have no voice.
- Several of my friends confided that they were molested as children (often by trusted religious figures).
And, like the vast majority of women (more of whom are making it public on by saying #MeToo),
- I’ve been cat-called and sexually propositioned.
- I’ve been chased down a deserted street at night.
- I’ve felt trapped in uncomfortable situations.
- I have experienced workplace harassment, humiliation, and shaming.
None of my experiences are unique. As we can see from the #MeToo phenomenon that has exploded on social media, the vast majority of us have gone through sexual trauma or harassment even if we don’t like to use that term. Instead of support, we are usually told to “accept it” and “move on.”
But why should we move on?
When someone has a bleeding wound, we don’t tell them to “accept it.” Instead, we bring their injury into the light, determine the extent of damage, and provide appropriate healing.
Trauma is defined in 3 ways:
A serious injury or shock to the body, as from violence or an accident.
An emotional wound or shock that creates substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person, often leading to neurosis.
An event or situation that causes great distress and disruption. (Source: Wordnik)
Although invisible, my wounds aren’t any less painful than physical ones. For years, I repressed the pain of injustice, humiliation, and shaming… and assumed it was completely normal.
Although my experiences may seem mild compared to someone else’s, they profoundly affected every part of my life, including owning a business.
The High Cost of Healing
Healing comes at a considerable cost. Over the past year, I invested time, money, and emotional energy in order to regain balance. As a sole proprietor, the “punch in the gut” to my personal life also directly affected my company’s bottom line.
I made the conscious decision to cut back on professional commitments, business projects, and networking activities. And in addition to the financial burden, I felt a tremendous amount of pain:
- Shame for what I had experienced, even though it wasn’t my fault
- Embarrassment for not achieving a higher degree of personal and professional success
- Terror that my peers would “find me out” and label me a fraud (also called imposter phenomenon, described in this American Psychological Association article and in the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale by Pauline Rose Clance)
- Agony at the idea of how others had suffered while I had not (survivor’s guilt)
- Grief for everything I’d lost over the years: a sense of security, belonging, autonomy, and the freedom to find my voice (see the 5 fears we share, developed by Dr. Karl Albrecht)
Thankfully, these feelings became the catalyst for a tremendous inner change.
Moving Past the Pain
One of the greatest gifts I received in the past year (from my incredibly supportive family and friends) was time.
Time to process, to cry, and to recognize behavior patterns that I needed to change.
I have learned that the pain of a traumatic experience isn’t necessarily all negative. Read the benefits of pain in How to Use Good and Bad Pain in Decision-Making.
Through my journey, I re-evaluated my core values and philosophy, as well as those of my company. I stopped hiding from the pain, fighting it, or shutting down… and decided to face it. Take a look at how each of these four responses work:
The best part about reviewing my past mistakes is that it provided a mirror of my own decision-making. My quest to make sense of why bad things happened to me also opened the door to examining the risks and threats that can completely destroy a business.
Revising painful past events inspired me to develop new methods to evaluate and fix broken processes. I used a variety of tools including the Minimalist Mindset, Optimal Growth, Accurate Words, and Creative Expression.
Tool #1: Minimalist Mindset
The essential areas of developing a minimalist mindset include:
- Care for Self
- Organize Surroundings
- Prioritize Time
- Help Others
One of my biggest challenges during the healing process was to simply relax and be myself. Traumatic memories often keep us in a constant Fight-Flight-Freeze mentality (see above), and it took a lot of effort to just breathe again.
By eliminating distractions:
- I felt the freedom to clear my head and to heal.
- I clarified what I wanted to achieve in my career and business.
- I evaluated the time-wasting activities and prioritized the few activities that actually move the needle toward my goals.
- I also felt able to connect once again… with my clients, with the public, and even with my own desires and goals for the future.
Tool #2: Optimal Growth
In addition to choosing healthy activities, I eliminated a number of relationships, possessions, and memories that weren’t contributing to my optimal state of health (see Strategic Growth Sphere below). With the help of a counselor, I re-centered myself and learned more about the effects of trauma and finally understood that I have control over what happens next.
This image below is one that I developed after a particularly difficult week. You can see my word choice to describe strategic imbalances: stagnant, chaotic, disconnected, broken. That’s exactly what it felt like at different points in the recovery process.
Tool #3: Accurate Words
I started calling my past experiences what they really were: abusive, humiliating, demeaning.
Instead of placing blame on those who hurt me, I accepted responsibility for my own actions. I also identified the root causes for why the intimidation, or bullying, or harassment had taken place. It became clear that most of the time, my reaction to the situation had made the outcome worse. I had responded with over-aggression (a Yang imbalance) and by pointing out flaws and problems without much thought to how this affected others. By changing my perspective, I began to actually feel grateful for negative feedback, rather than angry and bitter.
I discovered powerful terms like “religious trauma,” “spanking as child abuse,” and “intimidation.” With these new words to accurately describe what happened, I finally felt in control instead of a continual victim. Rather than locking my memories away and trying to forget, saying them out loud brought tremendous relief. My instincts had been right all along. So many people had told me to “get over it”; but I learned that everyone responds to abuse differently, and that we should never downplay someone else’s suffering.
Tool 4: Creative Expression
A final part of my healing process was to get the words out of my head. I started to write stories that described my shame & embarrassment and how it felt to be intimidated in the workplace. Those eventually turned into concepts like “Employee For a Day,” which I explain in the article Why I Became an Employee For a Day.
Another thing that helped was using the Voice Memo app (available for free on most smartphones) to record difficult past experiences using a Post-Mortem Evaluation process:
- What happened
- What went well
- What didn’t go well, and
- How I will adjust for the future.
After recording it, I transcribe the entire thing in a Word document, then edit the recordings into recurring themes. These recordings became the basis for my Definitions.
Why Share Failures Transparently?
I recently sat down with my three children to talk about the past year: How did they feel about me stepping back from work? What was it like for me to be with them more? Did they think I had my priorities straight?
And especially: Should I share my business failures with others who could benefit from hearing my story?
Here is how they responded:
“Of course you should talk about it, Mom. Just because you didn’t make a lot of money this year doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. You just decided to spend more time with us. It’s not embarrassing to have a bad business year. You can help more people, because now you know how they feel.”
They were right. From my kids’ point of view, their Mom hadn’t failed; she had simply learned a lot of valuable lessons.
Yes, there were days where I felt completely overwhelmed and frozen in fear. I started to understand why my past decisions were not effective and had caused others pain. But although this year may not have seemed successful on the surface, I had actually channeled all my guilt, pain, fear, and grief back into my business.
In a very INTP way, I unlocked my creativity by “blowing things up.” Not in a tangible way (although that would be fun to watch), but by deconstructing ideas:
- Long-held beliefs about how managers should think and act.
- Inaccurate assumptions I’d held onto for years.
- Cognitive bias that resulted in dissonance when I realized that many of my old ways of seeing the world had hurt others.
Here is what resulted from my not-so-good year:
- I created frameworks (visual representations to make sense of the world).
- I defined words, phrases, and concepts like Yin & Yang Approaches to Management, Transaction Avoidance Syndrome, and Hollowed-Out Engagement (you can read more terms on my Definitions page).
- I recorded and wrote down my thoughts, which I’m now publishing as blog posts.
- I also pivoted my business into a very specific niche: helping business owners to evaluate their strategic goals.
Rather than seeing this year in terms of quantitative measures (net profit, more customers, increased growth — most of which did not improve), I was able to zoom out and see the qualitative measures (stronger relationships, better self-awareness, meaningful work, incredible personal growth).
So yes, I experienced trauma, and it continues to affect #MeToo. I’m a business owner who has had tremendous success and tremendous failure. But I no longer feel ashamed to speak the truth, because truth is a powerful motivator to create positive change.
(And check out 2017: My Business Year In Review!)
How about you? Have you felt embarrassed or ashamed about business failures? Does the #MeToo phenomenon impact you as a business owner?
Feel free to share a comment, or contact me directly.
Interested in hearing how you can make your workplace more effective? Find out more here.