“Actually, I had a panic attack. It happened in the middle of the Javits center. In the middle of the Stationery Show. It was terrifying. It knocked the breath out of me. It happened in an instant. Minutes before I’d been laughing, I’d been fine.” Has it happened before? “Yes, once. I was on a plane to Italy, traveling alone. I was 16.” Do you know why it happened? “Yes. No. Sort of.” For the past three weeks, these are my answers when people ask how I’m feeling. It is an awkward, embarrassing reveal. But I spend my days talking about life and work. I like the meat of the conversation, the part where someone says: me too. The part that helps you breathe. ~ Emily of Clementine
Illustration by Emily McDowell for Oh So Beautiful Paper
I’ll spare you the details, except to say that I was devastated to leave, and lucky to be able to. A wonderful web of family and friends stepped in and got me the hell out of the city. I regained my equilibrium by talking about what happened (I also saw my doctor and got some meds). But I was surprised how quickly, so many people responded: “I know the feeling. That’s happened to me too.”
I don’t like cliches. I cringe at the idea that the world was telling me to slow down. But, hey, I had a panic attack in the middle of my favorite things, so maybe it’s time to take the long way home on this. I’m writing about it publicly because hiding it means living in fear that it will return. When you share, people shrug, or hug, or send you emails and say: me too. And you learn, you’re normal. Anxiety is part of running a business. People you admire have been here too.
I became a shop owner and a mom within the same year. Five years ago, I hit the ground running and didn’t look back. Through Clementine I found camaraderie, work I’m good at, strengths I didn’t know I had. But I forgot how to breathe. This world of creative small business owners is thick with inspiration; it zings with excitement. It is also filled with people who have a hard time turning off. We stay up late. We barrel toward the next thing. We skip everything, from lunch to vacations. We leave little space for things to go wrong. But anxiety and overwhelm lap at our heels. We all feel it, no matter how happy or pulled together we seem. Sometimes we pull ourselves together to feel it a little less.
I am not an anxious person, but obviously, something is going on. As my business grows, I have non-stop requests for reply; endless customer and vendor relationships to maintain; opportunities I can’t say no to. Each month more to-dos pile on. I was overwhelmed, but I shoved the anxiety down, yelling back: how can I be overwhelmed by a life that I love? But I am. I am anxious about how often I have to reject artists whose efforts I admire, by how many emails go unanswered. I am anxious about disappointing my husband, about money. I am fearful that I’m not making the best choices for my family, about the future.
I was juggling it all, until I wasn’t. I was happy and overwhelmed, they weren’t mutually exclusive. Together, they enveloped me, they ate up the space I had reserved for my creative life, for rest. I want that space back. To help me, I’ve called on a few favorite, kick-ass creative women, to share what they’ve learned about managing the anxiety and overwhelm of running their businesses. I am so grateful to them for saying yes to this, for making me feel normal. I love the choir of voices. I hope you’ll share your stories too.
Lisa Congdon for her upcoming book, On Swimming: A Tribute to Life In the Water
From Lisa Congdon: One of the things I have realized is that I will never, ever get to perfection. And while that sounds terrible to most of us, it’s actually quite liberating to realize! Running a small business, especially by yourself or with a small team, can feel all-consuming (at times like you are literally drowning & cannot breathe). For a period of time right after my business took off and I got really busy, I had panic attacks every day. And when I relaxed enough to consider why I was panicking, it was always because I was afraid of disappointing someone else — a client, an art director, a customer, my agent, my wife — for not delivering perfection. That somehow if I didn’t make the perfect illustration or get the work turned in ahead of time or get home from the studio in time for dinner, I had somehow failed. I was so stressed out all the time. And so I made a conscious choice to accept (and embrace) that I will never get to perfection, ever. And that’s okay because actually no one is capable of perfection (even those people you see online who look like they have the perfect lives or businesses). I have worked super hard to get comfortable with things being messy or unfinished. I also stopped comparing myself to other people who I admired. I have worked really hard to embrace my own relaxed work pace and to focus on my own unique path. As a result, my anxiety has decreased exponentially, and I still mostly get my work done! If I don’t, there’s always tomorrow. [Lisa is a vibrant thoughtful artist and illustrator, she also writes beautifully about confronting anxiety on her blog]
Emily McDowell’s Awkward Sympathy card
From Emily McDowell: I think a huge part of owning a small business is just figuring out how to not freak out all the time. When I get overwhelmed, I remind myself that I chose this life (thanks to Lisa Congdon for that one) and I get to choose how to respond to stress, nobody is going to die if things don’t go right, and the present moment is my only reality. Worrying about things that haven’t happened yet is a waste of time and energy, and if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that none of us really have a clue what the future holds. I also try to pick my battles as carefully as possible; I know I don’t have enough energy or time to deal with everything I could technically deal with, so I decide what’s most important to me and I try hard to let the rest go. And, of course, I would also be totally screwed without my small network of close entrepreneur friends. But when all else fails, Xanax is the answer. [Emily has brilliantly mastered truth-telling in her cards, but I’m a big fan of how she talks about it, and this Anne Lamott post she shared]
From Carrie Holmes: I dealt with anxiety long before owning my own business, specifically about work and job security. For years, at any job I had, I would walk through the doors fearing that today would be the day I was fired. Not for any rational reason, but because I always feared that I was an imposter – not genuinely intelligent, creative, or “good” enough. It’s a big part of the reason I decided to start my own business. Fear of failing on my own terms seemed like a better option than being fired. Of course, most of those anxieties came with me, and I developed a few new fears along the way, especially the fear of not achieving perfection with every order, every interaction. Eventually I began to accept that things WILL go wrong. Sometimes it’s out of your control, but sometimes it’s something that was very much within your control that you managed to screw up royally. But the world doesn’t end. And if you have an honest, humble discussion with whoever is on the receiving end of the screw-up, you get a chance to correct it 99% of the time. People are compassionate when you give them a chance to express it, and it helps me immensely to keep that in mind when I feel the fear rising. [Carrie just began a beautiful new textile business, though many of you know from her past-paper life running the popular Two Trick Pony.]
From Carina Murray: I actually swing more towards introversion than extroversion, which often surprises people, as I’ve been able to cultivate a professional persona that (typically) doesn’t reflect my natural resting mode. Over the years, I’ve become pretty dang good at putting myself out there and being warm, friendly and supportive to colleagues and acquaintances within this brilliant industry; that’s not to say that it is an act, but it’s not always as effortless as it may appear. A beloved high school teacher taught me the motto, “Fake it ’til you make it” and I took it upon myself to make this my own mantra in the first few years of my business. And you know what? For me, it really worked! Projecting the type of person that I wanted to become, both personally and professionally, slowly transformed me. I still need some serious recharge time after being booked with a week full of appointments, exhibiting or attending trade shows or participating in conferences, but I’ve learned and accepted that about myself and over time I have become a bit more skilled in striking a better balance. And balance is such a challenge for most of us business owners, isn’t it? I remind you all to be gentle with yourselves and to not succumb to the guilt that so often accompanies taking a much needed breath and a break, which ultimately makes us stronger individuals and business owners. [Carina has gathered some of my favorite stationery businesses under her representation with Crow + Canary and I know she often serves as confidante in addition to cheerleader for the artists behind her brands.]
Carina’s spot on card choice from Laura Berger.
I am still navigating my anxiety, learning how to say no, to slow down. I’m still sad I missed so many of you at the show. What I know is how much I’ve gained by talking, how relieved I am each time someone says; “I know, I’ve been there too.” So I’m starting with this: I’ve been there too, it’s humbling and incredibly scary. But it’s also normal, it’s part of our work. Let’s talk about it, let’s listen to it. Let’s see our doctors when it gets too hard. And when we’re strong, let’s write letters, smile genuinely, offer to be the call in the middle of the night when the undertow is to heavy for someone else. Like monsters in the closet, a little light can go a long way. Let’s make some space so that creativity can win. We have better things to do.
xoxo for real, Emily
Emily, Thank you so much for this post and helping people like me who deal with anxiety feel less alone. Sometimes I feel like anxiety and heavy loads of stress are prerequisites for running my own business – but how I respond to those stresses is my own choice. Being your own boss, running a creative business, and trying to project a sense of “having it together” is TOUGH. My anxiety tends to manifest itself both mentally and physically (like that time I developed a bad case of vertigo following my first NSS…that was awesome) and over the years I’ve tried to become more cognizant of its warning signs and ways to mitigate its effects. Prioritization is key for me – whether it’s tackling the hard tasks first so I’ll stop worrying about them, putting exercise and breaks (the Calm app for breathing is my new best friend) first over what’s on my to-do list because I know my head will feel clearer, or remembering that done is better than perfect. I find that dealing with these feelings is a constant work in progress, but have also found that one of the best things we can do is voice our feelings and feel less alone in this crazy entrepreneurial world. Luckily this stationery world is one of the most supportive I’ve come across.
Brannon, Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful comment. I’ve found it so helpful to hear what other people do (from aps, to little mantras, to meds, to whatever works!) . You’re absolutely right, it is a work in progress and we are lucky to be in a community where so many are so willing to reach out. xoxo. I’m really enjoying your posts here too!
brilliantly written, genuine, and honest… thank you Emily and everyone for sharing your stories.
Debbie, thank you!
This is one of the (many) reasons why we will continue to shop at Clementine every summer when we make our annual Vermont family trip! Thank you, Emily and others!, for sharing such candid stories. As a small business owner (which is also the “family” business for my husband and myself) and relatively-new mom, it’s comforting to hear that the anxieties I have wrapped up around myself are shared and surmountable. I find this strikes creatives in particular, because there is always the impulse to imagine and invent – which should be nurtured, but can at times make us question if what we’re doing is what we “should” be doing (by running our own business instead of, say, looking for “job security” and a pension). But, like you, I love this life, even if it overwhelms at times. It’s all about self-management and self-love, but having a group of kick-ass creative ladies around you certainly helps! That’s what I’m currently on the hunt for, myself!
Rebecca, this is so so kind, thank you. I’m so happy you’ve been to Clementine and look forward to your return! Mom-ing does add a whole other level to the small business anx. But truly, finding a group (or even one!) fellow small business mama you can spend some time with (and text in the middle of the night) can do wonders, it certainly has given me strength and a ton of happiness. xo
I’ve had the drowning panic attacks, the underlying anxiety and during a rough bout – the depression that followed. I would not have been able to do my first Stationery Show without daily medication for my anxiety. Early last year I finally said “I need help” and I wish I had done it sooner. The black cloud lifted and it has given me room to breathe and ask myself “what do you really want”. It lead me to leaving my full time [paid] job to pursue my dream. I decided if I gave it my all and it didn’t work out, I was finally ok with that.
I’m back to a semi-normal schedule now [without working 2 jobs] and I get to go for walks! and go to the gym! and see friends! I’ve even read *gasp* a whole book. Now, I just need that dream to pay me a salary 😉
It’s a process. but good on you for talking about it out loud.
Richele, I appreciate your share so much. It really is amazing to be ale to breathe again isn’t it? I started drawing a few nights a week, just quick simple sketches and reminded my brain what it was like to go into that wonderful meditative world of art which I’ve put on hold for so long. I love what you’re making and hope to meet you in person soon! xoxo
Thank you for this. I identify with all of this as a small business owner and academic. I am trying to quiet down the perfection desires.
Kelly – thank you for the reply! For better or worse, I’m really not a perfectionist (in most areas), but I’m so motivated by inspiration and excitement, I know the need to quiet down. xo to you
Emily, thank you — and everyone else — for sharing these words. As someone going through this right now, your authenticity and willingness to talk about your vulnerability means so much.
Lichia, I’m so grateful for the other women who shared with me and for those who are messaging me and commenting. The sheer number of us going through this shows how common it is, which helps me feel far more able to share it. xo to you, your work is beautiful, I’m excited to see more!
Thank you for this. Real, thoughtful, insightful, and perfectly timed. I’m in the beginning stages of growing my own business. Trying to stay in the flow, allowing myself to trust in the unknown, and above all else…believing that I can actually do this. Thank you all for your honesty. It inspires me to keep going for it, even harder.
Kristen! Thank you for your response. Every day takes effort, sometimes it’s wonderful other times a slog. I really have never been happier in this life and work, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a ways to go – it’s great to connect to other women doing the same! xo
I know the feeling. Overwhelm is a constant companion of mine. He’s a persistent bastard. He’s often rather vocal (some days, downright obnoxious) but I find that when I’m able to center myself and truly stay present, he sits quietly in the corner. Thanks for sharing. xoxo
Gia, thank you. Your work is such an incredible example of sharp, clean perfection, it really has been so humbling and heartening to me to realize through these comments and private messages how many of us do this daily dance. I’m so glad we’re in it together! xo
Well that compliment put a huge smile on my face. Thanks lady, I’ll be holding on to that for the rest of the day. XO
Thank you so much for putting yourself out there for this article. It truly made me feel better about my day to day. I started my business with my own retail/wholesale line, which is by far more than a one man job already! Then last November, we expanded and opened a brick & mortar shop. Then in February found out we were expecting baby no. 2! I started my business in 2009 and had my first daughter in 2010 so I feel somewhat prepared to juggle family and work but it has definitely been the source of many panic attacks having just opened the B&M. Juggling the shop with our back end wholesale line is overwhelming on a daily basis. I go through a rollercoaster of emotions from feeling so defeated, to excited about the future, to anxious about how to cope with the growing pile of emails/work/orders. I have to tell myself daily that I am only one person and I can’t do it all by myself. I have learned to rely on my employees a bit more and ask for help when needed. I just feel so grateful to have such a great network of stationers and retailers and it is so comforting to know that so many people feel just as I do. Especially when everyone else seems to have it together WAY more than me!! So thanks again for sharing!!
Jill, that is so much to handle! I often tell people, it’s not the quality of work that is hard – actually working is wonderful – but the quantity and variety make you feel like you are on an insane rollercoaster. I have one employee who has been with me for 2 years and the appreciation I have for her is unparalleled. I’m slowly learning that she can not only handle everything I give her, but is often better at it because I am going in so many directions. Keep going and schedule some time for yourself! And thank you for the kind words. This feedback makes it effortless to share something that could otherwise be incredibly challenging. xo
I can’t tell you how much this resonates for me. Thank you for being so honest and real. It really is a challenge to balance running a business, a family and trying to fulfill the dream. I’m going to bookmark this post and read it again and again!
What a great post! Thank you to Emily & all the contributors of this post for sharing!
Thank you. And, me too.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
East of Eden
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