“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