⏳You don't need time. You need therapy.
Or: how I wish people had told me to process my feelings instead of letting time dull the edges.
"Just make sure you take some time."
I stopped counting how many times I was given that advice after I shutdown Poppy.
It made sense. I had been running at a full out run for almost 4 years, juggling a young family and a growing start-up and all the challenges that go with it. And now I found myself at an abrupt stop. As if a brick wall had halted my forward motion, not a fraught decision.
From 150 miles/hour to zero.
I wonder if that's why the advice rung hollow. I felt dislocated. Disoriented. Untethered. So many emotions coursed through my body - grief. Anger. Shame. I couldn’t understand how time would make any of it better.
But I hadn’t ever done this before so I took people at their word. For the first month, as I dealt with the lingering matters of shutting down a venture, I attempted to "take time". To not take on any new projects or start scheming new ventures. To watch Netflix and read books and spend time with the kids.
It didn’t last long. Beyond the fact that I didn’t have infinite financial runway to "take time", the more time I took, the worse I felt. Like an astronaut cut off from the space station that gave her substance and sustenance; jettisoned into the infinite beyond. I kept somersaulting head over heads in the airless void. Certain I was destined to spend all my days like this, unless I propelled myself to something solid and sure.
And the only solid things I knew were ventures and companies. Ideas on how to change the future. So I started "just talking" to people. And the ideas started to come back. And that felt like something solid to hang onto. Which of course snowballed.
I had met a wonderful VC firm that was excited about some of the ideas I had and courted me hard. It felt good. Right. Until it didn’t. I loved working again with people excited about bringing something new into the world. It kept me shielded and insulated from the feelings of failure and giving up and sadness and the mourning of the previous couple of months. So I got back on the treadmill. But at night. At 3am, the feeling in my belly grew - this voice that said: I wasn’t ready. This wasn’t the thing. I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons.
That feeling caught up to me as I was staring at a term sheet, about to commit to something again.
I said no.
It wasn’t great for the relationship or my battered ego, but I knew I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) go through with it. I'm so glad I trusted my gut on that. I couldn’t verbalize the why, just that I wasn’t ready.
As I stepped back for a second time, I knew that I "needed time" but not in the amorphous, unstructured way everyone kept saying. I realized that I needed a new something to force me to not take on another new something for at least a couple of months. Something that filled my time and conscious brain with challenge but allowed my subconscious and my body to rest.
That gift came by way of an offer to do a full-time coding boot camp for 4 months. I leapt at the opportunity. I knew the next thing I wanted to do would be with software and what better way to “do something but not do something” than to finally learn to code? So I did.
Sure enough, by the time the bootcamp was drawing to an end, I not only had a good sense of what I wanted to next build, I had a much better sense of how it actually could be built. Genius right? I had taken time - almost 8 months in fact, ended up doing something hard and worthwhile and was ready to get back on the proverbial horse or rocketship.
Or so I thought. I had perhaps given rest to my body and my mind, but I hadn’t touched any of the deep and complicated Feelings I had buried deep in a box and shut the lid on. A box I titled: Important but Inconvenient to Deal with at the Present.
What time did, was not process those feelings, but lessen the urgency to lift the lid and examine what lay decomposing, or growing, within.
There was a moment that fall when I got an inkling I hadn’t done the real work.
I was back at HBS and I had the chance to meet Jerry Colona. In a 15 minute interaction he tapped on that box and shook the demons.
He asked: Are you okay?
And to my shock and surprise, I choked up trying to answer him. The next 15 minutes were a shaky experience in navigating what little I did let escape from that box. Later that day and that week, I would start writing more about the experiences of shutting Poppy down. I would tell myself that was enough to properly process all those Feelings.
Little did I know I was wholly unqualified to deal with them (and all the other ones they had been built upon) effectively. Still. I went into company and team building mode, thinking I was in the clear. I had taken time. I had processed Things.
I flew into YC again. I welcomed the rush and intensity of the pace.
And then Covid hit.
And we were all just trying to keep our heads above water. For unending months at a time. Except when other parents could say: “This is insane. I cant keep doing my job and deal with with all this at once - I'm going to take a short break” - I still had a company to keep alive. People to employ. Still I kept going. What choice was there? Others were doing it. I could do it.
Until the spring of 2021. When it had been over a year of not being able to run from things, being stuck in place. It all caught up. And I knew I had to talk to someone. Do something. Otherwise I was going to be eaten from the inside out.
Crippling anxiety at business school hadn’t done it. Nor episodes while living abroad in Shanghai. Not the running of Poppy or the shutdown. But finally I found myself at a brittle edge where I told my doctor I needed to see someone. And he referred me to an amazing therapist.
All through this I remained cautious, skeptical even - how could talking about things possibly help? But I was at a point where my desperation to make it better grew bigger than my skepticism.
Unsurprisingly, it's been a wonder. A gift. A non-stop unravelling of what I had bound so tightly and buried so deep. Childhood, ventures, relationships. Each week I slowly brought out a kernel, a knot to be examined, untangled, all the shameful feelings wrung from it. Until I had the tools to do it on my own, during the week.
And it hit me, during one of our sessions:
Founders don’t need to take time, we need to take therapy.
We are taught to run so hard and so fast and so true but not told the other half of that. The cost that we pay with. How we turn vision into reality, our bodies and minds acting as the reagents that bring about that alchemy.
We think we learn the tools and tricks to mentally withstand that pace - for so many: alcohol and other substances. For few that figure it out early: exercise and meditation. Family. Boundaries.
But it’s still all so solitary. And it all catches up. So if there is a point of rest, of reflection, there needs to a safe unraveling.
If there's only thing I wish that was different from the end, it's that someone had told me not to take time, but to explore therapy.
Not any specific prescription of it, but whatever it was that I needed to deal with things. For many, it can be a short series that just deals with the complicated feelings of selling or shutting down a company. Both are losses in their own ways. For others, who have put off therapy for years, it can be a welcome opening to do something necessary, now. Time may heal your wounds but therapy will make sure they won’t linger and fester, under the surface, masking infection under the scar tissue.
So I'm telling others. If you're in a place where you're coming off a rally intense experience and you're being told to "take time" but are feeling untethered and disoriented, consider therapy. It perhaps sounds "de jour" and trendy but I’ve been talking about it since before it was anything but. And I'll say doing the work is anything but trendy or fleeting. It's hard.
The showing up every week or every two weeks. Learning how not to judge the feelings so that you can coax them out to neutralize them. I'm not an expert in all the kinds, I just know that CBT was a great fit for me - Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The approach that mainly helps change unhealthy thinking patterns. I never would have thought that just talking about things would actually change anything. If I had, I would have done it at 26 and possibly changed the whole course of many things. Still. I did it at 40. And I'm proud of the me that took that step then and keeps taking it now.
(By the way, if it was up to me, every active founder would find their way to some sort of “therapy” relationship today - I just know it’s not affordable or realistic for many (also why I love seeing the VC firms that actively encourage and cover this for portfolio companies). But if not during the Doing, then at least at the After and the Before something else).
Ultimately it comes down to this: beyond my life, my ventures, my teams and my performance are only as good as my ability to see and synthesize clearly. Any old baggage I hold onto and bring forward just keeps me back and hurts everything around me.
So founders: we’re used to doing the work. It’s time to turn it to yourself.
Forget about “embracing” the passive passage of time. Go run head first towards yourself.
Dig in. Dig out. Learn something about yourself. Find hidden depths to your strengths and motivations.
Then go build again. But from a foundation stronger from clean excavation, not cemented over miseries.
In this time, choose yourself. Not with time. But therapy.
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