Therapy, Self-Awareness & Entrepreneurship
How my American friends, peers & role models have empowered me to help end the stigma around therapy and mental health
Back in 2017, I witnessed the most entertaining exchange between a professor and a student in my life. I was studying Management Consulting at McGill’s School of Continuing Studies alongside other working professionals when a middle-aged woman tried to cut out early. In what was clearly a failed attempt to be subtle, she began packing up her things and moving around like a mime. It didn’t help matters that she was located at the centre of the room. If anything, it made her theatrics all the more comical—as though the rest of us were watching her performance in London’s Globe Theatre, an iconically round structure with excellent vantage points.
This woman was known for being insufferable during class discussions, so the irony of her being equally disruptive in silence was not lost on me. And I burst out laughing with the rest of my peers when our professor—a super chill, funny guy who reminded me of David Spade—said “You know we can see you… right?”
(Funnily enough, the course was ‘Interpersonal skills for professionals.’ And needless to say, miming was not in the curriculum.)
After “the incident,” I turned to my friend Priya who was older and wiser and had become something of a mentor. I was incredulous. “How can she not realize how annoying and disruptive she is in every class?” I asked. Priya was calm and said pointedly, “She lacks self-awareness.”
Six years later, Priya’s words carry that much more meaning. In fact, what I’ve learned from working ten jobs in four different countries, and more recently becoming an entrepreneur, is:
Self-awareness is the foundation of everything.
One of the best things I’ve done to bolster my self-awareness is start seeing a therapist. I’d long heard of the benefits of working with one but I’d never felt the need—until the pressures of entrepreneurship finally got to me earlier this summer. I knew I’d benefit from speaking with a professional and I wanted to get help. So I did, and what a difference.
My only regret was waiting until I was completely depleted to invest in myself in this way—especially given how generously I invest in myself in other ways like learning, fitness, self-care, etc. Here’s why I think anyone would benefit from finding a great therapist (and by ‘great’ I mean someone you vibe with):
🇨🇦 Canada versus 🇬🇧 UK example
When I lived in London, in 2015, a fellow Canadian friend and her British boyfriend sparked a cultural debate within our wider circle. See my friend had done what most Canadians do upon arriving in a new country: she found a physician and swiftly booked a check-up. Given the Canadian healthcare system is designed to facilitate preventative medicine, it’s ingrained in us to be proactive about avoiding—or at least mitigating—illnesses through early detection and treatment.
But our British counterparts were adamant that “you only see a doctor if something’s wrong.” So after much debate, we decided to agree to disagree.
Lesson: We’re all biased by cultural norms and stigmas. And there will always be people who challenge your stance on important issues, like when you should see a professional about something (ex. a check-up, therapy session, etc.). But it’s up to you to decide what you do and when. So make sure you’re doing what’s in your best interest.
🇺🇸 American example
When I moved to Paris, in 2018, I made a lot of American friends. Many of them spoke nonchalantly about their therapists and the advice they garnered from them—a stark contrast to what I was used to living in Canada, the UK, Australia, and hell, France. I didn’t know what to make of it. When I told my closest American friends as much, they reassured me that therapy was less stigmatized and more celebrated in the US than in other places, hence the openness.
Two years later, when I moved home to Montreal in 2020, I got a job at a local startup incubator with an office in New York designed to give Montreal founders a “soft landing” in the US. That was the start of my immersion in American work culture and it’s only grown since I’ve gone independent as a freelancer/solopreneur working mostly with the US. One of the things that stands out to me—and makes me reminiscent of that conversation with my friends in France—is how many American entrepreneurs publicly state the importance of mental health and how therapy is instrumental in it.
So in early July, when I found myself feeling uncharacteristically anxious, I decided it was time to see a therapist. I did some research and found someone who specializes in anxiety and burnout—since I’ve been on the cusp of burnout several times in the past few years and wanted to unearth why.
In meeting with the woman who’s now my therapist, I realized I’d finally fallen off the cusp and into the land of burnout at the same velocity I’d hit the water when I could no longer hold onto the tube as a kid. One minute, I was white-knuckling it, and the next, I was underwater not sure which way was up. In the aftermath of a particularly painful wipeout—like when I’d smack skulls with someone—I’d wonder why I held on so long as I bobbed in the water waiting for the boat to circle back. I knew why, though. It was because everyone else did. It was “lame” to let go and “cool” to be ejected—like a graceless acrobat tearing through the sky.
But the difference with white-knuckling it at work is there’s no celebration for ejection. There’s no boatload of people circling back to scoop you up and rejoice in your “victory” of holding on as long as you did. You’re left bobbing lifelessly in the water, if not drowning. And it’s on you to call for help to get back to shore.
In my first therapy session, I learned the inexplicable anxiety I was feeling was my body’s last gust of energy sounding an alarm on how burnt out I was. I was crashing—much like a phone spazzes when it’s dying.
Once I acknowledged my anxiety was rooted in my burnout, I took stock of the long road that led to it. In the past three and a half years, I had cumulatively worked two jobs while studying to make a career change, made an overseas move mid-Pandemic, survived the crippling isolation of multiple lockdowns and curfews in Paris and Montreal, quit my 9-5 to pursue freelancing and solopreneurship, started writing online, started a YouTube channel, built and ran countless online courses and workshops, and so much more. I can hardly believe how much my life has changed—and expanded—in under four years. It’s inspiring to think about. But it came with one hell of a price tag. And it took me two months of slowing down to recover that cost.
Lesson: If I hadn’t spoken with a therapist who specializes in anxiety and burnout, I wouldn’t have made their connection. What’s worse is I would’ve tried to do more to release what I had mistaken as excess energy in need of release. For instance, one morning I decided to do an intense workout thinking I would feel so much better after I expended the anxiety coursing through me in a way that made my stomach ache.
But lo and behold, I felt even worse afterwards. Upon Googling the situation, I learned that intense exercise boosts your cortisol levels, which are already high when you’re experiencing major anxiety. Instead, you’re better off walking, swimming, or doing other gentle exercises to bring your cortisol levels down—which checks out because I spent a couple of weeks at my family’s cottage by a lake during that time and daily swims across it and walks around it had heavenly calming effects.
This revelation reminded me of a favourite pair of hoop earrings I bought last year. When I first put them on, I tried to close their clasps but I couldn’t. I tried and tried, applying more and more pressure with no luck. I was convinced they were defective—and I was pissed off. But then a few days later, I decided to try them again, this time with a delicate touch. They magnetically clicked into place. I realized then it was a great analogy for my instinct to apply brute force when something doesn’t seem to be working. Sometimes that’s what’s needed. But other times—like when you’re burnt out—you need to dial it back and take a more delicate approach.
This is one of my favourite quotes on life and learning:
“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
The reason I enjoy my therapy sessions so much is they act as a mirror. They’re an invitation to pause and reflect on what’s going well in my life versus what I’m struggling with and how to overcome the latter. The beautiful thing about cultivating a practice of reflection like this is you become more self-aware. And you start to see mirrors in your daily life that prompt you to be more intentional.
For example, here’s a Twitter post that resonated with me as a fellow “middle child”:
As a fellow middle child who knows plenty of other middle kids, the “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” can-do attitude is definitely “a thing.” It’s a natural scenario in most families for the eldest kid to get more explicit guidance since they do everything first, and then the youngest is the baby who everyone dotes on. Middle kids become extra resourceful as a result. We develop a strong sense of independence from a young age.
Personally, I’ve always loved being a middle child. But I realize now, at 33, that in the past, I’ve unknowingly made things harder for myself by not asking for or accepting help. I always defaulted to the “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” can-do attitude that’s impressive as a kid. But as you mature, wisdom dictates that what’s really impressive is the self-awareness that you don’t have to do everything yourself even if you can. It’s healthy to ask for and receive help. That’s what makes the journey all the more special—sharing the climb with others.
On the same token, if you have people in your life who are fiercely independent, bear in mind that just because they make carrying the load look easy, that doesn’t mean it is. Check in on them regularly and be vocal about how much they’re doing. Offer help where you can and suggest professional help—like therapy—when what they need is beyond your capacity. Don’t try to take on the role of a therapist yourself, that’s lose-lose. One of the benefits of starting therapy is you get better at identifying boundaries around the extent to which you can support others before insisting they seek professional help. That’s win-win.
👩🎤 Belonging versus fitting in
Before I set foot in my therapist’s office a few months ago, the only therapists I’d seen had been on TV. Typically they were older, colder, and far less stylish than the one I’ve struck gold with. I did my research and found a woman who’s relatively young (i.e., not much older than me), cool, empathetic, and specializes in the areas I’ve struggled with in the past few months: burnout and anxiety. Conversing with her feels more like a heart-to-heart with an extremely grounded, practical friend than it does a clinical expert pointing out my flaws.
All this to say, it’s important to find a therapist you vibe with—someone who instills a sense of belonging. You have to feel comfortable being your most authentic, unfiltered self. It would be counter-productive to work with a therapist you don’t vibe with—someone who makes you feel like you have to “fit” their expectations rather than your own. My point is, not every therapist will be right for you. So don’t abandon the practice before you find one that is.
As recently as six months ago, I would’ve been scared to share my experience with starting therapy for fear of judgment. But now, I realize that much like every pursuit I undertake relative to personal and professional development, doing the work is something to be proud of, celebrated even. I can confidently say “I have a therapist now and I feel really good about it.” I hope you find the courage to do the same and help end the stigma around suffering in silence.
Thanks for reading and have a wonder-full week,
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